BUDGET DEFICIT DEBATE: 2 Views of American Values & American Spending

Students read and discuss two very different views on the role of government and individuals; work in groups to complete a cut-and-paste activity of those views; and participate in an Opinion Continuum activity to consider and discuss their own views.

To the teacher:

This lesson grows out of the ongoing debate in Washington about how to address the budget deficit. Students may have heard their representatives arguing about tax hikes, spending cuts, Social Security, and healthcare. (For a lesson that has students evaluating budgets and making decisions about funding, see Budget Debate.)
In this lesson, students get behind the specifics of the debate and look at the different beliefs that underlie them. They do this by analyzing two texts: a speech by President Obama and a blog posting by conservative columnist James Nava. Obama's speech articulates a vision of the United States that is based on people's shared responsibility for each other. In Obama's view, government is a gathering of citizens that can accomplish things that individuals can't accomplish alone. In contrast, Nava's vision of the United States emphasizes individual responsibility. In Nava's view, government is an intrusive outsider against which citizens must defend themselves. This lesson invites students to consider these competing views, which lead to very different ideas about how to address the deficit.
Each student reading is followed by discussion questions. After reading and discussing the articles, students work in groups to complete a cut-and-paste activity in which they match specific statements to the person most likely to have made those statements. Finally, students participate in an Opinion Continuum activity in which they consider and discuss their own vision of America.
The idea for this lesson came from an article by the linguist George Lakoff: What Conservatives Really Want.
  • To consider two conflicting ways of understanding American democracy
  • To understand how each view shapes a strategy for addressing the budget deficit
  • To consider students' own views on this issue

Student Reading 1: 

The Country We Believe In

President Barack Obama 
April 13, 2011
...This debate over budgets and deficits is about more than just numbers on a page, more than just cutting and spending. It's about the kind of future we want. It's about the kind of country we believe in...
From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America's wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.
But there has always been another thread running throughout our history - a belief that we are all connected; and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves. And so we've built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We've laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We've supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire industries. Each of us has benefited from these investments, and we are a more prosperous country as a result.
Part of this American belief that we are all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff, may strike any one of us. "There but for the grace of God go I," we say to ourselves, and so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, and those with disabilities. We are a better country because of these commitments. I'll go further - we would not be a great country without those commitments...
...You see, most Americans tend to dislike government spending in the abstract, but they like the stuff it buys. Most of us, regardless of party affiliation, believe that we should have a strong military and a strong defense. Most Americans believe we should invest in education and medical research. Most Americans think we should protect commitments like Social Security and Medicare. And without even looking at a poll, my finely honed political skills tell me that almost no one believes they should be paying higher taxes.
Because all this spending is popular with both Republicans and Democrats alike, and because nobody wants to pay higher taxes, politicians are often eager to feed the impression that solving the problem is just a matter of eliminating waste and abuse - that tackling the deficit issue won't require tough choices. Or they suggest that we can somehow close our entire deficit by eliminating things like foreign aid, even though foreign aid makes up about 1% of our entire budget.
So here's the truth. Around two-thirds of our budget is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and national security. Programs like unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans' benefits, and tax credits for working families take up another 20%. What's left, after interest on the debt, is just 12 percent for everything else. That's 12 percent for all of our other national priorities like education and clean energy; medical research and transportation; food safety and keeping our air and water clean.
Up until now, the cuts proposed by a lot of folks in Washington have focused almost exclusively on that 12%. But cuts to that 12% alone won't solve the problem. So any serious plan to tackle our deficit will require us to put everything on the table, and take on excess spending wherever it exists in the budget. A serious plan doesn't require us to balance our budget overnight - in fact, economists think that with the economy just starting to grow again, we will need a phased-in approach - but it does require tough decisions and support from leaders in both parties. And above all, it will require us to choose a vision of the America we want to see five and ten and twenty years down the road.
One vision...paint[s] a vision of our future that's deeply pessimistic...It's a vision that says America can't afford to keep the promise we've made to care for our seniors... This is a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. And who are those 50 million Americans? Many are someone's grandparents who wouldn't be able afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down's syndrome. Some are kids with disabilities so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we'd be telling to fend for themselves.
Worst of all, this is a vision that says even though America can't afford to invest in education or clean energy; even though we can't afford to care for seniors and poor children, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about it. In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90% of all working Americans actually declined. The top 1% saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. And that's who needs to pay less taxes? They want to give people like me a two hundred thousand dollar tax cut that's paid for by asking thirty three seniors to each pay six thousand dollars more in health costs? That's not right, and it's not going to happen as long as I'm President.
The fact is, their vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America...
The America I know is generous and compassionate; a land of opportunity and optimism. We take responsibility for ourselves and each other; for the country we want and the future we share. We are the nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness. We sent a generation to college on the GI bill and saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare. We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives.
This is who we are. This is the America I know.... This sense of responsibility - to each other and to our country - this isn't a partisan feeling. It isn't a Democratic or Republican idea. It's patriotism...
Discussion Questions
1. What beliefs does Obama identify as being part of American identity? 
2. What did Abraham Lincoln say about what government does?
3. What does Obama say about Americans deserving security? What examples does he give?
4. Obama says that most Americans like the stuff that government spending buys. What does he say Americans think about government spending in general?
5. What does the American budget go to? (You might draw a pie chart that shows the breakdown of spending that Obama identifies.)
6. What does Obama say tackling the deficit will require?
7. What are some of the characteristics of the pessimistic worldview Obama identifies? 
8. What is Obama's vision of the United States? What evidence does he have for that vision? 

