Re: Budgets as cultural documents <debate>

Michael Cahill (MCBlueline@AOL.COM)
Sun, 18 Feb 1996 03:26:53 -0500

In a message dated 96-02-16 19:24:26 EST, JLM@TWICS.COM (John McCreery)

>Arguably almost all the great and
>small political debates of our times are debates *about budgets*
>i.e., about how the world, nations, states, towns, villages,
>NGOs are going to allocate scarce resources.

Absolutely agreed. I'll add this. Cultural values underlie budgets. That
is to say, values (and value judgments) ultimately determine the allocation
of scarce resources. Obviously, values don't work their budgetary magic in
some sort of superorganic ether. They're embodied in people with interests.
Now, since the resources are scarce, the values seeking to grasp them, as it
were, must collide -- which really means the bearers of those values must
come into some sort of "juxtaposition." Hence, budgets are not only about
debates, but about *struggles,* overt or covert, over the control and use of
resources to achieve ends. Wherever the budget is, there you will find the
major players, and sometime antagonists, in any community or society. Watch
the collisions; listen to the arguments; trace the compromises and the
trajectories of the participants in the struggle. Look at the final
document. You'll end up with an outline of the social organization of the
group. Locate the attached values in conceptual space and you'll have a kind
of star map of that group's culture.

Certainly culture is more than something to be transacted. From a symbolic
standpoint culture not only underlies a budget but actually constructs it --
as it does "economics" and "politics." Tom Kavanaugh makes this point in his
recent post on this topic:

>The economic part is how to make a living. The political part is how to
>get and allocate scarce resources [the processes involved with determining
>an implementing public policy, including who is us and who is not]. *The
>cultural part are the categories used to decide the first two.* [emphasis

But we can also focus on the activity of budgeting: the people, the meetings,
the lobbying, the deals, the document. Moreover, as John points out,
budgeting doesn't go on in boardrooms and or the halls of congress only.
Budgets are important topics in small communities and in homes. (It's tax
time. My wife has just instructed me on how we're going to use that portion
of our household budget that the federal government has been withholding and
using in its budget -- beyond the amount it's entitled to keep -- over the
past year.)

I'll close with an example of how what is left in and out of a budget reveals
a society's underlying values. In the US, state governments rely on the
federal government for fiscal support. Between 20 and 40 percent of a given
state's budget is essentially paid for by the feds (an example of budget
linkage). This means that the programs the federal government chooses to
fund in a big way become high state priorities. One such program is child
protective services. Protecting abused and neglected children is a national
goal, and well it should be. Kids are the future of the nation.
Accordingly, the federal government has agreed to pay 75 percent of the cost
involved in providing this service. In the state where I work, the other 25
percent is split between the state and the local districts (the counties:
they actually provide the caseworkers). Not a bad deal for the state and
local officials. Child protective becomes a priority.

But what about *preventive* services -- the ones designed to prevent abuse
and family breakdown from occuring in the first place. Many of these do not
qualify for federal support. They must be paid for solely by the states and
localities in a 50/50 split. Needless to say, these services are assigned a
low priority. Various ways are found to avoid providing them. All perfectly

What does this say about the values of government? To me it says that the
feds are willing to pay for the damage to children caused by child abuse
after the harm's been done, but they're not as willing to adequately cover
the expense of preventing that damage from occurring in the first place.
They're prepared to sanction parents, but they're not as ready to work
*with* them to head off trouble. It also tells me that state government
doesn't have the resolve (they'd say the wherewithal) to do the right thing
even if the federal government won't. [The whole thing says something about
government's faith, or lack of faith, in its own capacity to improve

A footnote: it doesn't take a genius to see that if you want services for a
poor child, you're more likely to get them if you have the case registered as
a child abuse report -- whether it's "really" an abuse case or not. (But what
do you think this does to the child abuse statistics?)

Is this kind of stuff ever talked about in anthropology programs? It really
wasn't when I was trained in sociocultural anthropology (the exception maybe
was household budgets). And I took courses in economic anthropology. We
talked about production, distribution, and consumption, and about land,
labor, and capital, but never about the mechanism that holds them all
together -- budgeting and its processes. And I'm sort of angry about it.
How the hell could a discipline devoted to the comparative study of
humankind overlook something so central?

One last thought: because budgets big and small are linked (see above), they
would seem to be a great way to begin to situate households and communities
in that "darkly unknowable" world system that Marcus and Fischer allude to in
_Anthropology as Cultural Critique_ (1986).

Mike Cahill