Better budget cutting

One of the most unnecessarily obvious things I’ve ever said here:

We’re in budget-cutting mode.

In Congress and in state legislatures and in local and county government and in nonprofit organizations.

And these exercises in austerity tend, for the most part, to follow the same script:

Cut, with only superficial attention to the acknowledged impact of the cuts, even when they are dire. Cuts, without considering other options to deal with deficits. Cuts, without much consideration of the long-term consequences.

Cuts, sometimes, just for cuts’ sake.

In Decisive, the discussion about how corporations should approach decision-making around budgets holds a lot of lessons for these budget-cutting frenzies, too.

And it makes me feel less alone, because I’ve been making some of these points for a long time.

  • We need to widen our options, including looking to other sources of revenue as a way out. As my students and I discuss every semester, and as families everywhere know from their own budgets (the only extent of the valid comparison between government budgets and household budgets, in my opinion): there are two ways to fill budget gaps, either by cutting expenses or by increasing income (or both).
  • We need to be strategic with cuts, where they must be made, instead of just making cuts across the board. All cuts are not created equal, and the ones that can be made with less infliction of pain are, in real ways, better than others.
  • And, the piece that I think is the most promising, applied to government budgets: we need to consider where we might cut even more deeply than we would otherwise need to in order to free up funds to invest in exciting new opportunities, including, of course, those that could generate better revenue potential (in government terms, economic growth).

What would that look like, in the context of government budget cutting, if we were thinking about growth and investment even alongside preparing for retrenchment and reduction? And what might be the economic impact, especially over the long haul, of that kind of foresight? And how could approaching budget cutting (and, for social workers, the critical task of staying at the table during the budget cutting negotiations, even when we loathe the process and the outcome) with this more intentional and strategic thinking?

It doesn’t mean that we’ll ever like the idea of retreating from our public commitments to the common welfare.

But maybe budget cutting can be better.

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