By David Gushee
Progressive activists, including some of my Christian friends, have staged hunger strikes to dramatize their objections to proposed budget cuts in Congress that would affect the poor. I care deeply about such cuts, but I have not joined the fast .
While I admire the compassion for the poor that motivates these actions, I think this is a time for deliberative decision-making about our nation’s long-term fiscal responsibility and moral sanity rather than a moment for dramatic gestures.
I believe that we have about five years to make the structural decisions that are essential to our nation’s financial health. If we do not make these decisions ourselves, eventually our creditors will force us to make them:
— We will have to reduce the size of our military dramatically, as well as the geopolitical ambitions that lead us to spend over $700 billion a year for what is by far the largest military in the world.
To even consider doing this will require a profound conversation about our national security theology and the quasi-imperial habits that have become deeply entrenched since World War II. A huge fight will be required to change such thinking and habits, and to challenge the massive economic and bureaucratic interests that will have to be defeated. But we must have that fight.
— We will have to stop paying for so much health care.
As Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw recently suggested in a trenchant column for the New York Times, eventually our publicly funded health-care services will have to be reduced to basic health care and will not be able to cover the expensive treatments that technology continues to make available.
— We will have to streamline and means-test Social Security and other retiree benefits.
The Social Security system now provides more financial and health-care benefits than the top financial tier of retirees actually needs, and given current circumstances this is unfair and unwise. The system will need to be reconceived not as a national guaranteed pension based on income earned while working, but as a poverty-prevention program for the indigent elderly.
— We will have to reduce or eliminate a large number of extraneous government programs, benefits and tax breaks.
Lawmakers must stop the manipulation of the tax code by powerful interests who use it for their advantage. (Think farm subsidies.) Government will have to refocus on essential services related to maintaining a decent, livable society and providing basic security. Expensive benefits like home-mortgage deductions will need to be abandoned. Duplicative government services and offices will need to be eliminated at every level.
— We will have to raise taxes on all but the poor and collect all the taxes everyone should be paying.
There are a small number of extremely rich people in the United States, and much larger numbers of quite comfortable, reasonably prosperous and securely middle-class people. If we peg the non-poor population conservatively at 75 percent of all Americans, this group will simply need to pay more in taxes until revenue equals spending. Meanwhile, corporations will have to be prevented from evading taxes. Everyone who is able needs to pay their fair share.
If we followed this kind of rational path toward fiscal solvency, tackling the big issues in a grown-up way, then we wouldn’t have to resort to showy, irrational budget-hacking or dramatic gestures of protest in response.
We might also be able to think rationally about specific parts of the budget that are at risk right now. One very instructive example is poverty-related foreign aid, which at $28 billion constitutes less than 1 percent of the $3.65 trillion federal budget. House Republicans have targeted it for a disproportionately high 25 percent cut.
That foreign aid budget includes the Global Fund, which fights AIDS, TB and malaria in the world’s poorest countries. The House wanted a 43 percent cut. That would cost 400,000 people access to AIDS medicine, 10 million malaria bed nets, 6 million treatments for malaria and 3.7 million people being unable to get tested for HIV.
The House wanted an 8 percent cut in President Bush’s signature AIDS prevention program. That would likely lead to an increase of 20,000 in the number of babies born with HIV. According to the ONE campaign, which works intensively on these issues, half of those babies would die before their second birthday.
The House wanted cuts in the Feed the Future initiative, which would lead to increased malnutrition for four million children. Abolition of funding for the Global Agriculture and Food Security Trust Fund would also lead to sharp increases in hunger and malnutrition.
These particular foreign-aid budget cuts — others could be named — would, according to Obama administration estimates, cost the lives of 70,000 children.
So why should we preserve this particular part of a stressed budget?
— Because we are not so impoverished that we can’t come up with $28 billion to save the lives of 70,000 kids and improve the lives of millions.
— Because it is morally worthier to spend 1 percent of our budget on these purposes than on so many other things we currently spend our money on — like subsidizing home ownership for rich people or building redundant weapons systems.
— Because the good will, human well-being and economic productivity our humanitarian assistance buys us around the world is of incalculable benefit to our economy, international reputation, and national security.
— Because human life is sacred in the sight of God.
We need both serious fiscal responsibility and to retain our moral sanity in the process. I hope we are capable of both.