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Backwards Budget Debate – And How to Move It Forward

Opinion pieces and speeches by EPI staff and associates.


Backwards Budget Debate — And How to Move It Forward

by Jeff Faux

When it comes to thinking ahead, our leaders in Washington have it backwards. As any student of business or public administration could tell them, you prepare your budget after you’ve first set your goals.

Yet Republicans and Democrats are now debating the exact size of a massive 10-year tax cut without having addressed the critical prior question: what kind of America do we want a decade from now? They need to get some feedback from the citizenry before they lock up the federal government’s options until 2012.

The Washington consensus in support of a large tax cut is motivated by predictions of a budgetary “surplus” based on guesses about the behavior of economic growth, stock market prices, and other variables a decade from now that are obviously unknowable.

But the primary task of leadership in a democracy is not to predict the future. It is to shape it — after listening to the dreams and aspirations of its people. Even if we could see accurately ten years into the future, the notion of a surplus, that is, what is “left over,” is meaningless until we have a much wider discussion about what it is that we want to do.

The backward Washington debate leaves a host of important questions about the coming decade unanswered. For example, do we want an America in 10 years in which 50 million people or more lack access to affordable health insurance? Or one in which the average commute from work to home in traffic-snarled transportation systems takes twice as long as it does now? Or an America in which — after almost half a century — the pre-school HeadStart program is still not available to all the low-income children who qualify? If we want that kind of America, President Bush’s proposal may make sense. If we don’t, it clearly doesn’t.

The last election was certainly not a mandate for answers to these and other critical questions about America’s future. Nor are the opinion polls, which demand instant “yes or no” answers rather than thoughtful interactive discussion.

That is why it is time to revive an idea from the bicentennial celebration of the Declaration of Independence. In the mid-1970s, inspired by the 200th anniversary of our nation’s birth, cities, and states around the country held public forums in which they asked citizens to discuss their aspirations for the future.

Many came up with specific plans — a vision of California, or Atlanta, or Maine in the year 2000. In some discussions, the focus was on land use planning, transportation systems, and the adequacy of the housing stock. Others became engaged with issues of sustainability and energy efficiencies. Still others moved to more difficult questions of the relationship between races, genders, and classes.

Taken together, it was a remarkable national discussion of our country’s future from the grass roots up. In effect, the question of what kind of America do we want, began with the question of what kind of neighborhood do we want?

These public dialogues stopped dead in the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s free market fundamentalism, which threw cold water on the notion of citizens planning their future. Now, in a more ideologically balanced time, we should revitalize that democratic discussion.

Fortunately, there is even a face-saving way for Washington’s politicians to accommodate it. Despite their differences over the size and distribution of the permanent tax cut, Republicans and Democrats are agreed that some of this year’s surplus — actual money, not predictions — should be given back to taxpayers to stimulate purchasing power and help prevent a slowdown from becoming a recession.

Let them pass a bill to provide such a one-time dividend, so that they have something to show for their efforts thus far. At the same time, let them provide some modest funds for states and localities to sponsor forums that over the next year would debate community-based visions of what kind of America we want ten, even twenty, years from now.

Let the chat rooms and the interactive TV and the call in shows fill up with some of our shared dreams instead of our private nightmares. Let the supporters of tax cuts, domestic spending, and debt reduction spell out what their proposals mean for the average American in 2012 and beyond. Allow them enough time to hear the strengths in their opponents logic and the weaknesses in their own.

Let Senators and members of Congress sit with their constituents and listen. Then, having heard and pondered, let them come back to Washington and debate competing visions of America’s future — and how best to finance them.

Jeff Faux is president of the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.


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