Bush's Budget Proposal: Is This Who We Really Are?

It's a cliche but it's true: budgets reflect priorities. It was never so true as it is for President Bush's new budget proposal.

Bush's budget expresses in financial terms what he wants our country to profess itself to be. That is what a budget is, after all: a testament of who a society is and what it wants to become. For, as with individuals, a country becomes those things it chooses.

It's a cliche but it's true: budgets reflect priorities. It was never so true as it is for President Bush's new budget proposal.

Bush's budget expresses in financial terms what he wants our country to profess itself to be. That is what a budget is, after all: a testament of who a society is and what it wants to become. For, as with individuals, a country becomes those things it chooses.

Bush wants us to choose and to proclaim that we prefer war over peace, debt over solvency, enriching the wealthy over helping the poor, and enriching ourselves while impoverishing our children. When you lay aside all the unctuous homilies and put your money where your mouth is, that is what Bush's budget actually says.

Most of the wars our nation has fought have been forced on us. World War II and Korea come to mind. But some wars have been wars of our own choosing. Vietnam and Iraq stand out. Those wars were not forced on us by evil enemies, they were foisted us by deceitful leaders.

The problem that Bush's budget confronts us with today is that there is not enough money to both fight his $1+ trillion war of choice AND take care of the nation's needs at home. The question the budget proposes to answer, therefore, is, "Who do we throw out of the lifeboat?" Coming from Bush, the answer is foreordained.

Bush cannot repudiate his own war of choice or it would impugn his entire presidency, the entire neo-con agenda. So he must throw out of the lifeboat those he has been throwing out since he first took office: the middle class and the poor.

Under Bush's economic stewardship, the average American family's real income has declined five years in a row, the first time that has happened since the Great Depression. Poverty is up 43% since Bush took office. The income of the bottom 20% of the population has fallen 9%. And the nation's savings rate has fallen below zero, a reflection of our desperate struggle to maintain living standards in the face of declining incomes.

So when Bush asks the nation to fund his war of choice in Iraq, he is not only asking us to anoint his deceit through our approval of its on-going funding, he is literally asking us to choose war over peace, destruction abroad over development at home. Perhaps that is, indeed, who we as a nation want to be. Our budget choices will reveal our true natures.

Another choice Bush wants us to embrace is the preference for debt over solvency. Bush inherited a government running large budgetary surpluses. But every year in office he has run massive deficits. Those deficits have exploded the national debt, swelling it by almost $3 trillion, a staggering 53% increase in only 5 years. His current proposal would add another $400+ billion next year and yet another $1 trillion over the next five years.

This means that we will pass a huge burden of debt onto our children and grandchildren, a millstone around their necks that will cripple their own economic opportunities before they even have a chance to begin their working lives. Perhaps we now esteem debt more highly than solvency, indenture of our children over their economic freedom. That is certainly what Bush's budget proposal says we value. Is it so?

Bush's budget wants us to declare that we would should keep channeling ever more of the nation's wealth to those who are already the most wealthy, and to fund it by taking money from education, the poor, the disabled, and from the impoverished elderly. That is the naked meaning of his never-ending tax cuts for the wealthy and his program cuts for the weak. Is that what we really want to do? Is that who we really are? Perhaps it is.

In 1976, the top 1% of wealth-holders controlled 22% of the nation's wealth. In 1998, their share had almost doubled, to 38%. It is still higher today. Can it really be the case that the biggest problem in our country is that the super rich have too little and that everybody else has too much? That is what Bush's budget proposal wants us to aver.

Budgets are so much more than dry bureaucratic formalities. They are society's moral ledgers, the public altars onto which we consecrate our deepest values and our highest aspirations for our nation and our children. They are the x-ray-like instruments that strip the false sanctimony from our pious posturings to reveal to the world who we really are.

So remember, a country becomes what it chooses. I am not yet willing to profess that my country wants war over peace, though I'm more and more often at a loss to deny it. I'm not willing to declare that we prefer debt over solvency, though, as with war, it is becoming harder and harder to prove otherwise.

I'm hesitant to admit that we would rather have weapons than books or health care. I cannot bring myself to believe that we need to continue enriching those few who are already so well-off by taking from those many who are still so much in need. And I am unwilling to say to hell with my children and my grandchildren so that I can live a fatter life than I'm willing to work for myself.

But those are the things that Bush's budget, implicitly and undeniably, declares of us. It is shameful. It is despicable. It is a blight on everything this nation has ever stood for.

There was a time when our budgetary choices showed that we honored peace over war, solvency over debt, charity over gluttony, and stewardship rather than plunder of our own children's future. That world is fast receding and if we follow Bush's lead much longer it will soon be lost forever.

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