by Paul Shannon
At the end of a year we will never forget, it is time to take a hard look at the budget priorities we will fund with the taxes we pay on May 17 (the IRS changed the date this year). The Pandemic is acting like a searchlight, shining a light on matters of life and death that we must address with our federal budgets. It has shown us that our past budget priorities were completely out of whack with our real needs. While we spent trillions chasing demons abroad and “bad hombres” at our borders, a tiny virus was able to bring us to our knees in a way no “enemy” ever could. Our missiles could not shoot it down. Our billion-dollar battleships could not sink it. Our most sophisticated jets could not bomb it away.
The pandemic’s searchlight certainly helps us see some things about ourselves of which we can be proud: the courage of our health care workers – from the most skilled doctors and nurses to those who swept the hospital floors – who go to battle against the virus every day, many losing their lives to keep us safe. The generosity of many of our compatriots who rose to the occasion to feed the growing armies of the hungry jobless. The nobility of so many frontline workers – many of them undocumented immigrants — who stocked our grocery shelves, and drove the ambulances, and harvested or delivered our food so the rest of us could shelter in place and work at home.
But that searchlight also brings the light of day to some realities about our country that we must face if we are to be a fair society that will be able to avoid future disasters, whether new pandemics, or climate catastrophe or the growing danger of nuclear war.
The recently passed American Rescue Plan will send critical relief to millions of struggling workers and families and small businesses, to schools, to state and local government social services, and to those facing homelessness and hunger. But now the work begins for the long haul as Congress starts to craft its annual budgets paid for by those taxes due today.
To be adequate to the task, our federal budget must center the voices, experiences and needs of everyone.
- It must confront the curse of growing inequality that has been laid bare before us in the pandemic. This underlying racial and social inequality determines which groups are being hit hardest by the virus, by hunger, by home insecurity, by educational disruption. Basically, who lives and who dies. And it determines which groups not only survive quite well, but actually increase their wealth by leaps and bounds.
- It must reflect the voices or our young people screaming to us about the danger of climate crisis, a catastrophe that will make this pandemic seem small indeed
- And it must incorporate the voices crying in the wilderness about the dangers of nuclear weapons, even a small exchange of which will doom most of humanity from war deaths and from the ensuing nuclear winter. A significant exchange terminates humanity.
This is a time to develop support for budget priorities built on those lessons we have learned over the past year.
Clearly, we must fund and build a competent and coordinated public health system that is ready and able to confront new health threats effectively. We must never again run around like chickens with our heads cut off trying to figure out which end is up and where we can find masks, PPE and ventilators, how to set up testing, what protective measures were needed, and how to schedule vaccinations. It is absurd that what we spend on protecting ourselves from infectious diseases is less than 3/10 of one percent of what we spend on war and preparation for war.
Beyond investments in public health, the Poor People’s Moral Budget advocated by a large and growing multi-racial movement throughout the country provides us with a guide to new budget priorities based on reality and our common humanity:
- Taking on social inequality and poverty by putting dollars into the pockets of those who need and deserve it most. How? Guaranteed employment at good wages. Enforcing a $15 an hour minimum wage through tax policies on profitable companies. Restoring an adequate safety net for hard times.
- Investments in our planet through a clean energy transition and by emphasizing biodiversity. $200 billion a year in energy efficiency and a renewable energy transition would prevent the worst impacts of climate change and create 2.7 million net new jobs. Ecological restoration would remove vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere and enhance the health and the quality of life of us all.
- Investments in our lives and our health. Expansion of Medicaid so all of us have access to health care. Creation of an efficient system of Medicare for all that will save billions in health care costs by eliminating duplication and bloated costs. An additional $31 billion in the Indian Health Service would begin to redress the 5 ½ year lower life expectancy among Native Americans.
- Investments in our young people and teachers. A $25 billion investment in K-12 schools to boost academic performance, especially among the millions of kids who fell behind this year. $100 billion to provide universal early learning and childcare support for all. Free public college at a cost of $70 billion a year.
- Investments in Democracy and Equal Protection under the law. For minimal funding we can safely expand voting. Rather than putting new obstacles to voting for people of color and low-income Americans, our budget must fund measures that guarantee and celebrate everyone’s right to vote.
Comprehensive immigration reform. One proposal in Congress would cost $26 billion per year – but would generate $46 billion per year from the resulting income and payroll taxes.
But where could all that money come from to pay for these life-enhancing programs? The Poor People’s Moral Budget has a simple answer:
- Investments in an equitable economy. Fair taxes on the wealthy, corporations and hedge funds could generate well over $800 billion a year to help meet urgent social and environmental needs. During this year of pandemic hardship, the combined wealth of just 647 billionaires increased by $960 billion. The wealth of many mere millionaires increased by hundreds of billions more. Some companies like Amazon, Walmart and Target saw their profits explode. These are the same people and companies who benefited so much from the huge tax cuts in budgets over the past few years. A rational tax policy is long overdue.
- And then there’s the Pentagon budget that gets over 55% of all money in the discretionary budget. Our military budget is over $700 billion, well over twice the combined war budgets of China and Russia.
- Does it make sense that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) gets $6.6 billion a year and the Pentagon gets $732 billion?
- Does it make sense that we have spent $5.4 trillion just on our never ending wars when you include the medical costs for post-9/11veterans, counter-terrorism Homeland Security spending and the interest costs of borrowing the money for those wars in the first place? $5.4 trillion is about the same amount we have spent in all 3 waves of pandemic relief over the past year, including the $1.9 trillion in the latest massive package.
And that $5.4 trillion does not include the other $9.2 trillion we have spent just on direct outlays in military budgets over the past 20 years, forget about debt payments and care for veterans!
- Does it make sense to spend another $1 trillion to $2 trillion over coming decades just on new and updated nuclear weapons that increase the likelihood of nuclear war through accident or miscalculation?
Clearly here in the Pentagon budget is a source of money that can be much better used to defend our country from the very real threats – and to seize the wonderful opportunities for a safe and just society — that are on the horizon.
Paul Shannon is a board member of Massachusetts Peace Action and is an organizer for Tax Day 2021.