Military Spending vs Everything Else
by Eric Weltman
Dollars and Sense magazine, January/February
Most progressive activists would probably agree that the United
States spends too much on its war machine. So why isn't more organizing
done around this issue?
The nation's catalogue of social, environmental, and infrastructure
needs is long, and each item carries a price tag. A million families
await federal housing assistance: $5.7 billion. Head Start needs
another $7 billion annually. A staggering $112 billion is needed
to repair our public schools. And so on.
The response from Washington is increasingly familiar: We
can't afford it.
Or can we? U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, argues
that if you're looking for money, be it for trees or transit,
a good place to start is the military budget. Yet while Frank
has a list of 120 groups that have shown interest in cutting military
spending, he's seen little action.
Remember the "peace dividend?" Though the Cold War
is over, military spending is still a huge chunk of the budget-$281
billion in fiscal year 1999, or 54 percent of discretionary spending.
This year, the government will spend more than $9 on defense for
every dollar on housing assistance, according to the National
Low Income Housing Coalition. (That's not including $8 billion
spent on Kosovo.)
Pentagon spending accounts for 41% of the planet's military
expenditures, according to Women's Action for New Directions.
And now Clinton proposes to increase it by more than $110 billion
over the next six years- while Republicans want to boost that
by another $23 billion.
For advocates of more social investment, the hardship is compounded
by spending caps in the 1997 budget agreement. As Frank notes,
"We're in a zero-sum situation, where one more dollar for
the military is one less for anything else." With more defense
spending and possibly tax cuts, public interest advocates could
end up fighting each other for pieces of a shrinking pie.
Rallying for a smaller military budget would seem like an
easy sell to these groups. Linda Couch of the National Low Income
Housing Coalition acknowledges that there's frustration among
housing groups that "we're spending billions of dollars to
protect our country militarily, but not spending the money necessary
to protect our communities in other ways." But for various
reasons, it has been difficult to get these groups on board.
For one thing, some advocates aren't comfortable discussing
issues outside their expertise. Who is an education advocate,
for example, to challenge the military's weapons needs? Some lobbyists,
says Frank, live by the notion "don't make any enemies,"
which means not asking for cuts in anyone else's program. And
some social service coalitions include unions employed in military
production, which dampens interest in defense cuts.
But you don't have to be a rocket scientist to argue for eliminating
billion-dollar boondoggles. In fact, the Center for Defense Information
has done the necessary homework. For example, according to CDI's
Chris Hellman, the Pentagon wants to spend almost $63 billion
to buy 339 F-22 fighter aircraft. The F-22 was designed during
the Cold War to replace the F- 15, currently the world's best
fighter plane, for the purpose of battling a vast and powerful
Soviet military which no longer exists.
Absurdly, the military says it must be equipped to fight two
major wars, almost simultaneously, with no help from allies. In
1994, then-Secretary of Defense William Perry acknowledged that
this scenario is unrealistic. Yet it's still used to justify increased
For those who want to beat swords into plowshares, a few coalitions
have fired up the forge. One model is Green Scissors, which advocates
against federal spending that is both environmentally and fiscally
unsound. The coalition includes such strange bedfellows as the
Reform Party, U.S. PIRG, the Concord Coalition, and Physicians
for Social Responsibility. According to Friends of the Earth's
Eric Pica, one target is the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons
program. At a time when we're supposed to reduce our nuclear arms,
the DOE proposes to spend $1.1 billion producing more plutonium
for warheads-to add to the 11,000 already in the arsenal.
Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, whose members include
Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's and media tycoon Ted Turner, was
founded to educate the public on how we divvy up federal dollars,
and has established an advisory board of retired military officials
to help craft its weapons-cutting agenda. A new coalition, Citizens
for a Responsible Budget, is going outside Washington to identify
senior citizens, educators and others to work for more spending
on social needs.
These groups will be taking on the mighty military-industrial
complex that Eisenhower warned about decades ago. But there's
a flawless rationale for doing so, expressed in the well-known
answer of Willie Sutton when asked why he robbed banks: "'Cause
that's where the money is."
Eric Weltman is a Cambridge-based writer and activist.