Donella Meadows Archives

Too Many Shriveled Scrooges in the National Budget Process

By Donella Meadows

–May 2, 1996–

The Washington budget battle, which shut down the government twice and kept parts of it limping along without proper funding for seven months, has finally been resolved.  The fight was about balancing the budget sometime off in the future, or so they said.

But the year-2002 numbers they were arguing about were sheer guesses.  The loudest “budget cutters” doled out to the Pentagon billions of dollars that hadn’t even been requested.  They didn’t go after waste in the whole budget, only in the programs they don’t like.  They didn’t sort the budget into operating expenses and capital expenses, the way any prudent business or household does.  While crying “shortage,” they pushed for tax cuts, especially for corporations and high-income individuals.

Budget-balancing could not have been their motive.  The fight was over something far more profound, as is always the case with budget battles.  Ultimately what budgets are, in black and white, in numbers with dollar signs next to them, right out there where everyone can see, are our real values, our worldviews, our philosophies of life.  With budgets we put our money not where our mouths are, but where our hearts are.

So as far as I can understand the hearts of the farthest right Republicans in Congress, they beat for wealth defined in its strictest sense: money, Gross Domestic Product, stock market price, corporate bottom line.  To them it’s a crime to drain off that wealth to any purpose that doesn’t serve the accumulation of more wealth.  Pentagon spending is OK; it enriches defense contractors.  Corporate subsidies of all sorts are fine.  Payments to people, from welfare to Medicare, compute as a loss.

Regulations that keep trees standing when money could be made by cutting them down, or that protect wetlands that could be “developed,” or that decrease business profits for purposes like keeping workers safe or cleaning up pollution — well those regulations are abominations.  They take good dollar value and turn it into nothing.  They pour the hard-earned cash of honest citizens right down rat holes (or snail darter holes or spotted owl holes).

Another view, represented by some Democrats, including Bill Clinton sometimes, sees value in money wealth, sure, but also in some things that don’t have a market price — such as people, communities, nature, peace.

Understandably, logically, if you see through the worldview of the rightmost, you would want to slash teacher training, national service programs for young people, student loans, community police, Head Start, the United Nations, worker protection and environmental protection.  You would gleefully attach to the budget a bunch of “riders” aimed at turning environmental resources into cash.  Log the Tongass National Forest.  Stop the EPA from protecting wetlands.  Undo the California Desert Protection Act.  Don’t allow the government to list any more endangered species.

If you were a president greatly beholden to suppliers of cash, but bombarded by voters who care about values beyond money (and Clinton himself, I think, cares about more than money), you might screw up enough courage to veto that budget.  Thus the shutdowns, the heated rhetoric, and the long process of haggling.

When one side takes a narrow, absolute stand — wealth is money, period — and the other side is broad and mushy — well, yes, wealth is money, but wealth is other things that don’t necessarily have prices — compromise can move only one direction, toward the absolute.  The open question in the budget negotiation was how much non-monetary wealth would be lost.  The answer turned out to be: not as much as could have been, but still way too much.

Most of the president’s favorite social programs, including Americorps and education, were preserved.

Whole-scale logging of the Tongass was canceled, but the “salvage rider” that waives all environmental rules for logging in the national forests will continue through September.  (Watch for it to be extended, stuck onto some other bill that the president wants and needs to sign.)

Funding for the Mojave National Preserve has been restored.

The EPA is still allowed to protect wetlands.

The moratorium on endangered species listing has been lifted, though there is still far too little money to protect those species.  (The total annual budget for the Endangered Species Act is less than the cost of building one mile of federal highway.)  And one species has been shafted.  The Mt. Graham squirrel lives on a patch of about 100 acres of national forest on the tip of a high mountain jutting out of the Arizona desert.  Somehow, 3000 miles away in Washington, it was decided that the Endangered Species Act will be waived so the University of Arizona can build an observatory on just those 100 acres on just that mountain.

Where does that university get such power?  Or maybe a better question is: how could one small squirrel ever hope to have power at a bargaining table in Washington?

Or no, here’s the question I really want to ask.  Why do we hand so much power to the Scroogish worldview that measures wealth only in money?  How have we managed to arrange things so that a few prideful men, paid by us, meet in luxurious rooms, paid for by us, and fight for their own pitifully cramped values, using our values, our national wealth, our children, our communities, our forests, and the creatures of nature as bargaining chips?

Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996

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The mission of the Donella Meadows Project is to preserve Donella (Dana) H. Meadows’s legacy as an inspiring leader, scholar, writer, and teacher; to manage the intellectual property rights related to Dana’s published work; to provide and maintain a comprehensive and easily accessible archive of her work online, including articles, columns, and letters; to develop new resources and programs that apply her ideas to current issues and make them available to an ever-larger network of students, practitioners, and leaders in social change.  Read More

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