Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

What Price this Union?

James Skillen


February 10, 2003

In his State of the Union address on January 28, President Bush told us that American "resolve is firm and our union is strong." Moreover, he assured us that with a strengthened military and new Homeland Security Department, "we will answer every danger and every enemy that threatens the American people." The president also praised the "good work of compassion" that Americans are doing every day and said that "when appropriate, they deserve the assistance of the federal government."

What the president did not explain in his address was how we should count the cost of this union. He told us that "brave Americans" in the armed services will undertake costly "risks and suffering" if we go to war against Saddam Hussein. He also spoke of new expenditures he wants the federal government to make on our behalf to fight AIDS in Africa. But beyond that, his message emphasized no new cost or burden to us and called for no public sacrifice on our part to help keep the union strong during this "time of great consequence." To the contrary, the president wants to cut more of our burdensome taxes and to help ease the medical expenses of senior citizens.

How do we explain such an address at a time like this? Terrorism; economic stagnation; stock market fall; a costly war on the horizon; a growing medical crisis; new burdens on the poor—all of this and more and the president calls the nation simply keep on spending, volunteer, and not feel burdened?

The disconnect becomes worrisome when we look at the president's 2004 budget proposal sent to Congress on February 3. President Bush affirmed in the State of the Union address that "we will not pass along our problems to other Congresses, to other presidents and other generations." But in fact his budget projects the largest deficit in history—$307 billion—with the expectation that budget deficits over the next four years will total $1.08 trillion. And the cost of a war with Iraq is not even factored into these numbers. Each year's projected deficit also means more government borrowing in the future and higher interest payments on that expanding debt. One estimate is that $19 billion in interest on just the 2004 deficit will have to be included in each future budget. Compare that amount with the proposed $15 billion the president wants to spend over FIVE years to fight AIDS in Africa (Allan Sloan, "Deals," Washington Post, 2/4/03).

President Bush did not explain any of this on January 28. He told us that tax cuts will be good for the country because "the economy grows when Americans have more money to spend and invest; and the best and fairest way to make sure Americans have that money is not to tax it away in the first place." But the president still plans to collect $1.92 trillion from tax payers and intends to spend at least $2.23 trillion in 2004. Consequently, there will continue to be a huge financial cost to maintain our union, and quite obviously the president is willing to pass the deficits on to future Congresses and future generations.

Why did the president not explain these costs and ask us to give of ourselves—even sacrificially—for the sake of the union at this time of great historical consequence? The reason, I believe, is that he thinks of Americans primarily as private consumers, producers, and compassionate volunteers who must be kept happy economically so the economy's indirect benefit (through taxes) to the federal treasury will allow the government to bear the burdens of our security without burdening us. What is missing here is a recognition that Americans are also citizens who should be called to bear real public burdens for the nation's well-being. In sidestepping this truth on January 28 the president hid some of the real costs from us, costs that will eventually become apparent when we may be even less prepared or willing to bear them.

—James W. Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”