President Trump’s Budget: Neither Great nor Terrible

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.

10 thoughts on “President Trump’s Budget: Neither Great nor Terrible”

  1. I remember a scene in the movie Apollo 13 where at Mission Control they were running simulations on how to power up systems for re-entry and only had so many amps :

    “Here’s the order of what I want to do. I want to power up Guidance, E.C.S., Communications, warm up the
    pyros for the parachutes and the command module thrusters.”
    “The thrusters are gonna put you over budget on amps, Ken.”
    “Well, they’ve been sitting at two hundred below for four days, John. They’ve got to be heated.”
    “Fine. Then trade off the parachutes, something.”
    “Well, if the chutes don’t open, then what’s the point?”
    “Ken, you’re telling me what you need. I’m telling you what we have to work with at this point.”

    Seems like our budgets always end up the same: Our spending “needs” outweigh what we have to work with. Of course they found the solution to get everything done with they power they had.

  2. At the very least if Congress/President would (or could) “freeze” any increase in “social welfare” programs, that would be almost “revolutionary” and perhaps the beginning of coming to grips with that “elephant in the room”. Zero increase (not even to cover “inflation”–absolute zero). Maybe zero increase for multiple years ? (I’m dreaming.) Social welfare is the biggest propellant of the debt (though not the only).

    1. Wrong. Indeed, not even close.

      Social Security and Medicare, the two largest social welfare programs, are NOT funded by debt. Indeed those programs have had surpluses for decades. They have long paid for themselves, and more. The future security of Medicare was strengthened through the ACA. That might change, if the GOP gets its way.

      The national debt funds other parts of the budget, including defense, education, transportation, etc.

      1. Jeff, here is one of the best explanations of Social Security and its long term impact I have found. It’s several years old, but still relevant.

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/social-security-and-its-role-in-the-nations-debt/2011/07/11/gIQAp1Wl9H_blog.html?utm_term=.f7607f8fb5d1

        In short, you are right and wrong. As the article concludes… “Yes, Social Security in the past has not contributed to the nation’s debt. But it’s basically a meaningless fact and actually distracts from the long-term fiscal problem posed by the retirement of the baby boom generation and the shrinking of the nation’s labor pool.”

  3. Liberals favor state-run solutions because they want to be in charge of it. They preach freedom and tolerance but in reality all they want is control of as many aspects of our lives, from healthcare to education, that they can get their claws into. Modern liberalism is nothing more than a Father-knows-best mentality.

    Unfortunately, too many so-called conservatives really are not all that different. It is all about power to them too. As one poster pointed out, Donald Trump promised to “take care of everyone”. On some things I have been a defender of Trump, but he was wrong to make this promise. Yes, we should help those who genuinely need it, but people should generally be taking care of themselves. That said, his ideas and his budget proposals are certainly far better than anything we would have gotten from a Clinton administration. He is on the right track in his assault on the bureaucratic and regulatory state.

    Only a genuine return to true classical liberalism and a greatly reduced federal government that stays out of the lives of its citizens and only gets involved where actually needed will get us out of this mess. Unfortunately, the chances of this happening are extremely slim.

  4. “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. ”

    Why the quotation marks around “unlucky”?

    Are you so self-centered to think that everyone gets where they are in life due only to their hard work and free will?

    You might be viscerally uncomfortable with the truth, but the fact is, YOU were born lucky. If you think you got where you are today merely because of YOUR decisions and YOUR hard work, you are much more a narcissist than I pegged you to be.

    I was born lucky too. I sometimes am embarrassed that I was born with so much. Great loving family that promoted education. Good looks and perfect teeth. IQ off of the charts. No family history of cancer. Genetic advantages that I found out in a DNA test. I did not deserve ANY of it. None of us do.

    Do those who are born disabled, unable to take care of themselves due to no fault of their own, deserve to spend their lives in suffering? To many conservatives, yes. They might lack the courage of their (lack of) convictions to admit that is what they truly believe, but their political philosophy and voting decisions tell us all we need to know. Conservatives care about tax cuts for the wealthy, not about health care for the rest, including the disabled. If it were up to them, the disabled would not even be in school (good luck having charter “schools” take care of a disabled child).

    The children who I saw running and competing this week during Special Olympics this week gave it their all. They cannot help that they cannot walk, or talk, or protect themselves from predators and from conservatives who couldn’t care less if they lived or died. If they only knew what kind of people have power in this country, people who would take the money for their schools just for tax cuts and yet still sleep like babies…

    Those who would fund waste in defense spending while caring nothing if these children suffer and die are the embodiment of evil. Many of them are nominal Christians who have replaced the gospel with an atheistic social darwinism/Ayn Rand objectivism. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Paul Ryan is a particularly loathsome individual. Mark Meadows. Steve King. Many more.

    The church COULD take care of truly needy people, but it won’t. Never has and never will. There are some who truly care.

    I wish people did take care of each other, like the way Canada geese do. But we don’t. If we did, it would take too much work.

    I wish my severely disabled son did not have to live on Social Security disability now that he is an adult. By the way, the only “help” I got from fellow believers during his life have been those who did not want him in church any longer because he was too distracting and who wondered out loud which sins my wife and I committed to be the parents of such a challenging child. That, and some prayers.

    I wish we did not have to have social programs, but they seem to be a necessary evil until people actually start caring about each other.

    1. No time to fully reply now, but in short this comment is such a joke. Lies and/or gross misconceptions all through it.

      “I wish my severely disabled son did not have to live on Social Security disability now that he is an adult. By the way, the only “help” I got from fellow believers during his life have been those who did not want him in church any longer because he was too distracting and who wondered out loud which sins my wife and I committed to be the parents of such a challenging child. That, and some prayers.”

      This is so sad and you are justified to be angry at church members who acted this way. It is the opposite of Christlike behavior. This is all I can do for you, but I will pray for your son.

    2. Jeff,

      I am sorry for the way you were treated because of your son. You have every right to be angry at those Christians who did that. But you do not have the right to take out that anger on every other Christian. My church, the Christians I know, would never have acted that way.

      Your cynicism us understandable, but your bitterness and embarrassment is ungodly. Rather than being embarrassed by your circumstances, you should be thankful everyday for the advantages you have been allowed to have.

      Your ad hominem assaults on conservatives are uncalled for and offensive. Just because conservatives are not generous with other people’s money like Democrats are does not mean they do not care.

    3. Jeff, you are unfortunately ready to find any small detail to criticize. When I placed “luck” in quotes I did so because it has become one of the central themes of some contemporary political theorists (Nussbaum, Kymlicka for example) and no other reason–as if I scoff at the misfortune of others, which by the way is not luck but somehow is in the inscrutable will of God in some way (I do not believe in luck).

      I am sorry you have a disabled son, but God knows that and who knows how He will work in that young man’s life for good.

      And finally, we might not need the vast social programs we have. I won’t object to a social “safety net”( even F. von. Hayek supported that), but current state and Federal programs are grossly inefficient at what they do do and what they do do is not what ought to be done. If we had different policies we could all do better. Unfortunately the typical modern liberal won’t even listen to alternative ways to achieve the same goal.

  5. Dr. Clauson, what do you make of what has been reported as a trillion dollar accounting error in the budget?

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