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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Can BUDGETS be IMMORAL?


Donald Trump has finally made some Republicans sit up and take notice!  Here are a few of his latest antics:
·       Executive Orders to temporarily ban immigration from 7 Mid-eastern countries were rejected twice in Courts.  At supporter rallies, railed against the court rulings, seemingly unaware of potential that his utterances could be used against him in higher courts.
·       On Twitter, accused former President Obama of a felony – that he ordered “wire-tapping” at Trump Tower in NYC during 2016 campaign. Directors of both NSA and the FBI asserted that no President under current law and structures could order such an illegal act, nor do they have evidence to back up Trump’s claims. 
·       Issued an outline of his first budget to Congress in which he supports egregious budget cuts to all manner of programs, agencies and departments without documentation of need or cause to do so.
“... to offset increases in defense spending, the President is proposing $54 billion in cuts to large parts of the federal government and popular programs big and small.  Trump’s budget would cut off funding entirely for several agencies, including arts, public broadcasting and development groups, with steep cuts to agencies like the State Department and Environmental Protection Agency.  Virtually every agency will see some sort of cut, with only Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs getting a boost.” (CNN)
This Budget reveals a lack of understanding of the role of government in maintaining the security, protection and well-being of members of this society, and it exudes a lack of morality in terms of caring about the welfare of people.    The cuts appear to be nothing more than blatant attempts to meet the terms of an ideology, fulfill some campaign promises, find funds to transfer to the wealthy and to the military build-up, and to end liberal programs once and for all.
Let me concentrate my remarks today (with the indispensable help of articles from CNN, Bloomberg News and USA Today) on that so-called ‘budget’ that Trump has devised with Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, and presumably, with input from senior WH advisor Steve Bannon. For the sake of brevity, let us look at it through the lens of one broad category of concern.
MORALITY
Morality has to do with principles, behavior and conduct. There is a basic ethical consideration in every budget produced by the White House or ultimately by the Congress: meeting standards of wrong and right along with the responsibility that officials (and governments) have for the welfare of other human beings, especially those who are vulnerable to certain matters beyond their control, like aging, disease, birth defects, mental capacity, inherited genes, or acquired/imposed challenges that may affect full participation in human endeavors.  Mutual responsibility for the welfare of others is at the core of major religions, philosophies and humanistic ideologies.  It is also fundamental to the ordering of our society and to the transcendence of our humanity.
 In other words, we cannot transcend our flawed human nature and confines unless we reach beyond ourselves to other human beings, making their lives interdependent with our own.  In Christianity, it is expressed in terms of a Golden Rule and the Spirit of a loving God.  In humanitarian ideology or philosophy, it may be sometimes understood as a ‘social contract.’ Whatever its origin, or conceptual development, it is fundamental to our society’s well-being as expressed in the Preamble to our Constitution.  As I have said in other posts: morality is not only about individual behavior, it is also the moral duty and responsibility of every government to advance the welfare of all its people. 
In this Trumped-up budget for 2018, we find both a morality dis-connect and a communal immorality: that is, both non-involvement with the moral obligations of a budget, and actual provisions (behaviors) within the budget whose outcome would be a violation of responsibility for certain people with special needs that can only be addressed in the context of the commonwealth (the whole nation). 
But, the ideology of capitalists and conservative Republicans, especially the Alt Right, contains some contrary elements or principles often expressed as two sides of one coin:
1) that every individual is responsible for their own well-being and their own success and their own destiny. Examples: if one is uneducated, has a lousy job, lives in poverty or can’t cope with life – that is their fault, and does not obligate others to ‘rescue’ them from their self-inflicted problems. And,
2) those who have success, education, wealth and a special status should not be obligated by government to provide their tax money for the rescue and entitling of other less responsible citizens. Instead, they believe government should reward them with special privileges, special access and special “breaks.”
So, let us look at the Trump Budget in light of this one matter of morality: the mutual contractual responsibility for the welfare of other citizens and human beings.
The Disconnect:
In most of the provisions of this Budget, it appears that there is simply no connection to this moral realm.  There are devastating cuts to affordable health care, to Meals on Wheels and community service programs for Seniors (like Nancy Reagan's favorite - Foster Grandparents), Planned Parenthood, the WIC program for low-income women and children, along with the gutting of the EPA.  To that add nearly a 20% cut - $5.8 billion dollars -  to National Institutes of Health (including research)!
