A reader asked me to post something on President Trump’s proposed budget to Congress. Opinions have varied as to whether this budget is the apocalypse on one end or the second coming on the other, and pretty much every nuance in between. As with most budgets–though you may not remember the last one, since it has been some time–this one is only a prospective declaration of a vision embodied in numbers. There is no likelihood it will be adopted as proposed, and its details are not that specific in the first place. Now having said all that, there are some insights we can gain by looking at it.
First, and this is a potential negative aspect, the proposed budget appears to want to accomplish two things at the same time that may be difficult if not impossible–to reduce spending by a pretty large amount and not to cut the biggest welfare programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) while also increasing some other items such as defense spending and cutting taxes as well. Some pretty large cuts are proposed to some agency budgets and some “dispensable” programs are targeted. Given the president’s promise to “drain the swamp,” this agency cuts may well be a desirable move, if it survives Congress. But the bigger issue is what such a budget might do to the national debt. This is where conservatives part company, some worrying a great deal about the debt level and others somewhat concerned but at the same time praising tax cuts and the “growth inducing” nature of the budget and associated policies. The latter group believes that overall economic growth and lower budget costs from agency cuts will result in revenue sufficient to make up for what is lost in tax cuts.
Now I see the critics’ point. It is possible to be a “naive supply sider.” It isn’t likely that for every dollar of taxes cut, a dollar will be invested and jobs created. But on the other hand there is more to it than just that. Not the least consideration is simple justice. We may ask why citizens now must or should have their well-being reduced, by having little or no tax relief, just because the debt might be greater with tax relief. “We” did not create the problem, and though the “we” of today or tomorrow will have to face it, I do not see the ethical reason to withhold tax relief from the “we” of today. We may also ask whether with tax reform we might actually get substantial growth that at least closely offsets the lost revenue. I am not trying to be a naive supply sider, but it seems reasonable to predict growth of some magnitude with real tax reform. And we might also suppose that continuing regulatory reform could also incentivize much economic activity, making the concerns over this budget less weighty.
There are other moral considerations, though I would not go so far as to label a budget primarily as a moral document. Is it just to reduce the increases (these are not absolute reductions) in social programs? Here conservatives and liberals disagree, though they could find some unity in some proposals. Conservatives, including Christian conservatives, view current social programs suspiciously as inefficient and, more importantly, as disincentivizing the dignity of work, creating the conditions for the breakdown of the family, eroding morality, particularly by simply making so many programs governmentally-funded and crowding out civil society, \ and simply failing to accomplish their original intended goals. These are serious concerns, and can be held even while agreeing with liberals on the goals to be achieved. Liberals have tended to back any and all social programs, and especially if they entail more spending and governmental intervention. There is a certain mystery behind that disposition, I confess. Perhaps liberal leaders (party elites and officials) never trust any conservative proposal. Perhaps liberals have their own “traditions” they cannot bring themselves to jettison. At any rate, liberals oppose spending cuts vehemently. They oppose them for two reasons: (1) moral and (2) power. On the moral side, even luck is an issue for the liberal. If some individuals are born in some way “unlucky” or come to be that way, they ought to receive help. A conservative would not disagree out of compassion, but the particular approach would differ. The liberal invokes the state almost reflexively. More and bigger is better. Cuts are demonized. Even cuts in increases are attacked as immoral, “killing people.” I can’t tell–because I can’t read minds–how sincere such language is. But it certainly seems like an overreaction. But that may be “just politics.”
But to get into a few details, the budget proposal does not cut the big social programs. It does eliminate or significantly cut programs like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (home to PBS), the National Endowment for the Arts (funder of some pretty really bad work, and not necessary anyway), and the like. It also cuts the Energy Department funding. It re-configures funding of Education more toward school choice programs. Finally, it increases defense spending, though not as much as even Congress seems to want. In short in its details, except for the failure to cut social programs, it is a pretty conservative budget, that is a budget conservatives can appreciate. And by the way cutting social programs would make it virtually “dead on arrival” from a political standpoint, even though we need to reform all of those programs. Congress is simply not ready, if it will ever be, for that, which I regret.
So for me the budget is a mixed bag, some good, some not so good. At some point, our refusal to address the debt will be in fact apocalyptic, but when I can’t predict. But other reforms are being tackled in this budget. My hope is that Congress can grasp the political feasibility of pushing forward with some of the substantive reforms, tax reform, but also agency cuts and regulatory reform. In the meantime, we have a budget proposal that has some merit to build upon.