The XX Factor

An Open Letter to Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney

The author at home.


Dear Director Mulvaney,

It’s me. A fetus. “How precocious!” you must be thinking. “An unborn child, typing an open letter with its nubby fingertips.” Please, spare me the condescension. Tapping out this note was a challenge for someone with 20/400 vision, but I felt it was necessary after I nearly choked on my amniotic fluid while listening to your astonishing testimony before the House Budget Committee this week.

You seem to consider me one of the Trump administration’s most important constituents, or at least that was the impression I got when you suggested that the draconian budget cuts your administration proposed—$627 billion to Medicaid, $194 billion to food stamps, more than $250 billion to education—were necessary for the sake of future generations.

What about the standard of living for my grandchildren who aren’t here yet? Who will end up inheriting $30 trillion in debt? Fifty trillion dollars in debt? A hundred trillion dollars? What about their standard—who’s going to pay the bill, Congressman? … Us? Or somebody else? And I suggest to you if it’s important enough to pay, to have, then we need to be paying for it. Because right now, my unborn grandchildren are paying for it, and I think that is morally bankrupt.

While I may lack a fully developed thalamus, I do have a bullshit detector—and it’s blaring thanks to your little oration about fiscal rectitude.

This much is true: Washington is on pace to borrow quite a bit of money in the coming years. According to the Congressional Budget Office, federal debt held by the public is set to hit 150 percent of gross domestic product by 2047, up from 77 percent today. That would be unprecedented for the U.S.; our debt load never even reached that level during World War II, when we were borrowing to fight the Nazis. But it is also unclear whether that level of debt would be a problem. After all, Japan’s publicly held sovereign debt hit 177 percent of GDP a few years back, and it’s sitting around building the world’s fastest trains and enjoying 2.8 percent unemployment.

But if you insist on worrying about the debt, there are plenty of ways to address it that don’t involve eviscerating health care and food spending for the poor. I found this handy budget interactive from Brookings and the Wilson Center and managed to stabilize our debt at 75 percent of GDP without cutting a single federal program—and I’ve still got billions of neurons to go before my brain is entirely formed. You know how I pulled it off? Hint: I didn’t cut the Children’s Health Insurance Program, like you proposed this week. I just raised taxes, muchacho. It’s not rocket science.

Of course, your administration has other plans. It’s talking about historic tax cuts that will almost certainly be geared toward the rich. Your treasury secretary says the cuts will be paid for with economic growth. Nobody believes that! I can’t even make a born-yesterday joke, because I haven’t shimmied out of the womb yet, and I don’t believe that. You don’t get to play fiscal hawk and then talk about cutting our billionaire president’s own taxes in the same breath. This game doesn’t work that way.

But to be honest, it’s not your sanctimonious spiel about debt that bugs me the most. It’s that the White House is moving toward an official policy that says the government should worry less about what happens to future generations thanks to climate change. By your logic, it’s not OK if I, a fetus, have to pay a higher marginal tax rate, but it is OK if I, a fetus, have to go scuba diving to see the sunken ruins of Manhattan someday.

I’m specifically talking here about a concept known as the Social Cost of Carbon, which plays a crucial role in climate policy. (I realize you know all this, Mr. Mulvaney, but bear with me for my audience of fellow fetuses.) Government agencies are only allowed to issue new regulations if they find the benefits outweigh the costs. When it comes to limiting greenhouse gasses, that means figuring out how much economic damage a pound of carbon burned into the atmosphere today will do to the U.S. years down the line.

Unsurprisingly, people disagree on how to calculate this. When President Trump took office, he signed an executive order scrapping a bunch of work that the Obama administration had done on this count. As the Center for American Progress notes, it’s possible that when the administration does its regulatory math, it will see absolutely no economic benefit in cutting carbon emissions. It will amount to an official stance that says it’s not worth spending a dime to help unborn Americans avert catastrophe.

Now, who oversees the federal regulatory process? Oh, that’s right, your very own Office of Management and Budget. You will be personally involved in telling the next generation to go fend for itself. It’s no coincidence that you can’t spell womb without O-M-B, so as an official representative of the unborn, let me be clear: I’d rather have higher taxes and lower temperatures, thank you very much. I’m sure your grandkids will feel the same.