Budget Cutting, Politics and Visions of the Future

Following the mid-term elections in November we knew the future plans -- lower taxes, limited government -- of newly elected Republicans in Congress and in various State Houses. We were told again and again that this formula would unleash the can-do spirit of American entrepreneurs that would, in turn bring an end to the Great Recession and prompt a new era of prosperity. They celebrated their victories and talked of the "mandate" that the voters had given them. Several months later, it is becoming increasing clear what "lower taxes and limited government" will mean for the future of our society and the quality of our lives.

Study of the budget proposals put forward by Republicans in Congress as well as Republican Governors in states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania gives us a rather bleak vision of the future of social life in America. We are told that we have to live within our means. We are told that public employees -- civil servants, teachers, and sanitation workers -- are a primary the cause of deficits in state budgets. The public employees, we are told, have cushy jobs with bloated salaries and overly generous benefits. We are told public education, a great source of scientific and economic innovation, must be cut -- and cut severely. None of these claims are, in fact, true. But that doesn't seem to matter. In Pennsylvania, the state where I work as a professor at a public university, newly elected Republican Governor Tom Corbett, a former prosecutor and State Attorney General, who seems to know little about education or, for that matter, economics, wants to chop the state allocation for higher education by more than 50 percent. What does this mean? It means that at the University of Pittsburgh, according to Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, there would be an $80 million reduction in the general education funds used to support the training of the next generation of Pennsylvanians. It would also result in the complete elimination of roughly $17 million that funds programs in the health sciences. This cut would be a severe blow to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which is one of America's leading centers of innovation in the health sciences.

If that isn't sobering enough, the impact of Governor Corbett's short-sighted cuts to Pennsylvania's higher education would have a catastrophic impact on the Pennsylvania State University, Temple University, Lincoln University as well as the 14 campuses that comprise Pennsylvania's system of state universities. Because of a longstanding allocation agreement made with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the state and state-related universities have provided world-class education at a relatively reasonable cost for the children of working families in the Keystone State. Similar kinds of cuts to public higher education are planned in many other states.

When we get to the budget proposals that Congressional Republicans have offered, we get an equally bleak picture. They want to cut student loans, the lifeline for millions of contemporary college students who come from families of modest means. To reach their goal of a lower taxes and limited government, the Republican budget cutters also want to reduce funding for climate science, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Public Radio (NPR), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Is this political madness? Why would they sacrifice our economic and social future in the name of lower taxes and limited government?

It is indeed difficult to interpret the ramblings of budget-cutters who appear to live in an alternate universe of meaning in which history is either misread or unknown, in which budget calculations are suspect, in which tax increases are equated with original sin, in which corporations are infallible, in which the mysterious forces of "the market" have taken on God-like status. Trying to understand the insufferably inarticulate talk of someone like Sarah Palin who recently suggested that tax dollars should not support the "frivolous" activities of NEH, is perhaps less important than attempting to consider how the right-wing vision of America, which is reflected in these budget proposals, will alter the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Thinking about the future quality of our social life is a profoundly anthropological question. How might this pivotal moment in our political history change our society? What will happen to us if our system of public education is decimated? In the future what will our children and grandchildren think about today's public officials who wanted to end government support for the "biased" public media, the "trivial" arts, and the "frivolous" humanities while giving hand-outs to their "far-sighted" corporate cronies?

What many public officials like Sarah Palin, Tom Corbett, Scott Walker and John Kasich fail to understand when they cobble together budget proposals or speak irresponsibly about climate science, the arts and the humanities, is that their seemingly misguided plans will not only increase an already growing income disparity in America, but will also reduce the future quality of life for our children and grandchildren. In elementary and secondary schools, many, if not most of our kids won't be able to participate in arts or music programs. In college qualified kids may be unable to attend medical school or law school. If our kids get sick, they may not qualify for life saving medical treatment in a medical system that, because of ongoing budget cuts, will lag behind health care in nations that invest more in basic research and technology. These kind of cuts lead to the kind mean-spiritedness witnessed last year in rural Tennessee when a family watched their house burn down because the local fire department refused their calls for assistance: they had forgotten or were able to pay the local fee and were "not on the list." Such are the amoral realities of lower taxes and limited government.

The legislative debates on these ill-advised budget proposals are now underway. It goes without saying that the results of these deliberations will have far-reaching social ramifications. What kind of society do you want your children and grandchildren to live in?