The Common Good

Three Steps Toward a Balanced Budget

There has been a lot of talk about deficits lately. This is for good reasons. Our personal and national relationship to debt is indeed a moral issue. Leaving our children to pay the bills for excessive spending cannot be justified. But, if a budget really is a moral document, how we reduce the deficit is also a moral issue. Our budget should not be balanced on the backs of the poor. Cuts should not come from the services and programs that people rely on now more than ever. The reality is that we have a lot of wasteful spending in our federal budget, but most of it does not come from things that help the most vulnerable people in our society. I still believe that targeted investment can help spur job growth and lessen the length of our downturn, but at the same time, it is necessary to examine the places we can cut spending. The good news is that in three easy steps, we can head much closer to a balanced budget and quickly reduce the deficit to a more sustainable level. There is an added bonus: We can also significantly reduce extreme poverty.

So here are the three steps:

First, it's time to cut needless military spending. The Pentagon currently takes up more than half of our country's discretionary spending. This does not include the billions spent on other military related expenditures or most of our spending on homeland security. Defense Secretary Gates has identified $100 billion in cuts, and the recent report from the co-chairs of the deficit commission shows that they were also able to come up with $100 billion in savings. If by 2013 you reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq to 30,000, by 2015 another $86 billion could be saved from the deficit. Here is more good news: Those are the small proposals for where the military budget could be cut. Reps. Barney Frank and Ron Paul came up with a plan that they say would leave our country just as safe but save us $960 billion by 2020! Even with these cuts, we would still be by far the world's most dominant military. When you list the countries in the world by order of their military expenditures, the United States tops the list and spends more than the next 13 countries combined.

Second, return tax rates for the wealthy back to Clinton-era levels of 39.6 percent from the Bush top level of 35 percent. Under Dwight D. Eisenhower, the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent -- that was clearly too high. From JFK until Reagan it was 70 percent and that was still too high. But, when Warren Buffet declares it wrong that his secretary pays a larger portion of her income in taxes than he does as a multi- billionaire, our tax system is now clearly imbalanced. There are now more millionaires living in New York City than there were in 2007 before the crash. Maybe they could pitch in.

Third, eliminate farm subsidies. These subsidies manipulate market prices so that farmers in developing countries often can't sell their goods in their own country, let alone compete in a global market. These subsidies keep some of the world's poorest people in poverty, while primarily enriching large agribusinesses in our own country. It's time to do the right thing and get rid of them. Simply eliminating these subsidies would save taxpayers the equivalent of getting rid of every last earmark from our budget.

This past Sunday, the New York Times put a "budget puzzle" up on their website. It lets you make some decisions on how you would balance the budget. There are many proposals out there that aren't included in the exercise, and it's not a perfect representation of the choices that need to be made, but it is a useful tool for figuring out our priorities. I believe that a budget is a moral document, and based on the values I hold from scripture, the decisions we need to make are easy. When I checked off the list with these priorities, I solved the puzzle. So, do the New York Times budget puzzle or create other tools to enable you, your friends, your small group, or your church to take a long hard look at the moral choices involved in deficit reduction. Let's create more ideas that would help us all be more responsible with our debt. Think about your values and priorities, and then try it yourself.

portrait-jim-wallisJim Wallis is the author of Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street -- A Moral Compass for the New Economy, and CEO of Sojourners. He blogs at www.godspolitics.com. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.


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