Budgets Reflect Moral Choices As Much As Fiscal Realities

At their core municipal budgets, like their federal counterparts, are a reflection of social priorities, an expression of the social contract that binds communities together.  What communities chose to spend money on, and who those choices directly benefits says as much about the values of that community as any demographic information gathered through census or polling.

It’s easy to grandstand on platforms of “small government” or “no new taxes”, but what happens when that grandstanding nearly costs a life?  Or when it does, eventually?

The New York Times offered a glimpse into these issues in a profile of the bleak choices facing municipal governments these days.  Despite pleading to the Wilmington, North Carolina city council for enough revenue to replace a fire engine after a mechanic told the fire chief the current engine would likely fail, the fire chief was told to “find a new mechanic” rather than replace an engine with over 100,000 miles and 16 years.  The chief had tried for five years in a row to get a new fire engine and was rebuffed, year after year.  That engine quit working as his crew responded to a house fire with a man trapped inside.

That’s not as bad as Camden, New Jersey which laid off half its police force.  Or Detroit which is closing half of its public schools.  Or even the state of Minnesota that has shut down entirely in order to prevent a tax increase on the roughly 7000 state residents who earn more than $1,000,000 a year.

The familiar refrain, from conservatives pushing this new “fiscal austerity” is that our state and federal governments have a spending problem.  But that’s not quite the case.  In fact, it’s not the case at all.  There’s not a spending problem, there’s a revenue problem.

In the wake of the Bush tax cuts, and thanks in large part to the Great Recession spawned by them, tax revenue is at a near-record low.  As a percentage of the GDP it has fallen 24 percent since 2001 and, corrected for inflation, the government is collecting nearly 20 percent less in tax revenue per person than a decade ago.  Meanwhile discretionary security spending has increased $364 billion since 2001 while non-security discretionary spending remains flat.  And while spending on mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans support has also increased, when adjusted to reflect population growth we spend no more on those programs than we did a decade ago?

Now consider the fact that last week Republican negotiators walked out of meetings over the federal debt limit when Vice President Joe Biden and congressional Democrats suggested that a deal to raise the nation’s debt limit should include cuts and reforms to federal spending programs that provide interest-free loans for purchasing corporate jets.  Or for a program that incentivizes people to become hedge fund managers by sending them an annual treasury check for 20 percent of the cut they take from managing investor portfolios.

Those programs, according to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are off the table.  But cuts to Medicare and Medicaid are not.

Is a pattern emerging?  Or maybe, more accurately, a theme?


photo courtesy of Tracy O via Flickr


William C
William C3 months ago

Not surprising, thank you.

W. C
W. C3 months ago

Thanks for the information.

Duane B.
.5 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Nancy W.
Nancy W6 years ago

I don't know how anyone can win, rich or poor in that system. Where's the democracy fairness support for comunities, and compassion? it must be following that lost tax revenue down the drain.

Eternal Gardener
Eternal G6 years ago


Randi L.
Randi Levin6 years ago

Inconsideration that the GOP is putting this country into a stand off---I believe that the best solution to the deficit issues is to put out a vote whereby the legal citizens of the United States VOTE/MAKE A DECISION on whether to raise taxes on the Oil Corps, private jets and those who make 400,000 or more or not.

All it would take is a simply envelope and piece of paper (Lots gets wasted daily, let's put some to use) listing:
Should the Gov't Raise taxes on the Oil Corps, on Private Jets, and on those who Make 400,000 per year: Circle YES or NO.

In this respect our govt reps can stop badgering each other, and playing Let's Make a Deal, and the people of this nation can make such an important decision.

No campaigning, no posturing, no commercials and media just a simple one question vote with the result to be determined BY THE PEOPLE FOR THE PEOPLE! (a concept that has gotten lost somewhere between the posturing and bullying in Washington and with the representative of the people and this great land.)

Catt R.
Catt R6 years ago

James D. I like what it says, the Peoples Budget. I think it would be worth trying, makes more sense than what the Republicans are trying to FORCE on us. [Sometimes I think they are trying to turn us into Lybia.... this 100% my way or I shut down the gov somehow does not sound like a democracy...... and while we are at war and forcing others to set up a democracy..... our elected leaders are hard at work limiting our right to vote as much as possible.] I hope all the world prays for the people of the United States, a big portion of our government is at war with us.

I think they are a little optimistic and missed something though, when Obama brings the troops home he will immediately be attacked for the increase in unemployment. The job have all been shipped overseas, many new factories built with money given to them to promote more jobs..... and tax cuts that were supposed to create more jobs. There are not enough jobs now, we need to plan something for when we bring our military home, maybe a phase out to discharge..... they can be paid to help rebuild our infrastructure until they would have discharged maybe? Lord knows our roads and other infrastructure are falling apart as it is. Am I the only one that caught that a portion of why Bush started 2 wars was to keep his unemployment numbers down? There was money to be made by him and his buddies by starting the wars I know, but if you don't think they did a happy dance over the side effect of keeping the unemploymen

Bertha Smith
Bertha Smith6 years ago

Diane o,
I agree with you. Stop all the spending. The most sensible way to get the budget balanced is to stop the spending. It's like at home. When the credit card(s) get maxed out, it's time to make payments and not put anymore on those cards until paid off!

Marcia B.
Marcia B6 years ago

Excellent article, Jessica. The first sentence says it all. Diane O., you haven't addressed Jessica's point that budget choices have moral underpinnings in social contracts. Of course we all have to watch our spending. But if we don't do anything about raising revenue we are being irresponsible. What exactly is the moral underpinning of continuing to allow millionaires and billionaires to manipulate the tax code to enrich themselves? How do legislators continue in good conscience to permit loopholes serving the super rich while cutting medicaid benefits to our poorest, most disabled citizens? Any way you slice it, this can not be called "patriotic," decent or moral.
James D., thanks for the information!

Marie W.
Marie W6 years ago

I like the theme of this- finally not just about $$.