A tale of two budgets: Trump’s atrocious nightmare, and the amazing (if imaginary) progressive alternative

The "People's Budget" offers a vibrant progressive alternative to the vicious Trump proposal. Let's embrace it!

Published May 28, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Donald Trump; Paul Ryan   (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Getty/Olivier Douliery/Kevin Hagen/Montage by Salon)
Donald Trump; Paul Ryan (AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Getty/Olivier Douliery/Kevin Hagen/Montage by Salon)

Republicans nominally control the government -- but they're in big trouble, in legislative terms. Their only big accomplishment, getting the American Health Care Act through the House on a razor-thin majority, is already more of an albatross than anything else. No wonder, with 23 million people losing health insurance coverage over 10 years, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It’s been pronounced dead on arrival in the Senate, and now the same has happened with Trump’s budget, which cuts another $610 billion from Medicaid, on top of the $880 billion cut under the AHCA.

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Economist Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, calls the Trump budget “the most radical, Robin-Hood-in-reverse budget that any modern president has ever proposed.” Even House Republicans are wary of it. “The cuts are draconian," Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told the Washington Post.  "I've got one of the poorest districts in the country, with lots of Medicaid recipients as well as other programs." AP reporter Erica Werner offered this report of a recent conversation with Rep. Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican:

But just because neither the budget nor the AHCA will be enacted doesn’t mean there won’t be political consequences.

Just look at the special election in Montana—not through my eyes, but through the eyes of former GOP Rep. David Jolly of Florida. During a discussion of winning GOP candidate Greg Gianforte’s alleged attack on a Guardian reporter on "The Last Word," Jolly said:

When Ben Jacobs approached him with a question, the question was about the AHCA. And you had a Republican, an NRCC-picked candidate in a deeply red state that Trump won by 20, who had refused to take a position on the AHCA. Refused to. And his excuse was, he had to wait for the CBO report.

Well, guess what? That came out last night. And all of the sudden he had to answer to it, and he couldn't. What happened when Ben Jacobs said, “Tell us where you stand on the Republican health care bill”? He choked the reporter. That is the state of Republican politics right now on health care, and frankly on the 2018 midterms.

Odds might still be good that no reporter will get choked for asking about the Trump budget. But I wouldn’t bet on it. Trump’s budget is just that bad. It completely eliminates 66 programs, including a $500 million infrastructure program. “If Trump’s budget were enacted, within 10 years, Medicaid funding would be slashed by 47 percent,” Roosevelt Institute fellow Michael Linden wrote at The Hill. “A majority of Americans oppose these kinds of policies,” he added. “Seventy-four percent of voters oppose cuts to Medicaid, while 82 percent support raising taxes on the rich.”

Republicans are experts at obfuscation, but they can only keep it up for so long. When Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, appeared before a Senate committee hearing, Sen. Bernie Sanders drew attention to how drastically at odds the proposed budget is with Trump's posture of sticking up for the “forgotten” little guy.

Sanders: Why do you think the Walton Family needs a $52 billion tax break? 

Mulvaney: Because ordinary people are paying more.

Sanders: No. Ordinary people do not have a wealth of $128 billion. That’s not an ordinary person.

Mulvaney: The average increase, across this nation …

Sanders: You’re not answering the question. Answer the question. The wealthiest family in America gets a $52 billion tax break as a result of the repeal of the estate tax. Tell the American people why you think that’s good when you cut Medicaid and you cut programs for kids.

Conservatives basically believe that poor people get too much money (which is why they won’t work hard enough) and rich people don’t get enough (which is why they won’t work hard enough, either). It’s a crazy belief system, but the crazy only becomes apparent when you press them hard enough. Then the choking starts.   

But pointing out the cruelty and absurdity of GOP policies is not enough for Democrats to win. Just ask Rob Quist, the progressive Montana candidate who lost to Gianforte by more than 6 points.

Fortunately, Democrats do have an answer for that. They just don’t talk about it nearly enough. That answer can be found in “The People’s Budget: A Roadmap for the Resistance," which was released in early May by the Congressional Progressive Caucus — which Sanders co-founded — and has been endorsed by a broad coalition of 60 organizations spanning the so-called Clinton-Sanders divide, from Planned Parenthood and NARAL to AFSCME and Change to Win to the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth to the African American Health Alliance and the Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities Coalition to VoteVets, Just Foreign Policy, Daily Kos and beyond.

Unlike Trump’s budget, the People’s Budget is coherently grounded economically, as laid out by the Economic Policy Institute’s budget analysis (more on that below). But it’s not just the numbers that matter in politics. Having a coherent story to tell matters even more — as conservatives and Republicans have realized for generations. And here, there’s another hidden strength that’s been forgotten: the moral narrative that brought America through its darkest hours, from the Great Depression through World War II, and helped lay the foundations for the modern middle class that now finds itself in such peril.

Budgets are moral documents — a fact reflected by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said in 1967, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military  defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” President Dwight Eisenhower (a Republican, lest we forget) made much the same point 14 years earlier in his “Chance for Peace” speech: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

The People’s Budget is a vivid expression of that consciousness, laying out what it proposes in terms of the vision of America that it strives to realize and including some priorities, such as “Justice and Fair Elections,” that are rarely understood as budgetary concerns. As explained in its executive summary, the People’s Budget “provides a practical, progressive vision for our country by investing in 21st century infrastructure and jobs, tackling inequality, making corporations pay their fair share, and strengthening essential public programs. The People’s Budget will put millions of Americans back to work and will guarantee a strong economy for generations to come.”

