In a federal budget document, the words "social justice" do not appear. In fact, the most basic terms by which we discuss morality, "right" and "wrong," do not appear either. Yet, a government's budget is a profoundly moral document, containing as it must the priorities being put forward on behalf of we the people, evidencing the values we are trying to advance and what common efforts we think are worth funding.
The Trump administration's budget proposal is profoundly immoral.
The dominant fact of the budget is that the White House wants to vastly increase military spending and to achieve that goal it is calling for cuts of equal size in the rest of the budget. Pentagon budgets have been on a bit of a roller coaster in the past fifty years. After declining in the 1970s from Vietnam-era levels, Ronald Reagan increased military spending in the 1980s when it reached 6.8 percent of Gross Domestic Product. It came down throughout the 1990s after the Communist empire collapsed. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, spending rose again reaching 5.7 percent in 2011, after which it has declined steadily due in large part to the government sequester legislation passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Barack Obama.
The United States spends vastly more on its military than any other country. In fact, we spend more on the military than the next seven countries combined. We are not currently engaged in a major ground war. Certain weapons systems need updating, to be sure, and there are always cost savings to be had if you shake the Pentagon procurement tree. Adding $54 billion in defense spending makes no sense, it meets no need except Trump’s rhetorical complaint during the campaign that Obama had hollowed out the military. That claim, like so many others, was false. There is a deeper discussion about the morality of military spending, to be sure. I am probably more hawkish than most of my colleagues here at
To afford this windfall, President Trump has taken aim at a variety of programs, some more worthy of maintenance than others. Anyone genuinely concerned about U.S. leadership in the world would recognize the foolishness of cutting the State Department budget by 29 percent. Mr. Trump should especially understand the value of soft power: During the campaign, we were repeatedly told by political experts that he lacked the organization to win certain states, but he knew that his Twitter account was more powerful than a slew of field offices. The U.S., to say nothing of the world, gets its return on the dollar for every dime spent on public diplomacy.
I shall offer one controversial observation here: I almost hope they really do eliminate all foreign aid. For years, Americans have been fed a lie by conservative populist politicians who complain about the amount of money the nation dedicates to foreign aid. In 2015, the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a survey that asked people how much they thought we spent and the average of the guesses was 26 percent. The actual figure is about 1 percent, and that money is divided about equally between security assistance and humanitarian and economic aid. So, let's get rid of it all for a couple of years and take away the big lie for good. Of course, I can't really mean that because that pittance we spend is critical in the fight against HIV/AIDS and other diseases, keeps the Peace Corps up and running, and helps a variety of anti-poverty programs that save people's lives at very little expense.
The cuts to the Department of Labor are equally troubling: The Trump budgets plans to cut their budget by a total of 21 percent, and the programs they are targeting are especially important. "Even a cursory review of which Department of Labor programs the Administration intends to cut or eliminate shows its true intentions to sell out the nation's working people to the same old special interest parasites that have been feasting on the fruits of labor for decades," said Laura Barrett, executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice in a statement. "Proposed cuts to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) — the agency charged with ensuring workplaces are in compliance with safety regulations — are particularly galling." Galling and a bit surprising. Does Mr. Trump think that all those blue collar voters who went to the polls for him want to work in an unsafe environment? Does he think they have the wherewithal to fight lawsuits on their own behalf without the benefit of unions his Republican friends are trying to kneecap or the Department of Labor and its oversight capacity?
The 31 percent cut at the Environmental Protection Agency is truly appalling and here is where some of our Catholic Republican friends need to stand up for what the Church teaches. They may make a case that subsidiarity commends shifting some governmental programs from the federal to the state level, but they must recognize that most environmental problems require a national, and indeed international, effort. Pollution does not recognize state boundaries. Carbon dioxide travels into the atmosphere that protects us all. In the case of environmental protection, subsidiarity points toward the need for higher levels of political adjudication. And, Catholic Republicans should be expected to explain how these cuts cohere with the Holy Father's teaching in Laudato Si'.
"This isn't a budget that will make America great again. Instead, it's a budget that will increase hardship and poverty, exacerbate the gulf between the wealthy and other Americans, slash funding for areas that represent investments in our workforce — with likely long-term adverse effects on the economy — and renege on various international responsibilities and commitments," wrote Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities at the center's website.
The Trump budget plans to eliminate entire programs. I do not know that the Denali Commission will be missed. It should not surprise that a man whose tastes can be charitably described as garish and who brags about not reading books thinks nothing of eliminating the National Endowments for the Arts and for the Humanities, both of which do great work with very little money and provide some softness in an increasingly coarse culture. Much ink and many tears will be spilt over the plan to eliminate the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Hey, I like NPR as much as the next person, but if we have to really tighten our belts, NPR attracts the kind of listeners who can pony up more cash to keep it going. Those tears, and more money, would be better spent improving the Legal Services Corporation which helps the poor get legal assistance.
But, here is the thing: Do we really have to tighten our belts? We are in the richest country in the history of the human race. The problem is not that we lack the money to fund domestic programs that enforce safe workplace regulations or provide legal assistance to the indigent or foreign programs aimed at ameliorating curable diseases. The problem is that, unlike other countries, our rich folk don't pay enough in taxes. I do not see the need to increase military spending, but if there is a need, there is no need to cut other spending priorities.
The Trump budget proposals are immoral: They use a manufactured scenario in which we Americans are living in a time of scarcity, an equally fabricated claim that our military needs billions of dollars more money, all to hurt programs that help the poor or the planet. Could some government programs be cut? Sure. Democrats should stipulate to that fact, but only on the merits, not because of some fancied claims that there is not a better way to balance the country’s budget. There is: Tax the rich.
[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]