Guns vs. Butter 2010
See if you can identify the bleeding heart liberal who said this:
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children."
Noam Chomsky? Michael Moore? Bernie Sanders?
Nope, it was that unrepentant lefty, five-star general Dwight Eisenhower, in 1953, just a few months after taking office -- a time when the economy was booming and unemployment was 2.7 percent.
Yet today, while America's economy sputters down the road to recovery and the middle class struggles to make ends meet -- with over 26 million people unemployed or underemployed and record numbers of homes being lost to foreclosure -- the "guns vs. butter" argument isn't even part of the national debate. Of course, today, the argument might be more accurately framed as "ICBM nukes, Predator drones, and missile defense shields vs. jobs, affordable college, decent schools, foreclosure prevention, and fixing the gaping holes in our social safety net."
We hear endless talk in Washington about belt-tightening and deficit reduction, but hardly a word about whether the $161 billion being spent this year to fight unnecessary wars of choice in Afghanistan and Iraq might be better spent helping embattled Americans here at home.
Indeed, during his State of the Union speech in January, President Obama proposed freezing all discretionary government spending for three years -- but exempted military spending, even though the defense budget has ballooned over the last ten years. According to defense analyst Lawrence Korb, who served as Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, the baseline defense budget has increased by 50 percent since 2000. Over that same period, non-defense discretionary spending increased less than half that much.
This is not about ignoring the threats to our national security. And it's certainly not about pacifism. To quote the president's 2002 speech: "I don't oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war." Iraq was never about making us safer. And the original rationale for going to war in Afghanistan -- taking on al Qaeda -- has been accomplished, with less than 100 members of the terrorist group still there. As former Bush State Department official Richard Haas has said, "If Afghanistan were a war of necessity, it would justify any level of effort. It is not and does not." In fact, by helping destabilize Pakistan and stretching our military to its limits, our presence in Afghanistan is actually making us less safe. The irrationality of continuing to spend precious resources on wars we shouldn't be fighting is all the more galling when juxtaposed with our urgent and growing needs at home.
The LA Times' Doyle McManus offers an eye-opening example of just how far our mission in Afghanistan has "creeped." His on-the-ground report on the military's upcoming push in Kandahar (cost: $33 billion) -- a surge the military considers as important as securing Baghdad was to Iraq -- doesn't include a single mention of taking on al Qaeda. Instead, McManus describes Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, telling an Afghan leader that the goals of the surge, as well as defeating the Taliban, include "reducing corruption, making local government work and, eventually, providing jobs."
Is that why we are still fighting a war there nine years later, spending American blood and treasure -- to provide jobs for the people of Kandahar? It's like a very bad joke: "The good news is, the Obama administration is ramping up a multi-billion program that will create a host of new jobs. The bad news is, you have to move to Kandahar to apply."
The Bush-era rationale for these overseas misadventures was always: We'll fight 'em over there, so we don't have to fight 'em over here. Today, it seems, we're fighting to create jobs for 'em over there, while we don't have enough jobs for our people over here.
At a time when so many hardworking middle class families are reeling from the economic crisis -- and our country is facing the harsh one-two punch of more people in need at the exact moment social services are being slashed to the bone -- that seems like the most perverted of priorities.
"Civilizations," argued historian Arnold Toyenbee, "die from suicide, not by murder." That is, our future is dependent on the choices we make and the things we decide to value.
In a video put together by Robert Greenwald's Rethink Afghanistan campaign, Berkeley professor Ananya Roy defines the troubled state of America not so much as a fiscal crisis as "a crisis of priorities."
And Barney Frank, who has been one of the few in Washington arguing for the need to cut military spending, says that our military over-commitments have "devastated our ability to improve our quality of life through government programs." Looking at the money we've spent on Iraq and Afghanistan, Frank says: "We would have had $1 trillion now to help fix the economy and do the things for our people that they deserve."
The National Priorities Project (NPP) offers a cool online tool that brings this budget trade-off to life by showing -- specifically -- all the things that could have been done with the money spent on Afghanistan and Iraq. It allows you to break the numbers down by your state, Congressional district, or town and to focus on the kinds of opportunity costs that most interest you, including education, public safety, affordable housing, and health care for kids.
For example, according to the NPP, since 2003, Americans have spent over $747 billion in Iraq. Of that, taxpayers living in California have forked over $94.7 billion. That could have provided 35 million children with health care for a year -- or 11 million places in a Head Start program. Or funding for over 1.6 million public safety officers. Or 283,378 affordable housing units. Or 1.3 million elementary school teachers. Or 11.3 million college scholarships. This in a state that has laid off more than 23,000 teachers, and has seen tuition rates at public universities skyrocket -- putting higher education beyond the reach of the very students these universities were created for. And those that are able to go are leaving in debt -- the average college student graduates carrying a debt of over $23,000.
Education has always been the path middle class Americans took to attain the American Dream. But those Americans are increasingly finding that path -- and that dream -- blocked.
Again, we are not talking about lessening America's national security. We are talking about eliminating or cutting back outdated and redundant military defense programs.
Barney Frank points to pricey relics of the Cold War such as the F-22 fighter, the Osprey transport helicopter, and missile defense programs in Eastern Europe as examples of wasted resources. He also suggests doing away with one prong of America's hugely expensive nuclear triad -- bombers, submarines, and intercontinental ballistic missiles -- designed to annihilate a Soviet empire that no longer exists. "My radical proposal," Frank told HuffPost's Ryan Grim, "is that we say to the Pentagon that they can pick two of the three, and let us abolish one."
Lawrence Korb offers his own laundry list of ways to trim the defense budget by billions without impacting national security. Even after cutting billions, he points out, the defense budget would remain significantly higher, in real dollars, than it was at the height of the Reagan build-up. A build-up that is often credited with leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union, which, in an effort to keep up with America, raised its defense spending to 27 percent of its GDP while freezing the production of civilian goods.
Increased military spending has been a hallmark of nations in decline since the fall of the Roman Empire -- including the Soviets trying to match America nuclear warhead for nuclear warhead and North Korea joining the nuclear club while its people starve.
If we don't come to our senses and get our deeply misguided priorities back in order, America engaging in nation building wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could easily join that ignominious list. A superpower turned Third World nation -- dead from our own hand.