Most items in the budget are considered in terms that exclude the human dimensions of need, vulnerability, and concern for human welfare.  Some excuses are offered but studies, statistics, human stories, or in-depth analysis are all lacking.  Cuts are made in terms exclusively related to deficit, duplication, inefficiency, and privatization.  Once in a while, waste or over-spending is thrown in, but nowhere is there discussion of human need or vulnerability; protection or safety.  The general welfare of our nation’s citizens seems to show up only in terms of military build-up and Homeland security, plus some attention to law and order. 
About security, there is no reference at all to the insecurity that is caused by a government and its leaders who ignore perhaps the most harmful threat to our ultimate security, and our very existence: the environment.  A moral imperative would tend to say that even if one does not believe the scientific evidence of environmental threat, there are blatant natural signs that our welfare may be at risk: species are dying, weather is changing dramatically at record levels; air, water and earth are at dangerous levels of pollution, smog is a killer, chemical waste and chemical particles left behind by industries are being found in our earth, air and water; ice caps are melting and oceans rising in depth each year, with flooding already recorded at high levels in coastal areas. 
Just recently, a report from a large group of scientists has made it dramatically clear that many diseases are being spawned or aggravated by the chemicals and pollutants we allow to muck-up our environment: heart disease, asthma, lung cancer and several other cancers, as well as auto-immune diseases such as Parkinson’s are being linked to such pollutants.  At the very least, our government should be pro-active in researching and addressing these threats even if climate change science is not accepted by them!   
We are, as a nation, in dire need of strong moral leadership in this area of life or death for our people and our planet, and what do we get from the Trump administration but a long list of cuts for environmental and research items, including a 34% cut in the Environmental Protection Agency’s total budget.  Let me also mention a few environment-related programs and agencies whose cuts you may not have noticed in Trump’s proposed budget:
  • Chemical Safety Board (-$11 million) – investigates chemical accidents and makes recommendations to industries and labor groups, OSHA and EPA to prevent future accidents
  • Clean Power Plan (EPA) – creates national standards for carbon pollution plants and helps states develop and deploy clean energy alternatives
  • International Climate Change Programs(EPA) – promotes clean and efficient energy technologies and shares scientific climate research with multilateral initiatives and treaties
  • Climate Change Research and partnership programs(EPA) – researches and reports on climate change impact on the US
  • Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (-$40 million) – task force focused on pollution clean-ups, invasive species reduction and wildlife protection
  • Chesapeake Bay Program (-$14 million) – oversees restoration of Chesapeake Bay and its watershed
  • Energy Star Program (EPA) – certifies and recognizes buildings and consumer products that meet specific energy-specific criteria
  • Targeted Air Shed grants (EPA)– assists state and local pollution control agencies to develop plans and projects to reduce air pollution in highly polluted areas
  • Endocrine Disrupter Screening Program (EPA)—screens pesticides, chemicals and other contaminants for potential effect upon estrogen, androgen and thyroid hormone systems
  • OCO-3 Earth Science Mission – a NASA mission to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide levels on earth via the International Space Station
  • Global Climate Change Initiative (-$1.3 billion) – USAID provides financial assistance for global climate change initiatives in developing countries
  • U.N. Green Climate Fund (-$250 million) – State Dept. provides funds to help developing countries mitigate and tackle the effects of climate change
  • Advanced Research Projects Agency (-$382 million) –Energy Dept.  provides funding and support to short-term energy research projects aimed at improving the economy, environment and security
  • Title 17 Innovative Technology Loan Program – Energy Dept. provides loans to support use of new energy technology
  • Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program – Energy Dept. provides loans to automotive and component manufacturers for facilities and engineering that support advanced technology vehicles
REMEMBER: this doesn’t even count the myriad of programs that would be lost in cuts involving the EPA!  Nor does it list other Departmental programs that will be cut such as the Low- Income Home Energy Assistance Program under HHS or the Water and Waste Water loan program -($498 million) under Department of Agriculture.  
