“It is part of the general pattern of misguided policy that our country is now geared to an arms economy which was bred in an artificially induced psychosis of war hysteria and nurtured upon an incessant propaganda of fear. While such an economy may produce a sense of seeming prosperity for the moment, it rests on an illusionary foundation of complete unreliability and renders among our political leaders almost a greater fear of peace than is their fear of war.” – Douglas MacArthur
The “defense” budget is a sensitive topic within mainstream political discourse, so much so that calls for slashing it are often met with accusations of anti-Americanism or some other such nonsense.
With politicians increasingly wedded to the construction of advanced killing technology as a result of lobbying by defense contractors and arms manufacturers, the U.S. economy is becoming more militaristic than ever.
The most common justification is that we cannot allow America to “become weak.” We face too many threats around the world, our super-patriots proclaim, and any sign of scaling our militarism will be a green light for “terrorism.”
But people who make the claim that our “defense is lacking” are either, as Bill Maher once but it, “lying or insane.”
The reality is that “the United States spends more on defense than the next seven countries combined.”
Here is a chart provided by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation:
The idea that there are credible threats to the United States that can be met by spending more money is nothing more than sly tactic used to justify these inflated budgets, further enriching corporate executives and creating more of what we don’t need.
The public has to be riled up into jingoistic hysteria every several years, otherwise they would not tolerate the fact that their tax dollars are being used to develop advanced weaponry that not only does not help anyone domestically, but also devastates lives and entire countries overseas.
We had to be convinced that Grenada, a country which had a population of 91,000, was a threat.
There is no doubt that terrorism, however overused the word has become, is a serious issue.
But the United States’ tactics of “counter-terrorism” (which are in many cases just terrorism by another name) are also problematic, often leading to increased levels of violence, radicalism and hatred of the world’s largest superpower.
Throwing more money at a flawed and in many cases immoral strategy will not change this.
But what if none of the above was the case?
What if, in some alternate universe, the United States cut its military budget and spent the money on more productive objectives, such as rebuilding infrastructure, providing low-income housing, and improving our healthcare and educational systems?
What if the United States decided, for once, to stay out of the affairs of other countries, to stop starting unnecessary wars, to stop the warmongers in their tracks?
These are questions that David Swanson attempts to address in a recent article titled If U.S. Military Spending Returned to 2001 Level.
First, he lays out the facts:
In 2001, U.S. military spending was $397 billion, from which it soared to a peak of $720 billion in 2010, and is now at $610 billion in 2015. These figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (in constant 2011 dollars) exclude debt payments, veterans costs, and civil defense, which raise the figure to over $1 trillion a year now, not counting state and local spending on the military.
U.S. military spending, according to SIPRI, is 35% of the world total. U.S. and Europe make 56% of the world. The U.S. and its allies around the globe (it has troops in 175 countries, and most countries are armed in great part by U.S. companies) make up the bulk of world spending.
Now, if this spending led to serious change around the world, such as increasing levels of peace, justice, and adherence to international law, and decreasing levels of torture and war crimes, perhaps a case could be made for continuance of these absurd levels of spending.
But the facts show that it has done the opposite.
The dramatically increased U.S. military spending has not made the U.S. or the world safer. Early on in the “war on terror” the U.S. government ceased reporting on terrorism, as it increased.
The Global Terrorism Index records a steady increase in terrorist attacks from 2001 to the present. A Gallup poll in 65 nations at the end of 2013 found the United States overwhelmingly viewed as the greatest threat to peace in the world. Iraq has been turned into hell, with Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia close behind. Newly embittered terrorist groups have arisen in direct response to U.S. terrorism and the devastation it’s left behind.
And arms races have been sparked that benefit only the arms dealers.
And not only have problems mounted abroad; domestically, the country is falling apart (I should add that this is the case for the majority of the population, not for the elites, who are doing quite well).
The U.S. has risen into the top five nations in the world for disparity of wealth.
The 10th wealthiest country on earth per capita doesn’t look wealthy when you drive through it. And you do have to drive, with 0 miles of high-speed rail built; but local U.S. police have weapons of war now. And you have to be careful when you drive.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure a D+. Areas of cities like Detroit have become wasteland. Residential areas lack water or are poisoned by environmental pollution — most often from military operations. The U.S. now ranks 35th in freedom to choose what to do with your life, 36th in life expectancy, 47th in preventing infant mortality, 57th in employment, and trails in education by various measures.
So, with the above as context, Swanson calculates what could be done if military spending returned to that of 2001:
If U.S. military spending were merely returned to 2001 levels, the savings of $213 billion per year could meet the following needs:
End hunger and starvation worldwide — $30 billion per year.
Provide clean drinking water worldwide — $11 billion per year.
Provide free college in the United States — $70 billion per year (according to Senate legislation).
Double U.S. foreign aid — $23 billion per year.
Build and maintain a high-speed rail system in the U.S. — $30 billion per year.
Invest in solar and renewable energy as never before — $20 billion per year.
Fund peace initiatives as never before — $10 billion per year.
That would leave $19 billion left over per year with which to pay down debt.
You may say I’m a dreamer, but this is life and death. War kills more by how the money isn’t spent than by how it is spent.
But this proposal is, of course, impossible, given our current institutional framework.
Much of our so-called “defense” spending is essentially a public subsidy, or, to use the word pundits like to toss around (although not referring to big business, of course), a “handout,” to massive corporations like Lockheed Martin and The Boeing Company.
If this spending were to be diverted to more progressive measures, the bottom line of these corporations would suffer.
Further, social spending might work to redistribute wealth, which would gradually scale back the power of billionaires in Washington, empowering the masses to create more significant change.
The reality is that the U.S. economy (not to mention millions of jobs) depends on military spending as a Keynesian stimulation of the economy. This money could be spent elsewhere and still have a beneficial effect on both the economy and the population, but that would be contrary to business interests. In a sense, we have a permanent war economy, and elites are perfectly okay with that.
Big business and defense contractors do not want the population democratized and active; they want them passive and uncaring, mindless consumers uninterested in serious issues, while they rake in the dough.
So they continue to lobby Congress, create useless “defense” technology (extra engines for unused aircraft carriers, tanks that will never be deployed, and so on), and enjoy the fruits of their efforts while expansion of the disparity between the rich and poor in the U.S., and the death and destruction abroad, both continue undeterred.
Michael Albert, in an excellent article responding to Swanson’s piece, eloquently summarizes why a high military budget is sacred for the elites:
The answer has to rest not with direct benefits from putting all that cash into guns, but benefits from not putting all that cash into peace and justice, into popular well being…
The reason that military expenditures are sacrosanct — until very powerful movements displace them — is because the pain and suffering maintained by spending the funds on military ends is considered, however implicitly, vastly better for the “system” and its main beneficiaries than would be the growing security, confidence, knowledge, and means of beneficiaries of social expenditures…social spending, the only alternative, is anathema to the powers that be.
To change this system of militarism, institutional priorities must be fundamentally altered.
We cannot just tell those in power that they should give it up. They have to be forced to do so through mass popular movements, as Albert suggests. There’s just no other way.