Student Reading 2: 

Individual Responsibility

James Nava, 
writing for the website The Americano
April 2010
...Individual responsibility is a key concept in conservative ideology. Conservative ideology embraces individual responsibility as a way of taking a stand against big government and intrusions on personal liberties. Individual responsibility is perfectly in line with the spirit of the American Constitution, a document that guarantees individual rights above all things. Because of this, when conservatives defend individual responsibility in areas like health, education, defense, weapons and life in general, they are defending the constitutional foundation that this nation was built upon, the very foundation that has converted America into a present-day world leader in democracy and freedoms.
Currently, the inflated power of the government seriously threatens Americans' ability to stand up to big government and assume responsibility for their own lives. When we see the politicians wasting public funds and government interference in every facet of life: economy, family planning, health, education, etc, individual responsibility becomes even more important. Unfortunately, this way of thinking is now in grave danger of being lost along the mistaken route that America has taken...
Why should we avoid big government and the political parties that support it? The reasoning is simple enough, but often forgotten. A government that is too intrusive limits the free-market economy and the infinite possibilities, creativity and drive a free-market can present; it blocks individual initiative in favor of rewarding collective planning or ideas in line with the subsidizing political faction in question; it foments and rewards individual irresponsibility with grants and funding; it uses jobs to pay all kinds of favors; it pays salaries that have nothing at all to do with the actual productivity of an employee; and it supports a huge Welfare State that is expensive and unviable long-term. This is something that we can observe in numerous countries where the Welfare States are losing taxpayers' money but maintain very high taxes, legislate and regulate more and more, and interfere in the lives of citizens and provide little to no attention to the actual needs and priorities of their citizens.
Instead of waiting for the government or the State to take care of this issue, we need to return to this vital concept that was so inspirational during the writing of the United States Constitution. Individual responsibility is the backbone of a truly free life where real progress is possible. Too many people have become lazy, and comfortable in an artificial state of well-being, the Welfare state, that can't possibly be maintained. Too many of us have forgotten our responsibility for ourselves in our own lives, ceding power over our lives and our decisions to the government in exchange for so-called "benefits" and "aid programs."...
A return to individual responsibility means that neither the government nor the state should secure us the majority of things in this life, not education, medical attention, housing, or retirement, etc. We must assume individual responsibility for these things if want true freedom of choice and quality options, not some cheap substitute administrated by big government. Individual responsibility must work at the level of each individual citizen, community, business and family. If we want this country to continue to be a democratic leader in freedoms and civil liberties, we cannot leave our future in the hands of big government. Big government cannot really be aware of all of our individual priorities. What's more is that it shouldn't be a party to such private information. Such knowledge comes at risk of the type of excessive and undesired governmental control that no reasonable individual would want for his or herself.
We need to get back to the basics, to the key concepts that made the United States the advanced nation it is today: small government with limited reach; low taxes that encourage economic growth and free commerce; clear and necessary laws that make a peaceful, respectful, and stable society possible; the right to pursuit of happiness, freedom of expression, and private property; and over all, individual responsibility. Forget about entitlement, birthrights, free rides and limited responsibility. A country and a society that desires prosperity and progress must base the acquisition of these things on individual responsibility. For over two hundred years, individual responsibility has been a large part of the United State's formula for success. Take an element out, and the results change. Big government isn't able to take on this responsibility, no matter how capable and humanitarian it presents itself as being.
This responsibility implicates rationing and better managing existing resources in areas like education, health, social services, retirement, defense, etc. Today more than ever the idea of dependence on the government is growing in popularity as are its defenders, in their majority, social democrats, because they are selling a comfortable lifestyle and apparent welfare that others pay for, that although it may seem free, isn't free at all. In reality this dependence doesn't tolerate freethinkers and has no margin for criticism or discrepancy. This dependence eliminates individual responsibility, as if the government at any time with a mere finger-snap could resolve our problems. A concept, which is more than ridiculous and completely impossible, as those who live under intrusive social democratic governments quickly, discover.
This model is particularly appealing to young people, who are easily seduced by the lack of personal effort required in a system where everything is handed over to them, without demanding anything in return, not even participation in national defense. Social democrats' message is: don't worry about smoking or drinking, eating too much fat or salt, or unwanted pregnancies, don't fret if you kill or live a dangerous and irresponsible life. There will always be Daddy Government or Mommy State to pay for medical attention with other people's money, rescue deficient businesses, cancel prison sentences, pay for abortions, pay for trips or unemployment, or pay a minuscule retirement to keep you dependent and fooled until your days are over.
A society without individual responsibility is a society condemned from the start to failure, to economic and moral poverty. A responsible, limited government must provide medical attention and quality education, as basic services in the truly necessary cases and in special circumstances. Strong and efficient national defense, not a showcase of servicemen or a place to try out new strategies, is also a necessity for a responsible government.
The government's fiscal irresponsibility, along with excessively and uncontrollably expensive budgets paid for by taxpayers are shifting our country into a social democratic model that will never work for citizens and will always end in unemployment, poverty and zero opportunities.
On the contrary, individual responsibility safeguards an authentically free society and real progress. Because of this the Founding Fathers made the Constitution an integral part of the U.S. government. For this reason, conservatives, who adamantly defend individual responsibility, are the best political option for a government doesn't play favorites and treats all citizens equally and justly, no matter their ideology or social class.
James Nava writes for the The Americano, a website for conservative Latinos founded by Newt Gingrich, former House Speaker and current GOP presidential contender. Full text available at: http://theamericano.com/2010/04/16/individual-responsibility/
Discussion Questions
1. What role does "individual responsibility" play in our country, in Nava's view?
2. What problem does inflated government power cause? 
3. What is the mistaken route that Americans have taken?
4. What does big government limit? What does it encourage? How does it do so?
5. What does Nava mean by "the welfare state"? 
6. What are some of the things Nava says we must assume individual responsibility for, rather than having government be responsible for them?
7. What "basics" do we need to get back to? 
8. What does Nava say that defenders of big government are selling? Who finds that perspective most appealing? 
9. What does Nava say a responsible, limited government must provide? 