Let me say here that I am not against cutting out duplicative and wasteful programs, but that needs to be done in a much more effective way through data collection, surveys, evaluations and personal interviews with recipients of services.  It might even involve congressional committee investigations and hearings if those committees had any credibility or bi-partisan cooperation among members.  Or how about this: why not have the CBO, and/or a bi-partisan Commission of Evaluators score programs on an on-going basis, instead of making decisions based on ideological mumbo-jumbo and political scores that are often settled by spiteful representatives. 
Let’s be clear about this budget.  It is a revealing outline of who Trump is, what he believes, and most of all what he wants to do about “deconstructing administration” per his chief advisor, Steve Bannon.  This is economic nationalism writ large; this is support for the 1% and their values; this is meant to undermine the liberal press, the liberal culture, the liberal electorate, and as many liberal programs as is possible. 
It is destructive all right, as many of the tenets of democracy are going to disappear under its manipulation.  The progressive gains of the last century are on the chopping block; and so are the ethical underpinnings that inspired those advances.  Remember, Trump was not elected because of governing skills. He was elected to drain the establishment swamp of unresponsive, liberal-minded politicians and office-holders, to overturn entrenched programs, treaties and agreements, to restore American manufacturing and jobs while also deregulating all areas that affect the conduct of American Business.  He was hired to make America Great Again.  Ignoring people’s needs, challenges and problems, as well as their opinions, is not the way to greatness.
Now let us turn to a listing of what I consider the immoral abandoning of the General Welfare of vulnerable citizens.  Again, to maintain a limit on the length of this post, I must be brief and target only some of the many examples of the Trump approach to the “safety net” and the well-being of our citizens and of our society.  In brief, he doesn’t much care what happens as long as he defends the rich from having to share their wealth with the less fortunate members of our commonwealth (notice if you will the two words that combine to make that word – ‘common’ and ‘wealth’ – it should give us pause as to the import and meaning of the social contract).
Trump’s budget proposes elimination (100% budget cut) of 19 independent agencies and 61 other programs. thus ending their existence.  Among the agencies getting the AX:
1)    Regional agencies to develop economic opportunities, infrastructure and workforce in certain vulnerable areas: Appalachian Regional Commission (-$119 million) with emphasis on coal-dependent communities; Delta Regional Authority (-$45 million) and Northern Border Regional Commission (-$7 million) near Canadian border in ME, NH, VT and NY
2)     United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (-$4 million) –coordinates with federal agencies to prevent and end homelessness
3)     Legal Services Corporation (-$366 million)—funds organizations that provide legal aid to low-income citizens
4)     Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation (-$175 million)—assists organizations aimed at revitalizing rural, urban, and suburb
5)     Corporation for National and Community Service (-$771 million) – funds thousands of volunteer organizations nationwide and runs AmeriCorps, VISTA, Senior Corps Programs (including Foster Grandparents, Senior Companions and RSVP) and the Social Innovation Fund.
[Having had experience as the Project Director of two of these programs (both the largest of their kind in the nation), I know first-hand the double-barreled benefit these programs have on volunteers and their protégés and a third beneficiary is the community.  These programs produce millions of dollars in volunteer hours, saving meaningful amounts in program and administrative costs].
The overriding reason given for most of these cuts is that they are duplicative or inefficient, but the underlying reason might be the old saw that communities and private funding should be funding these community development programs if they are needed.  This overlooks the fact that these programs would not be in existence at all if left to local funding either public or private. They are regional and nationwide in terms of their effect, and need to be such to make meaningful impact on widespread needs and problems. Such malarkey also overlooks the proven positive outcomes they have had over their years of existence.
Trump's budget comes down finally to the need to fund other programs with the money saved from discretionary programs.  And what are those must-fund programs – military readiness and national security. In other words, Trump and his administration, backed up by a willing Congress, will steal the money that has funded community development agencies and programs (along with the money saved from cutting whole departments by hefty percentages). 
Take one last look, and picture the millions upon millions of low-income and middle- income people and families who are going to suffer from these losses if this budget passes Congress. I worked for a while in a community action agency in a central New York city and I know first-hand that these programs are often a life-line to which some must cling very tightly.  Here are just a few of the 61 programs being proposed for 100% cuts. 
