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Wednesday, December 4,2013

Reframing government budgets

by Terry Link
There has been an increase of late in letters to our local paper calling for a national balanced budget amendment. The fact that they have appeared in clusters suggest a campaign by some entity. For the most part, these letters express the sentiment that not only is government spending at the root of all of our problems, but that government itself is the problem. So the inferred hope of the authors is that by shrinking spending, we can shrink government. I infer this because none of the letters suggest raising revenue to balance budgets.

Now I suspect that some of the letter writers actually believe this simplistic myth — that if government balanced its budget all would be right in the world. But the evidence is startlingly in contrast to that myth. Most states and many communities have balanced budgets, and many of them are communities that are failing on many levels — economically, socially and environmentally. Others like Detroit are not working from a balanced budget because revenues are far below what even the minimum required services for a livable city require. Does one really think that cutting expenditures further in Detroit, Flint, Battle Creek or Pontiac will make those communities stronger?

But let me now defend the balanced budget idea from a different and deeper perspective. Almost universally, talk of balanced budgets comes from those who want to shrink government’s role or at least think that a budget for a locality, state or nation is like a personal checkbook, where we spend only what we have on account. Of course, these same folks almost universally use credit cards, these days more than they use checkbooks, but that analogy doesn’t support their notion of austerity for government. So the typical narrow idea of balanced budgets can be framed in different ways.

So here’s a new, and I would argue a more sustainable way, to frame this issue since we humans require oxygen, water and food to exist. And since we receive these gifts from the unique attributes of this planet (at least in this solar system), it would seem to follow that accounting for the health of those necessary attributes and ecologies for life would be a fundamental element of any budget we might be trying to balance. What science continues to uncover is the evidence that we have spent the interest of billions of years of evolution of the biological health of this living system and we are now spending down the capital itself. Of course, this robs the future of opportunities that we’re fortunate to have enjoyed. Through our profligate consumption we have become spendthrifts, especially those in the so-called developed world.

The U.S., with 4 percent of the global population, uses more than 20 percent of its energy, and has for many years. So we need to get that spending under control first.

Secondly, we need to account for the social well-being and harms that exist.

Prioritizing the economy over the social and environmental health of the planet is putting the cart before the horse. The economy is a human tool created to provide for social well-being, not the other way around. A good metaphor is that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment and society, although our economic gospel inverts that reality. The increasing inequality in opportunity, power, and well-being both domestically and globally are clear signals that the economic system has been overdrawn and moving towards bankruptcy.

So if we are really concerned about balancing budgets, then the revenue and expenditures must include the ecological systems and the social systems. To continue to leave out those line items would be like taking the Defense Department expenditures out of the budget sheets as if they didn’t exist, even while we fight wars, maintain military bases, run surveillance programs, etc. The budget might look like it was balanced on paper, but we know in reality it wouldn’t be. And the future debt payments for this absurd accounting would be paid by our children and grandchildren.

I know this analysis is incomplete and there is much more nuance than can be accommodated in a short piece like this. But the main point is if the frame we use to address the challenge is wrong, the chance that the solutions we create will bring us to a suitable outcome are doubtful at best. We must face the fact: The natural world must be protected.

The orientation away from the singular pursuit of private profit over community and planetary well-being must be reined in. There is no silver bullet. Communities must determine their own course without harming the prospects for their neighbors, and in fact collaborate with their neighbors near and far. For ultimately there is only one real budget and one real future we share.

Consultant Terry Link was the founding director of MSU’s Office of Campus Sustainability and is a senior fellow with the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development. He can be reached at link@lansingcitypulse.com.

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