President Obama's unveiling of his first budget last week predictably unleashed applause and cheers from the left and howls and jeers from the right. This would have happened even without the stridently partisan response to the $787 billion stimulus package from weeks before. Of course, this budget should not have surprised anyone; it is consistent with his campaign pledges. Indeed, he believes his six-point election victory gave him a mandate to propose a budget intended to bend the 30-year trajectory increasing inequality between the rich and those who are not—the middle class and poor. (In 1980, the top 1 percent of income earners received 10 percent of all US income; now it is over 20 percent.)
Equality of need has been on the radar screen of the church ever since the Apostle Paul, cup-in-hand, took a collection for the suffering Jerusalem church. He told the Corinthians the purpose of his charitable enterprise was to ensure "equality" (2 Cor. 8.14). This exhortation made complete sense in light of the many hundreds of years of teaching on the meaning of biblical justice, a prophetic standard condemnatory of any substantial gap between rich and poor. There is no good reason we should relegate this standard exclusively to the church; equality of need is a condition of life that God wants all human beings to live in.
But is a $3.6 trillion budget that relies heavily on redistribution of wealth just? Should we join those who echoed candidate John McCain's fear that Obama would "spread the wealth around"?
I believe we have more to fear in the spending details of the massive budget—a budget that is over 17 percent above the previous year's budget, which is three times the typical annual increase. Congress will, as it typically does, shave the budget down, eliminating and under-funding new policies and reshaping policy reforms (like healthcare and energy). There is so much in the budget proposal (though we won't know precisely what until April) that the pervasive law of unintended consequences will certainly undercut unsullied policy success.
On the positive side, the legislative process will give Republicans some space to shape which budget ends up in the law books. For instance, Republicans will likely use the threat of the filibuster to scare out some of the less compelling expenditures, a good thing in the face of massive deficits and a yawning debt. I hope they will also offer good alternatives for consideration. I worry, however, that the majority-dominated process will move Republicans to veto with the filibuster rather than innovate and persuade. I worry most that the filibuster threat will keep our country from joining the majority among rich democracies in guaranteeing universal healthcare.
The accusation of class warfare is a red herring nonetheless. Yes, the top income earners officially "contribute" a disproportionate amount of the taxes already, though a recent study reveals that they disproportionately pay less than they are supposed to because they find many ways to hide their income. (http://www.forbes.com/2008/10/21/taxes-irs-wealth-biz-beltway-cz_jn_1021beltway.html) But they also receive a disproportionate amount of the budget's benefits. Furthermore, of those who receive much, much should be required. The proposed tax rates aren't even close to those that existed before President Reagan and the Congress began slashing them in the 1980s. Despite the dire claims of talk radio, it is doubtful Obama's tax rates for the wealthy will suppress "entrepreneurial energy" and the spirit of innovation. In addition, Obama's budget grants tax cuts and credits to the middle class—a much larger swath of entrepreneurs.
Still, this is a gargantuan budget with many potential pitfalls with which we should be concerned. Let us be vigilant and willing to contact our representatives as they hear from experts, debate, and vote.