‘China threat’ needed to feed the insatiable US military-industrial complex

NPP Pressroom

South China Morning Post
Alex Lo


Dwight Eisenhower was a military man, but he was probably a better economist or social scientist than most such professionals. Consider this speech he made on the trade-off between butter and bullets in 1953, before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He said: “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 are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”

If someone said the same thing today in Washington, he or she would be denounced as a socialist. But to me, Eisenhower’s analysis here is even more relevant than his far more famous farewell address warning against the military-industrial complex. It puts numbers to the trade-offs that have a direct impact on the livelihoods of ordinary Americans.

I say his speech is even more pertinent now because back in the 1950s, America really could afford both bullets and butter; today, not at all.

Consider the latest study, “Where your 2022 tax dollar went”, by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.

The average American taxpayer sent US$1,087 of their hard-earned money to Pentagon contractors in 2022, equivalent to 21 days of work. That’s four times the amount they paid – US$270 – for public education covering kindergarten to the last year of high school at grade 12. Of that, they paid an average US$298 to the top five military contractors, with Lockheed Martin alone receiving a whopping US$106. That’s compared to just US$19 for mental health and substance abuse programmes, and oh, just US$6 for renewable energy.

He or she paid US$74 for nuclear weapons, but US$43 for the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Meanwhile, they forked out US$20 for jailing the world’s single largest prison population but only US$11 for helping the homeless.

It’s often observed that domestic policy and crises drive US foreign policy. But that’s too one-directional. The reality is that it’s a two-way street, a feedback loop or rather loops. One of these loops is domestic welfare spending vs the defence budget.

Domestic gun violence, educational failure, drug addiction, the mental health crisis, widespread homelessness, the extreme wealth gap, crime and a militarised police regime – all have complex interrelated causes, but government budgetary neglect is surely a big contributing factor.

If every mainstream US news media group reports annually on “Where your tax dollar went”, do you think most US voters and taxpayers would agree to their government spending more than a trillion dollars on defence? Most likely not. So, instead, they are bombarded 24/7 on the Russian threat in Ukraine and Europe, and the China threat everywhere around the world.

A complete reality distortion for the average American citizen is crucial, so that they think discarded drug needles on the sidewalk, decaying cities, unaffordable healthcare and housing, gun violence in their schools and neighbourhoods, and brutalisation of minorities are less threatening than evil Chinese communists on the other side of the globe – who are not even real communists.

Without conjuring an external – “existential” – threat, no sensible taxpaying parents in the US would pay US$1,087 for Pentagon contractors over US$270 for the substandard education of their children; no black or Hispanic families would fork out US$20 in taxes for keeping a prison population made up mostly of their own ethnic groups over US$11 for the homeless.