proposals and priorities

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

-Gospel of Matthew, 6:21

Money has a funny way of clarifying things.  You see, whether you’re a politician in Washington or a plebeian at home, it’s easy to pay lip service to a host of ideals so long as no actual sacrifice is involved.  Once the time comes to assign a dollar value to things, however, emotional rhetoric is forced to give way to cold, hard numbers.  How you and I manage our personal finances reflects our priorities in life, and how we manage them collectively is no different.  This Monday President Obama presented his budget proposal for the 2012 fiscal year [1] following a week or so of Republican proposals for both 2011 and 2012 [2].  Both the contrast and similarities between the two serve as an interesting muse for a reflection on how we are corporately managing our finances and, consequently, whether our fiscal actions are tracking with what our own values should dictate.

The buzzword of the hour is the deficit.  From campaign ads to the floor of the House, the mounting national deficit is on everyone’s lips.  But while the long-term sustainability of our nation’s finances is indisputably a topic worthy of our attention, it is difficult to swallow that the current measures being proposed are actually about the deficit at all.  Allow me to be blunt: if a proposal is not dealing with substantive changes to Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, defense, or tax structure, its primary motivator is not the deficit, regardless of which party is putting it forward.  Instead, concern over the deficit is being viewed as an opening, a carte blanche for either party to pursue legislative agendas that existed long before budgetary concerns began circulating on the nightly news.  Republicans want to defund the EPA, while Democrats want to cut subsidies to oil companies; it’s difficult to view either as stemming from a burden of fiscal responsibility rather than the underlying ideological platforms.

So what, then, is actually being put on the chopping block?  Well, the individual provisions number in the hundreds, far too many to explore at length here.  Taken in aggregate, though, certain trends are easily visible.  Apart from the aforementioned focus on the EPA and other environmental protection and research programs, the GOP proposals reveal an unsettling effort to shift the burden of government cutbacks disproportionately to poor and working class Americans.  Proposed cuts include supplemental nutrition programs for pregnant women and infants [3], financing for police forces in underserved areas [2], and legal services for those who would be otherwise unable to afford them [2].  What’s worse is that President Obama appears to be buying into this narrative, cutting to the bone the program which helps pay for poor people to heat their houses during the winter [4], another target of previous Republican efforts.

Now in a vacuum, it’s conceivable that these could be justified as unfortunate but necessary measures.  In light of the past four months, however, they demonstrate a disturbing hypocrisy on the part of fiscal conservatives.  As some of you may remember, the end of the last congressional session was marked by a battle over tax cuts, specifically those favoring the very rich.  The total amount handed over to the wealthy of this nation?  $150 billion over the next two years exclusively for the highest tax brackets and estates in excess of $1 million [5].  Do we really, as a nation, feel no reservations at handing $150 billion dollars to the rich, only to turn around and claim we can’t afford $2.5 billion to let the poor heat their homes?  That we can’t afford $750 million to ensure pregnant women have enough to eat?  Our financial situation will demand drastic changes moving forward; that much is certain.  Surely, though, we can do so without such a concerted effort to take from those who have the least to give.  Such indifference towards the plight of the poorest amongst us is an insidious moral failing which empathy dictates should be sharply decried.  After all, if we do not deem it important enough to provide even food and warmth to our fellow man, what does that say for our appraisal of human worth?

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