  • Community development block grants (-$715 million) – funds programs that assist low-income people with housing issues, including elimination of urban blight  
  • Weatherization Assistance Program (-$121 million) – provides grants to local governments to improve weatherization and energy efficiency of homes of low-income residents
  •  Low-income Home Energy Assistance program (-$3.4 billion) – aids low-income families to help pay for home energy bills and some energy-related maintenance
  • 21st Century Community Learning Centers (-$1.2 billion) – provide before-and-after-school programs for children, particularly in high-poverty areas
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (-$732 million) – provides needs-based grants up to $4,000 to low-income graduates for postsecondary education
  •  Teacher Quality Partnership (-$43 million) – funds initiatives aimed at improving the quality of new teachers through improved development and recruiting methods
  • HOME investment Partnerships Program – provides block grants to state and local governments to create affordable housing solutions for low-income households
  • Choice Neighborhoods – funds programs to replace distressed public housing and promotes investment for neighborhood improvement
  • Self-Help Ownership Opportunity Program – funds non=profit organizations that build new housing for low-income families with volunteer labor
  • Section 4 Capacity Building for Community Development and Affordable Housing (-$35 million) – works with non-profit groups to fund community development and affordable housing for low-income families
  • Minority Business Development Agency (-$32 million) – promotes growth of minority-owned businesses through advocacy, policy, research and access to capital and contracts
  • Rural Business and Cooperative Service’s discretionary programs – financial assistance provided for economic development in rural communities
  • Senior Community Service Employment Program (-$434 million) – work-based training program for older Americans, including low-income unemployed seniors
  • Community Services Block Grant (-$715 million) – funds projects aimed at reducing poverty in communities, focused on education, nutrition, employment and housing
  • Essential Air Service (-$175 million) – subsidizes airlines for regular flights to and from small and mid-size airports (mostly in rural areas)
  • PRIME Technical Assistance Grants – training and technical assistance for disadvantaged entrepreneurs
  • Economic Development Administration (-$220 million) – programs focused exclusively on economic development
  • Community Development Financial Institutions grants (-$210 million) – Trump’s budget says that the 23-year-old program to support community banks and credit unions is obsolete
The sad part about this is that we have just begun to scratch the surface here.  The Obamacare repeal alone adds other programs to this annihilation: navigator agencies will lose funding; consumer advocacy will take a total hit as there will no longer be an appeals group under TrumpCare as there once was under Obamacare.  There will be no more panels that can help guide changes in Medicare and Medicaid, for example, and certainly no more citizen advocacy panels to advocate for the rights and needs of ordinary citizens in the field of health care.
As I conclude today, it is with a sense that no matter where we look in the Trump budget, we will find a lack of moral courage, fortitude and openness that is necessary in tackling community development, breaking the stranglehold of poverty and the unfairness of the loss of so many opportunities for enhancing the lives of so many of our urban and rural citizens.  Those living in or near poverty levels are in for a series of inordinate shocks as the cuts begin to filter down to the local city, town and rural living areas. 
As programs and agencies shut their doors with signs that say “CLOSED” and “LOST FUNDING” and “SORRY – we got TRUMPED,” let us not forget that this is a moral issue, because it comes down to how people are being treated – as pawns, as rubes, as non-entities and as numbers; even as animals.  Cutting budgets in a hurried, uninformed, undisciplined and unprincipled way is an immoral act because it shows complete indifference to the fate and the well-being of real people; people who will suffer real-life consequences because of budget cuts that mainly take money out of the hands of poor and low-income people and stuff it into the coffers of the very rich with tax cuts, special subsidies, government contracts, and just plain pork-barrel entitlements for them, but not for others of ‘lesser worth.’ 
I have said it before, and it must be said again: Mr. Trump and his gang of administrative ‘de-constructors’ are nothing more than unprincipled fascist-like imitators who will wreak havoc upon our long-term security by means of their unprincipled budget.  2018 is coming and betrayed seniors, rural folks, labor unionists, students, minorities and women, as well as people with disabilities better get ready. We cannot become complacent. We must keep resistance and protest alive before this immoral and detached crowd cut off our democratic infrastructure along with government assistance for the least vulnerable; and for others who seek opportunities just to maintain their lives and the lives of their families.  This is an immoral budget and our judgment upon its perpetrators must be as harsh as we can make it!