Group Activity:

Who thinks what about American values and American spending?

Ask students to break into groups of three or four. Give each group a copy of these two handouts:
Ask them to cut the squares apart, then work as a team to paste or place the correct information in the appropriate box on the chart that follows.
When the groups have completed the activity, reconvene the class. Ask students if they have any questions or comments about the chart or the views they've assembled.

Where Do You Stand?

Tell students that they will now have a chance to consider their own reactions to the two different points of view represented in the chart.
Designate one side of the classroom as "strongly agree" and the opposite side as "strongly disagree." Ask students to stand up and move to the appropriate place somewhere along this continuum, depending on their own opinion about the questions below.
After each statement, give students a chance to position themselves. Then give students a minute to talk with each other about why they are standing where they are. Then ask each group of students to explain to the other groups why they are standing where they are. Afterwards, give students a chance to change their position if their view has changed.
1. Individuals must take a stand against government. Otherwise government will become too intrusive and try to control people's lives.
2. Government rewards people for being irresponsible by giving them things that they should be responsible for themselves.
3. The government should invest in alternative energy research.
4. The government should not provide income for people who retire from working.
5. The government should provide healthcare for people who can't afford it themselves.
6. Young people want a free ride.
7. Government should do things that benefit everyone, like building highways.
8. Anyone who wants to go to college should save the money to go. The government should not provide grants or guarantee student loans.
9. People who work hard and contribute to Social Security deserve to collect an income when they retire.
10. Providing Medicaid to people who can't afford healthcare encourages them to smoke cigarettes and gain weight, knowing they will be taken care of if they get sick. 

We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.