Devil in the Details: Budget Deserves Thorough Read

When wading through the laborious arguments over different elements of a budget proposal for the American government, the finer details are often ignored.

Why talk about a boring change of the earned income tax credit from a refundable credit to a non-refundable one when you can talk about tanks and planes? Jettison idle chat about the long-term slope of the American healthcare cost curve in favor of boosting “freedom to choose your plan!”

While it might be a useful gimmick for administration officials and representatives in Congress to talk about vague generalities in hopes people won’t notice the smudged details, the fates of thousands of individuals rest in the specifics.

Take, for example, proposed cuts to the U.S. budget for overseas aid. While the Trump administration’s draconian and short-sighted proposal to cut the State Department’s budget by 31 percent is unlikely to pass, government funding through a continuing resolution passed through the Republican Congress could still shrink our aid budget.

Why does this matter? It’s just a few numbers on a piece of paper, and aid takes up less than 1 percent of the federal budget! Why get your feathers ruffled over so small a number?

Because, to put it bluntly, that decision means people will die. When powerful countries make decisions, numbers on paper have real impact on people’s lives. What constitutes a run-of-the-mill political argument to us could be an actual death panel for a family somewhere in Bangladesh.

If the government decides on deep cuts to the aid budget that we disagree with, we carry on with our lives; the people who were on the receiving end of that aid quite literally might not.

The damage isn’t always in the most obvious places. Take mosquito nets. Insecticide-treated bed nets, to use their proper name, are a cheap way of reducing child mortality in countries with high rates of insect-transmitted disease. The CDC estimates that use of ITNs lowers the death rate of children under 5 by 20 percent. That amounts to tens of thousands of children whose lives have been saved by something as simple and cheap as a piece of fabric with some bug spray on it.

Now consider a cut to the aid budget, just changing some numbers on a piece of paper. As a result, entire swaths of countryside that were expected to receive bed nets won’t get them because USAID can’t afford to buy them anymore.

The numbers on the page, the small details, the seemingly inconsequential digits on the 700th page of a budget might seem like something to be brushed aside, but they have real-world consequences.

If the administration and Republicans in Congress want to cut the amount of money the United States sends to development projects to help the world’s neediest, that’s their choice.

What they cannot do, however, is pretend that it is a minor alteration of arithmetic with few consequences.

To make that argument is cowardice. Politicians who will happily dock the money the U.S. spends on malaria nets get to go home and have dinner with their spouses and children.

That “minor alteration” in the budget, however, means that somewhere in Tanzania, a mother might watch her child slowly fade away in her arms as the malaria eats away at their blood cells.

Budgets are boring, but no responsible citizen can ever allow themselves to be lulled into the false belief that budget cuts are little more than arithmetic.

The difference between life and death can reside in the niceties of a stroke of a pen.

First posted as an opinion column in the Greenfield Daily Reporter. The original post can be found here

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