In sharp contrast to Trump’s still nebulous tax-cut-centered infrastructure schemes, the People’s Budget “invests $2 trillion in order to transform our fossil-fuel energy system, overburdened mass transit, deteriorating schools, lead-contaminated water systems, and crumbling roads and bridges. Through local hiring and livable wages, our infrastructure plan creates millions of dignified jobs for women and men of all backgrounds in both urban and rural America.”

It goes on to say, “In order to make these bold, necessary investments in working families, we must rewrite the rules of a rigged economy that favors billionaires and big corporations. Our budget closes tax loopholes that corporations use to ship jobs overseas, and stops CEOs from receiving millions in tax-free bonuses. Our budget tackles inequality through fair tax rates for all Americans, leveling the playing field for working people.”

More than a decade before Eisenhower’s “Chance for Peace” speech, Franklin D. Roosevelt gave his legendary “Four Freedoms” speech, which was actually his 1941 State of the Union address. In it he said:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want, which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear, which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor -- anywhere in the world.

It should be clear that Roosevelt’s vision was vividly alive in shaping Eisenhower’s thoughts when he wrote and delivered his “Chance for Peace” speech. It was alive as well with Lyndon B. Johnson, when he created the Great Society. But America has lost its way since then, with Nixon, Reagan, Bush and now Trump, the lowest and least of them all.

There is a clear echo of that resonant 20th-century moral vision to be heard in the People’s Budget:

Quality health care, child care, schools and retirement for everyone: these are the pillars of a democratic society. And yet in the world’s richest country, these essentials are painfully out of reach for tens of millions of our fellow Americans. The People’s Budget funds universal child care, increases access to health care, strengthens public schools and universities, provides for humane immigration reform, and expands Social Security. The People’s Budget also lowers the price of prescription drugs so that families don’t have to choose between paying for medicines or their groceries. The People’s Budget ensures that Veterans Affairs will not be privatized and that veterans receive the quality care and robust benefits they were promised for their service to the country.

That all sounds good, you may say, but how in hell do we pay for it? Does it all add up? Here is the gist of the Economic Policy Institute's analysis:

The budget was developed from the evidence-based conclusion that the present economic challenge of joblessness results from a continuing shortfall of aggregate demand — the result of the Great Recession and its aftermath — and that the depressed state of economic activity is largely responsible for elevated budget deficits and the recent rise in public debt.

In short, we’re in our current mess because government didn’t spend enough to compensate for lost private sector demand during the Great Recession — a consequence of believing the first of the three big lies I wrote about last week, the notion that “the debt is a huge problem and should form a framework for budgetary decision-making.” Government has to spend enough to restore economic health before debt reduction can be safely accomplished. EPI continues, with a more detailed explanation:

Further, much recent research indicates that aggregate demand is likely to remain depressed in coming years without a fiscal boost (this hypothesis about chronic ongoing demand shortages is often referred to as “secular stagnation”). Labor market slack resulting from this continuing demand shortfall is in turn exacerbating the decade-long trend of falling working-age household income and the almost four-decades-long trend of markedly increasing income inequality.

A failure to heed this lesson so far, EPI argues, is largely responsible for our current predicament:

Moreover, since late 2011, contractionary fiscal policy (reduced government spending) has greatly contributed to the continuing slack in the labor market and stagnant earnings for most workers. The slack in the labor market can still be seen through the low labor-force participation rate, high labor-underutilization rate, and the low employment-to-population ratio of prime-age workers (ages 25–54). Expansionary fiscal policy can help ensure a prompt and durable return to a full-employment economy, which will in turn spur rising wages.

Understanding what’s actually happening in the economy — instead of relying on conservative fairy-tale economics — allows us to recognize what the biggest problems we face actually are, and empowers us to take appropriate action:

Accelerating and sustaining economic growth, promoting economic opportunity, and pushing back against the sharp rise in income inequality remain the most pressing economic challenges confronting policymakers. ...

The People’s Budget invests heavily in front-loaded job-creation measures aimed not only at putting people back to work, but also at addressing the deficit in physical infrastructure and human capital investments.

This represents a dramatically different view of the economy from what we usually get in mainstream politics, a view derived from seeing it as an integrated, dynamic whole, not as the extension of a private morality play in which wealthy white men are the morally upstanding heroes:

In stark contrast to the current austerity trajectory for fiscal policy, The People’s Budget substantially increases near-term budget deficits to finance a targeted stimulus program that would include aid to state and local governments, targeted tax credits, and public works programs.

These types of investments would yield enormous returns — particularly by reducing the long-run economic scarring caused by the underuse of productive resources — and raise national income and living standards. The People’s Budget also seeks to accelerate productivity growth through sustained public investment — in part through $2.0 trillion of much-needed infrastructure investments through 2027 and in part through returning NDD spending to historical levels of 3.5 percent of GDP by 2022 and keeping it there.

There are detailed economic arguments to be made in support of everything in the People’s Budget. But first and foremost, in order to get those arguments started, we need to recover the moral vision that King, Eisenhower and FDR all shared.

To do that, Democrats and progressives will need to get beyond the kinds of conflicts that have been dividing them. The broad organizational support for the People’s Budget clearly shows that there’s a sound basis for doing this. Working through differences in the budgeting process can actually help us to clarify our own specific priorities, as well as what all progressives hold in common, and how the two will fit together in the long run. For that reason alone, the People's Budget deserves careful study as well as support. It could become the blueprint for progressives to regain power in 2018, 2020 and beyond — but only if we’re wise enough to seize the opportunity it represents.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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