This week, President Bush presented Congress and the American people with a budget with steep cuts in job training, affordable housing and Medicare. It’s a budget that calls on poor kids to do without health class, poor families to do with heating and poor communities to do without wastewater treatment plants. Not everyone, however, is called upon to sacrifice for the common good. While those with the least wealth among us brace for a further assault on their economic security, those with the most can look forward, if Bush has his way, to further tax cuts — all in the name of fiscal responsibility.
All this from a man who transformed a near-$6 trillion surplus into a half-trillion dollar deficit and his campaign pledge of fiscal responsibility into a punch line. Bush’s surplus-slaying ways made shows of dismay pro forma for every self-respecting conservative pundit. “Among conservative journalists and activists,” Jonah Goldberg wrote in late 2003, “the disappointment in the Bush administration’s, and the GOP congressional leadership’s, domestic policies is mounting daily.” Even the International Monetary Fund has begun issuing warnings about American debt. Politicians and pundits from across the political spectrum have rightly assailed the president for saddling future generations with crippling debt. As Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid observed last week, it means a $36,000 “birth tax” on every future American left holding the bill. President Bush should not be surprised to find few Americans comforted by his claim that he can halve the deficit in his second term — a claim based on math that fails to account for the ongoing costs of his dire misadventure in Iraq, the trillions in debt required to enact his erosion of social security, or the ballooning price tag of extending his disastrous tax cuts.
Democrats have been right to join with conservatives in slamming Bush for sinking the federal government deep in the red. Deficits are bad for America. Balancing the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable members of our society, however, is worse. That’s why congressional Democrats and Cato Institute libertarians, who’ve found common cause in slamming Bush’s deficits, should have little common ground in confronting Bush’s budget.
Bush’s budget plan and tax cuts are fiscally irresponsible in the narrow conservative sense of the phrase in that they will deepen the national debt. Democrats have been and must continue to make this point. But Democrats will not take control of the agenda of this country until fiscal responsibility is wrested from the fiscal conservatives and is understood to be about the responsibility to spend public money for the public good. Bush’s economics are not fiscally irresponsible only because they bankrupt the government. They are fiscally irresponsible because they abrogate our common responsibility to broaden opportunity while protecting Americans from freedom of want.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle often opine that a government, like a family, should spend no more money than it has. There’s some truth to that, insofar as cutting unnecessary spending and asking more from the wealthiest in our society is more just and more responsible than passing the burden to the next generation. But we don’t evaluate families based on whether they make more or less than they spend. We evaluate them based on how well they tap the resources at hand to meet the needs of each family member. A family that spends money on exotic vacations for parents rather than medical treatment for a sick child, or on plastic surgery for a child rather than feeding a parent, would come under deserved condemnation. Whether it ends the day in the black or in the red, a family that spends on the whims of some before the needs of others is fiscally irresponsible. So is a government.
The next weeks will provide many more chances for Republican foot soldiers to take their turns at the microphone and praise Bush’s discipline in cutting pork-barrel spending. Bush deserves to be assailed for the fiscal bankruptcy into which he’s driven the federal government. But he must also be assailed for the moral bankruptcy of a conception of “fiscal discipline” that lauds the willingness of the empowered to deny more to the disenfranchised.
Josh Eidelson is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.