Sea Change: Let's Call the Budget Proposal What It Is
Friday, March 17, 2017
"Brace for impact." - 'Sully' Sullenberger
Perusing the news or your Facebook feed can be perilous these days - especially if you are a news addict with a career tied to government. The perilous part for me is in the time and diversion - in addition to the ramifications of the news itself.
Yesterday the new administration released its first budget proposal for the US Government, so today my Facebook feed - and the news - is all a-flutter with talk of cuts to Sesame Street, Meals on Wheels, and NASA. I know that the media finds stuff that's easy to talk about in what are actually highly complicated stories, and so these are the bits that have made it into the sound bites this round.
There's a scene in Star Wars' The Empire Strikes Back where our hero is about to journey into a dark and formidable-looking cave, where we assume he will face all manner of demons and whatnot. Luke Skywalker says he's not scared. Yoda, Jedi master, says in perhaps his most ominous tone of the entire franchise, "You will be. You. Will. Be."
That scene comes to mind as the news - and my FB friends - comment on the more easily digestible sound bite pieces about this newly proposed budget.
My reaction to this is so visceral - both to the news itself, and to the discussion and coverage. I don't want to spread fear, here, but rather awareness. I am so deeply bothered that this is how we process deep information here in our society - in sound bites. With the tips of icebergs.
This budget - while hopefully only a first run - is a sea change. The ideology in the budget is in no way, shape, or form the government that we understand today. This proposal is fundamental, massive change. Some have already made comparisons to Reagan, but my suspicion (without deeply researching it - which would take days) is that this budget proposes deeper change than that. Also of note, we came out of the Reagan years with some pretty heavy deficit. "Security" is pricey.
I read this article because the headline was fascinating - especially as I am a moderate: "Why liberals should be happy about Trump’s appalling budget proposal." It's actually the best thing I've read so far on this, saying that "the Trump administration has started a refreshing debate on what government does, and what eviscerating it actually means for Americans’ lives" (emphasis added).
You know it's rough when Congressman Hal Rogers (R-KY) says the proposed cuts are "draconian, careless and counterproductive.” Hal Rogers knows government.
When we look at our own sphere of influence here, many of us are not in a position to do a ton about this right now. I can imagine there are a flurry of calls being made to congress people on this latest news - as is appropriate. I am represented by Senators Grassley and Ernst, who tend to the far right (although Grassley was more of a moderate in earlier eras) and now-infamous Congressman Steve King, who this week not only openly declared his racism (again), but doubled-down in defending it. Grassley has been around long enough that I would like to think he understands the sea change in the budget proposal here and may advocate for some moderation.
I note all of these things because these three characters are part of my own sphere of influence right now, and knowing where they stand helps me decide how to approach any action on my part regarding the budget.
What the Budget Means for Resilience & Security
My business is in countering fear, which is in large part centered on building resilience. Here is why I write about this budget proposal - taking my first public business leap into politics.
This proposed budget isn't about resilience. It is about "security," and I put that in quotes because it's the kind of security that is in many ways more like "security theater," (see Schneier, and The Atlantic). With this kind of Department of Defense money, though, it's also more solidly in Cold War budget territory.
Here is one thing we know about security versus resilience. First, we need a balance between the two for the most robust national security. I think both Presidents Bush and Obama struggled with this, and neither focused heavily on resilience as part of the way forward. I was part of a group of federal employees in the Obama Administration pushing for more of a resilience focus (big picture, and story with more detail), but as we are seeing in the public debate now over a few of the MANY programs and agencies on this administration's chopping block - resilience is harder to measure.
We build resilience when we invest in schools, kids, people, social capital, elderly folks, health care, reading, science, how to understand science, exploration (like, for example, of oceans and outer space), conservation of natural resources, and understanding the planet we live on. We build resilience when we invest in first responders - not just police - and when we spend real money on infrastructure. When we build community, have programs that encourage community policing, support communities through tons of programs all across the government, give people bridges (literally and figuratively), and help people eat. This stuff IS government.
Security only goes so far - and it's expensive. What really, really ticks me off about just the homeland security budget proposal alone is a shift away from intelligence- and risk-based programs and policies to those based on racism and fear.
When we shift money away from the US Coast Guard (USCG) and Transportation Security Administration (TSA), we are dishonoring 9/11 itself - and missing the entire point of why the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created in the first place. It was not created to put up a wall on the Mexican border, and to "ban Muslims." It was created to better address the real risks we face in the homeland.
The administration's proposed southern border "wall" and "Muslim ban" do not address the actual risk landscape, as documented by intelligence and manifested in the homeland security approach that has been developed to date. I go into more in this piece about the proposed border wall, but the bottom line is that I think we should make our budget and security decisions based on actual intelligence-, data-, and science-based risk. At first glance, this budget does not appear to reflect that approach as a decision-making strategy. A president at odds with his own massive Intelligence Community does not bode well for intelligence-based risk management to come, either.
We have intelligence now on known threats that need to be addressed. How much does this new direction take away from that? What is the impact to our national security as a result?
