Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Budgets Are Moral Documents
distributed 3/17/17 - ©2017

My wife and I have been doing some financial planning for our retirement. (She will be retiring soon. Me? Not so soon.) Looking years into an unpredictable future has been an interesting exercise in budgeting and prioritizing.

One of our guides for this process encourages us to think about three broad categories as we consider how we want to live in those coming years: needs, wants and wishes. Some form of food, housing, and health care rank high in the needs list that will have to be funded. Other needs -- friends, activism, gardening and reading -- have very low costs.

We've had some thoughtful conversations as we try to figure out the shadings of our wants and wishes. These are quality of life options where we have lots of choices and future flexibility.

Perhaps our retirement planning has sharpened my thinking about budgets as indicators of our deepest values. Or maybe I would have been attentive to the "budget blueprint" released yesterday by the Trump administration even without that background.

The rough proposal for the US budget -- with massive increases for the military, and deep cuts in diplomacy, science and domestic programs -- is getting lots of evaluation in the media. It needs a close look on many levels, including morality and values.

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A decade ago, when social services were going to be slashed in federal spending, Sojourners led a campaign with the slogan, "Budgets are moral documents." More recently, former VP Joe Biden said "Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I will tell you what you value."

It is clear that the White House values some form of national security. The president's budget director, Mick Mulvaney, described what kind of security approach is embedded in the numbers. "It is not a soft-power budget. This is a hard-power budget, and that was done intentionally. The president very clearly wants to send a message to our allies and to our potential adversaries that this is a strong-power administration."

Even if we accept national security as a budgetary "need", I will argue that a strong-power approach does not get us real security. Our real needs are not met with this exclusive emphasis on military power.

More than 120 retired generals and admirals have gone public in support of diplomacy. In a letter to Congress, they wrote of "our strong conviction that elevating and strengthening diplomacy and development alongside defense are critical to keeping America safe." But the strong-power budget cuts funding for the State Department by 28%. That cut is a real threat to our security.

A week ago, the former president of Costa Rica -- and Nobel Peace Prize winner -- Oscar Arias Sanchez spoke about a different approach to security. "Security doesn't live in weapons and firearms," he said. "Security lives in human development."

Sanchez said that the world could be bettered and lives could be saved if the United States spent less on military and security efforts, instead investing in clean drinking water, education, curing diseases, eliminating poverty and ultimately finding world peace. "This is the impact of real human security. These changes would take away power from terrorists like weapons never could."

An overly narrow perspective on security -- one that looks to weapons and walls, one that sees the greatest threats coming from people outside our borders -- also is blind to great threats of a different kind. It is interesting that Mr. Trump's Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, clearly sees climate change as an immediate threat to US security. He wrote to the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, "Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today. ... It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning."

But the proposed budget devastates federal programs to study and act on climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency is slated for a 31% cut in funding, including many climate-related projects. The State Department's pledge of an additional $2 billion to the Green Climate Fund has been cut completely. The Denver Post today listed research facilities located in Colorado that will be hard-hit -- the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology -- all of which deal with climate and energy matters.

The budget proposal from the Trump administration puts military spending as the highest need, which then requires innumerable programs to be shifted all the way over to wishes -- things that would be nice if there were unlimited money, but are expendable when cash is short. Laura Clawson, writing for Daily Kos, details the kinds of things that are not considered needs. Her headings of what is cut include: science and the things we do with science, people's ability to get ahead in this economy, the basics of survival for the most vulnerable in our society, and an assault on culture.

If budgets are moral documents, the one that has just been released comes across as a moral failure. It does not do an adequate job on its primary goal of national security, and it is immoral (in my view, and the view of many commentators) in the draconian cuts to so many programs and agencies that provide valuable services.

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I have been charitable in using the financial planning categories of needs, wants and wishes as a way of evaluating the Trump budget. Doing so allows us to look at the budget on its own terms, and its own priorities. It is non-confrontational in saying that the things that are cut from the budget are nice wishes that we just can't afford right now.

I'm afraid, though, that a harsher evaluation is necessary. Even if the US government had cash to spare, this administration would still have proposed many of these cuts. Climate studies and the Green Climate Fund would never be on their wish list. A budget with huge increases for military spending provides an opportunity to cut programs that contradict their values and goals.

The budget must be critiqued in terms of how well it categorizes needs, wants and wishes. When Congress settles down to create a budget, their political negotiations will wrestle with those shadings. (It is good to remember that Congress does budgeting on its own. The President's proposal "is primarily a wish list of priorities that Congress is free to accept or ignore, and unlike traditional legislation, the final product is not something Trump will sign or veto.")

But Trump's budget also needs to be critiqued in terms of what it refuses to value at all. Most tellingly from my eco-justice perspective, the numbers in this budget proposal indicate the administration's complete disregard for the threat of climate change.

Joe Biden said, "show me your budget and I will tell you what you value." This first budget from the Trump administration reveals values that I find to be morally unacceptable.

I will be vocal and persistent in letting my US Representative and Senators know about the values and priorities that I think are necessary in a moral budget. I encourage you to make your values known to your members of Congress.

NOTE: In the fall of 2008, I wrote about "Homeland Security" using a family model to look at what real security means. "If we think of security as only having to do with some evil people in other parts of the world, then we will be blind to the matters of genuine security that are close to home."


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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