Bloomfield Public Square: Dialogue for the 21st Century
Matt Ryan, the mayor of Binghamton, New York, is so fed up with all the painful budget cuts he has to implement that he has embarked on a very unusual project that he introduced at a press conference April 14.
He explained that he is putting up an electronic sign on the exterior of City Hall showing the daily ever-increasing costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the citizens of Binghamton. He said that these wars are draining his city and other cities and towns of funds to provide essential services to its citizens.
After reading this, I decided to go to the website of the National Priorities Project, where Mayor Ryan said he found a lot of helpful information. Once there, I clicked on "Federal Budget Trade Offs." I learned that taxpayers in New Jersey have paid $47.8 billion for total Iraq and Afghanistan war spending since 2001. This is our tax money that has not come back to our state for services we need.
As a former teacher, I thought about how Bloomfield's education programs will suffer due to a $6.5 million loss in school funding. To deal with this crisis, the school board plans to lay off 60 employees: other workers – bus drivers, bus aides and instructional aides – are taking pay cuts and a loss of benefits in order to keep their jobs. This is not just a loss to our students but a great personal sacrifice to the staff, for as we well know, jobs are hard to find.
Looking beyond our town, I learned that the total estimated federal funds for New Jersey's public schools for 2009–2010 is only about $1 billion, and that overall our state is facing a $10.7 billion budget gap. If we had gotten back about one fifth of New Jersey tax dollars spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars, we would not have a budget crisis.
And as our country is facing budget cuts at all levels, it is shocking to learn that these two wars have cost the American people almost $1 trillion!
I began to wonder how much other countries spend on their military. I learned that while we spend about 50 percent of our federal budget on military-related spending, Russia devotes five percent; China, eight percent; Middle East and North Africa together, five percent. All the European countries together only spend 20 percent of their budgets on their militaries. As a result of such low costs, these governments and others can focus on their domestic needs such as education, transportation, science and clean energy projects, thus making their economies stronger than ours.
I found out that a reason our military expenses are so high is not only due to the wars we are currently fighting, but that we have to spend billions each year on over 700 military bases we have in 63 countries!
Almost all other countries in the world have a military presence only within their own borders while we seem to be everywhere. It appears to me that this is a road to eventual bankruptcy. And it can fuel anger at us as we appear to be an expanding empire encroaching on other countries' sovereignty.
We need to cut back on military expenses if we ever expect to be able to meet our local, state and national budgets. We need to end the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq not simply to save money, but to save the lives and the mental and physical health of our soldiers, and also Iraqi and Afghan civilians. We can bring an end to these conflicts by negotiating with all parties in each country and with our allies.
Money for our towns and cities could also come from:
1. An end to bailing out the banks and other financial institutions with our tax dollars. It is a national tragedy that the very institutions that sabotaged our economy by risky and greedy actions got rewarded with our money.
2. Carefully regulating banks and insurance companies so that they cannot rip off the American people.
3. Seeing that U.S. corporations pay their share of income taxes. (Two-thirds paid none between 1998 and 2005 due to tax loopholes and deregulation.)
4. A financial transactions tax. This would be a 0.25 percent payment on a stock purchase or sale and 0.02 percent on other transactions by the financial industry. This would discourage speculation (i.e., buying stock and selling it an hour later) and, according to Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research, could raise $1.8 trillion over a decade!
I am seeing in our town a trend to fight over the crumbs we are being offered. We must focus on the real source of the problem — our country's misplaced priorities — in order to assure that New Jersey will get the funds necessary to meet our needs: support for schools, public transportation, job creation – especially green jobs, small businesses, environmental protection, health care and public works, i.e. fixing potholes, crumbling bridges and other infrastructure.
We can make it a priority to join organizations that are working to improve our lives in our community and to contact our legislators at the local, state and national levels to ask them to change our priorities from war funding to funding for programs we need to enhance our quality of life. Find your representatives by going to the website of the League of Women Voters.
I am grateful to Mayor Ryan in Binghamton for leading the way in educating people on our society's misplaced spending. It would be great if Bloomfield could do something similar.