George W. Bush’s budget sketches the precipitous decline in our fortunes on his watch, while blurring the full costs of his shameless pander to privilege. In two years, we have fallen from a projected surplus of $5.6 trillion over ten years to a projected deficit of $2.1 trillion. We’ve gone from fretting about paying off the national debt too quickly to racking up another trillion in interest costs while squandering the entire Social Security surplus. Bush blames “a recession and a war we did not choose” for this decline. September 11 has changed everything, we are told, and the President puts the war on terrorism and defending the “homeland” above all other priorities.
That is a baldfaced lie. September 11 transformed everything except Bush’s passionate commitment to erasing taxes on the wealthy. Of the nearly $8 trillion decline in the federal fiscal position, fully $4.4 trillion derives from his tax cuts. Bush prescribes tax breaks for the affluent when the economy is in surplus and when it is in deficit, when it is growing and when it is faltering. He now proposes reforms that will essentially exempt the unearned income of the wealthy from taxation, raising the burden on those who must work to earn their income. Those tax-exempt fortunes are to be free of estate taxes also, so that the wealth may be passed from generation to generation. This son of privilege is committed, above all else, to serving his class, and this takes precedence over everything else. As one example, Bush recently had his minions in Congress vote down spending on such “homeland security” priorities as strengthening our ports or defending nuclear power plants. The French defend their nuclear plants with antiaircraft batteries, but we won’t afford it.
Bush proposes a record $307 billion deficit in his $2.2 trillion budget for next year, but with the global economy on the verge of deflation, a larger figure might well be in order to jump-start the economy–if it were to be spent on building schools, cleaning up toxic wastes and other vital public works programs that put people to work. Instead, Bush lards on high-end tax cuts that will have little short-term impact and will sap revenues and add debt in later years just as the nation must deal with the retirement of the baby boomers. The military budget will hit $400 billion, but that doesn’t count the cost of actually waging the “war on terrorism”–either in Afghanistan or Iraq. Even so, military spending is $70 billion more than two years ago, and 13 percent higher than the average expenditure during the cold war. Then we faced a global menace; now, we stand alone, threatened more, according to the President’s national security statements, by “failed states” and the “embittered few” than by any global adversary. Despite this, the Pentagon is forced to retire planes and ships early. They can’t be afforded because of the staggering costs of baroque cold war weapons that the Administration continues to fund in an arms race with itself. The largest single item in the military budget is $9 billion for developing and deploying missile defense–a weapon that doesn’t work, against a threat that doesn’t exist.
“Homeland security” gets only a marginal boost above last year’s budget, while the remaining parts of the discretionary budget will force cuts in current services. With states in fiscal crisis, there is no significant help for schools. With university costs soaring, Pell grants and loans won’t keep up. Environmental programs will continue to be eviscerated, with clean water taking the biggest hit. There will be fewer cops on the street. Naturally, the poor are the first to suffer: Empowerment zones and brownfield redevelopment are eliminated, and community development and housing are cut. It will be harder for poor children to get school lunches. The IRS is instructed to turn its attention from the privileged to the working poor seeking tax credits. Rather than help states with soaring Medicaid costs, the President empowers them to cut services and to cut people from coverage.
The bulk of the cost of the Bush tax cuts, however, will be levied against healthcare and Social Security in the future. The budget doesn’t reveal Bush’s plans to privatize Medicare and Social Security. But by racking up deficits as far as the eye can see, he sets them up for a big hit.
This shadowy and dishonest budget does reveal just how radical and how obscene Bush’s priorities are. In his hunger to free corporations from accountability and feed the Pentagon while starving the rest of government and freeing corporations from regulation, he resembles Ronald Reagan. But in his mania about tax cuts for the wealthy, he makes even Reagan look wobbly. Adam Smith once wrote that there’s a great deal of ruin in a civilization. If the President has his way, we are about to test just how much ruin there is.