What happened to "We the people?" One would think, from the red-state rotundas of Wisconsin and Indiana to the blue governorships of New York and California, that Lincoln had declared at Gettysburg the binding principle of government of the budget, for the budget and by the budget.
Don't get me wrong. This old new lefty focuses a sharp eye on ballot measures with price tags, especially related to pensions and benefits for public employees. But then again, I've had to call the fire department in the past, and my daughter did go to public schools here in San Francisco.
As for my grown-up daughter, I tried to get across to her that money isn't everything; it's a tool and a resource, the use of which should be guided by what's important in life. It's one element, but not the principal one. That comes in finding and working toward goals, goals motivated by dreams, sustainable ones. That's where practical things like money come, but driven by what one wants and needs for a good and balanced life.
So what happened to America's dreams for a good and balanced life? How is it that every level of government now routinely puts a price -- in the form of line items -- on life?
You don't need to remind me that the tussle between guns-and-butter is the classic balancing act of public spending and taxation. But how is it that "bipartisanship" has come to pit those on both sides of the political aisle against pretty much the rest of us? How did the current debates reflect a recession of conscience, a lapse in loyal opposition that has placed every aspect of American life proudly on the budgetary table, as if the people involved are incidental to the dream that has sustained America?
From Gov. Moonbeam to Gov. Sunset
On Presidents Day, I was shoveling through a Minnesota-sized snowdrift of paper that mounded up on my kitchen table. It's the weekly recycling chore that would take much less time were it not for the discoveries, the ones only mildly reminiscent of my Upper Midwestern youth in the dead of winter. (Hence, my last four decades in California.) I can still feel that cringe I'd get from that incessant scrape of shovel along concrete. And now and then a forgotten toy or missing pen would plop out as I turned the snow shovel on to a sooty drift.
What plopped out of my paper drift this week was my misplaced printout of the governor's proposed budget. Paging through its spare prose I could see Medicaid doctor's visits cut by $195.5 million next year, another $176.6 million trimmed by eliminating adult day heath programs for impoverished seniors and people with disabilities, jumps in premiums and copays for very poor families with children, and the axing -- excuse me, the "savings" -- from the elimination of or drastic reductions in programs that often enable families to care for their youngest or oldest members.
This was not a document of budget-frenzied Republican freshmen in Congress or of red-state schizophrenia, as exhibited by Wisconsin's Gov. Scott Walker. What I underlined and circled was the proposed budget of California Gov. Jerry Brown. It might just as well have been PDF ready from New York's Gov. Andrew Cuomo or any partisan political figure from Left Coast to Right.
News pages run daily with the dismal prospects of immanent budgetary collapse and pledges of sharing the "pain" and "tough choices," favorite refrains of California's one-time Gov. Moonbeam transmuted into today's Gov. Sunset.
The harangues and counter-railing over economic imperatives and fiscal follies goes on daily. But what struck me as I paged through Gov. Brown's leadership-devoid budget plan was that all of the arguments beg the red-blooded American question: Where are we the people in these debates?
How did the civil society Americans have built since the shameful days of poorhouses and debtor's prisons come to a point at which government balance sheets have so easily placed a price on human lives declared as "savings" for our grandchildren's future?
Make no mistake about it: Budget cuts -- such as Arizona's savings by denying impoverished patients certain organ transplants or many states' limiting of the number of prescription drugs one can fill per month -- will result in deep distress or death for many people.
Why must non-budget items be consigned to sitting on our thumbs, while our health, housing, environment, education, our very future, are held hostage to narrowly drawn line items on federal, state and local balance sheets. Never mind that many actual or proposed cuts will result in greater costs through such likely developments as accelerated emergency-room visits or premature institutionalization.
Let Your People In
Politicians at each governmental level get away daily with declaring dire consequences for the American way of life, but never seem to connect the dots between them (except for the all-important federal matching funds for this or that program)? The sheer isolation of government budgets from one level to the next -- and then to genuine human needs, potential and aspirations, even from the human capital required for maximizing America's place in the global economy -- should be maddening enough for people to encircle every capitol rotunda shouting, "Let your people in."
And letting the people in is exactly what I have in mind. Accuse me of snow-blind naivety, if you like. But why not compel our leaders to file every budget with a human impact report? Americans are well aware of the need for environmental impact reports enabling them to assess or at least debate about the effects of building projects. Only a week or so ago, I heard a business fellow on NPR's "Marketplace" propose a Regulatory Impact Report that would reveal what bureaucratic roadblocks capital chaps like himself might run up against when they try to stoke our economic engines.
So, what about "we, the people?" My simple proposal is to impose on our political process a bit of policy analysis -- to go with standard budget analysis -- that I call the Human Impact Report.
WHY: Our budget-obsessed economy and political culture insist on down-to-the-penny numbers that always prove inaccurate or questionable in the long run, and on budgetary twists that now abjure revenue as politically unfeasible, as in, "No new taxes."
WHAT: Officials proposing changes in government programs or regulations should have to include a comprehensive Human Impact Report showing exactly who would be affected, how and at what potential other cost. (Examples might be, emergency room visits stemming from ill-considered cuts to preventive measures; estimated losses in future tax revenue due to escalating raises in college tuition.)
Congress already asks for a budgetary impact report called "CBO scoring," referring to analysis by the Congressional Budget Office to show whether and how much any given proposal will cost in tax dollars. If a bill would cost anything at all, the sponsors must show an "offset," which is Washington-speak for demonstrating where else money can be found to pay for the program through savings or cuts.
The Great God Budget and the Satanic Tax Increase are the principal manifestation of American short-termism: sound bites instead of debates, campaign seasons instead of leadership, "bottom lines" falsely calibrated by quarterly business cycles, gains in year-to-year test-scores as a proxy for effective and appropriate education, attacks on immigrants when we need them to keep our culture and economy vibrant and -- yes -- competitive.
Good measurements are important, but as guidelines and indicators. Yet, what our shortsighted system has done is replace meaning with metrics -- often not even very good ones.
WE PEOPLE: If debt drives our social and political culture more obsessively into the costs of "freedom" (the American carrot) and "national security" (the fear-monger's stick), then why don't we have a measure required for genuine citizen security? Increase the war budget (now a separate appropriation from the Pentagon) only after the public can see - and debate about - the Human Impact Score: How many people will die, families will be affected by deployments, and so on. Presidents may well invade or deceive, as they always have, but let the human price hang openly for all to see.
Governments, of course, will balk at this, but organizations have been effective in getting such things started. For instance, the Annie E. Casey Foundation releases an annual Kids Count report card on things like the health, education and poverty among children. Another version is the Nuclear Clock put out for years by, I believe, SANE.
I believe that media organizations or advocacy groups could work with respected academics to come up with a kind of template many could adapt to measure the impact of cuts -- or leave big, red question marks exposing the current knowledge deficit exposed by a given proposal, say, to cut Social Security benefits or children's health programs.
WHO WOULD USE THESE: Besides legislative bodies, everyone, across the political spectrum would try spinning their Human Impact Reports. That would be just fine and democratic. The point is to get people thinking in up-close-and-personal terms, not merely default to human effects as a secondary factor in dollar calculations.