One of the goals of terrorism is in fact to bankrupt its targets by having them spend themselves into oblivion in response to the terror that has been created (see this piece for more on the whack-a-mole nature of security - we can't guarantee it). We already know that fear can drive irrational thinking and phenomenal spending; many of us were alive during the Cold War. We have an administration fanning the flames of fear, in directions not always supported by currently amassed intelligence.
While we do not all have access to current official intel, we do have access to The 9/11 Commission Report, and much publicly-released intel and threat analysis since that time. We can evaluate ourselves whether the proposed budget aligns with the current risk landscape. We can - and should - also question the specifics. Is a vast increase on what appears to be traditional defense spending appropriate when the modern threat landscape is so fragmented and asymmetrical?
We could use some rational thinking here about what is driving this shift in spending priorities. Whose interests are being served, at the deepest levels? Is this agenda the one that truly builds and optimizes American resilience and security?
What kind of security - including resilience - do we as Americans value? What makes America strong?
The article I mentioned above has a great bulleted list of "what government does, and what eviscerating it actually means for Americans’ lives," so I'll try not to repeat what's covered there.
Here are some other things to think about, in relation to this budget, and bearing in mind that part of the cuts call for not only elimination of entire agencies, but also massive cuts to federal employment. These things are the guts of what we know now as government.
POTENTIAL IMPACTS TO: port security, clean water, chemical plant security, AGRICULTURE, looking after veterans, funding native tribes, encouraging innovation and entrepreneurialism, facilitating small business development, research, technology evolution, infrastructure, developing sustainability, providing economic security, facilitating energy availability and stability, nuclear security, KNOWLEDGE, crime prevention, countering violent extremism, counterterrorism, countering violence against women, child abuse prevention, not having our rivers catch on fire, addressing human trafficking, cybersecurity, what will happen to the massive troves of DATA collected by the federal government in agencies that may no longer exist or be staffed, the history of SCIENCE, science funding, history, THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES, museums, medical research, public health, land management (the US Department of the Interior alone manages 1/5 of the US), forestry, National Parks, grants to firefighters, national public radio, arts, kids being able to eat, community grants, public housing, partnerships for critical infrastructure protection, first responder communication interoperability, disaster coordination (already not where it could be), USDA Extension services, the ocean, rivers, what is in the air you breathe, volcano monitoring, earthquake monitoring, tornado warnings, weather forecasting, cleaning up toxic waste, satellite services and capabilities, what is in the food you eat, staff to look after Social Security and federal employee retirement programs, capability to address public health emergencies like disease outbreaks/pandemics (separately also proposed to be shifted to the states with less national coordination), capability to address animal health outbreaks/pandemics (vital to the US economy), consumer protection, disaster mitigation (much more affordable than response) investment protection and safeguards (some of which have already been removed in other actions), and so on. All-caps shouting fully intended.
Look, I am a visionary. Negatively impacting any of the stuff in the paragraph above is not the world I've envisioned. It is sure as hell not the world I was planning on when I invested sixteen years of my life in the federal government. This kind of budget would essentially negate all of those years. And I'm just one person. Hundreds of thousands of folks have invested entire careers in military service, as federal employees, and as federal contractors. We are talking about institutional shifting here - in a major pivot away from years of investment and TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS ALREADY SPENT.
Let me tell you something else: I know first-hand (short story here, longer story here) what happens when the government stops caring for and tracking a national program. It just disappears. That's that. It ends up in a set of abandoned file cabinets to be discarded by the next tenant, in a shredder, or in somebody's garage attic, and the world goes on without it - even though the world isn't what it could have been had it held onto that program or agency.
Government does good things for us. As the article cited notes, "political scientists have long known that on the whole Americans are 'ideologically conservative' but 'operationally liberal.' In other words, they like the idea of 'small government' in the abstract, but they also like nearly everything government does."
We can better counter fear when we have more information. Hopefully this is helpful for any decisions you are making right about now.
The Long Haul
Reality is that a budget perhaps less extreme than the one currently proposed will eventually pass through Congress. As we may already know, sometimes an extreme that looks absolutely crazy helps move the center, and we end up closer to the extreme than many might have liked. I think that's quite possible here.
For now, we would be well served in the long term to start getting our heads around what this initial budget proposal means. It's much, much more than a loss of those things making headlines today. It's about a fundamental shift to life in the US. Very probably, at least some of it will be enacted. Hopefully this is a worst-case scenario. But we can't live our lives pretending it won't happen. I'd wager that many spent much of 2016 behaving as if Mr. Trump would not be elected; yet here we are.
This budget is now part of the risk landscape. We would be wise to put some thought into what that reality will look like, and get ready.
What can you do now? Well, take a look around. You can build resilience in your personal life, your family, and your community. We're going to need it. Holler if you need ideas on how to get started.
Sending resilience and strength to you and yours. We're in a world of change here. What we make of it and how we navigate it is up to us. We can figure it out, though - together. And so we will.
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POSTED: 2017-0317, 1700 hrs Central US Time Zone
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