More Bucks for the Bang
by Greg Speeter
Covert Action Quarterly magazine, Winter 1999
A sixteen year old girl was killed in Brooklyn, New York,
in January in 1998, when a brick fell from the top of an elementary
school and fractured her skull. A few days later, a wall fell
from a New York City vocational high school and crashed to the
sidewalk. City officials acknowledged that repairs had been delayed
because the needs of dozens of other schools were considered more
pressing. Crumbling school infrastructure threatens students not
just in New York City According to a recent study by the Government
Accounting Office, one of every three school buildings in the
country needs extensive repair or replacement, at a total cost
of $112 billion. In the summer of 1997, half a year before the
New York incidents, Congress was asked to spend $5 billion over
several years to help address this national school infrastructure
crisis. Congress refused. This fall, Congress again was asked
to spend $1 billion to begin to address this security problem,
and voted not to do so. Yet in the past two years, we've spent
tens of billions of dollars to begin to purchase a new generation
of jet fighters - as many as 4,400 of them - that are designed
to fight an enemy that no longer exists, will provide little technological
advantage over already existing fighters, and replace existing
fighters that would maintain U.S. air superiority for the next
18 years. The total cost of these new fighters? Two hundred seventy-two
billion dollars, nearly two and a half times what it would cost
to rebuild our public schools. With our military threats "so
remote they are difficult to discern," the federal government
has managed to turn public policy on its head: Instead of providing
a military that sacrifices to save those in need, it is sacrificing
those in need in order to keep Pentagon coffers, military contractors'
bank accounts, and the pockets of key members of Congress stuffed
to the brim.
* This fall, Congress gave the Pentagon an extra $1 billion
for research and development of "Star Wars" on top of
the year's $3.5 billion request, even though the director of the
Pentagon's ballistic missile defense program said, "There
really is nothing we can do with that money we haven't already
addressed." Yet it cut almost half a billion dollars from
the Social Services Block Grant that provides states with money
for daycare, meals for low income seniors, foster care, and drug
* In the past four years, Congress has given the Pentagon
almost $30 billion more than it has asked for, while cutting back
on or substantially under-funding job training, environmental,
housing and health programs.
* In 1980, at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. spent two
dollars on the Pentagon for every dollar it spent on aid to cities.
Today, almost a decade after the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon
gets four dollars for every dollar we spend on aid to cities.
* Commitments to programs other than the Pentagon will be
threatened even more when the federal budget is released beginning
this winter, as the Pentagon is expected to ask for $110 billion
more in each of the next six years.
Half to the Pentagon, Half to Everyone Else
To understand what is at stake, it is important to see just
how enormous the Pentagon budget is in relationship to everything
else, and how changes in federal budget policies this year will
pit the Pentagon against a number of community-based programs.
The Pentagon and all non-entitlement federal domestic programs
are lumped together into a part of the federal budget called "discretionary
spending." about half the discretionary budget pays for the
Pentagon, meaning we spend as much on the Pentagon as we do on
the combined spending of job training, all education, housing
development, the environment, Space and NASA, scientific research,
the State and Commerce and Justice Departments, and dozens of
other programs combined.
In recent years, Congress has set overall limits on how much
can be spent on both military and social spending, and built a
"fire wall" to prevent either side from taking money
from the other. But this year, beginning with the new budget,
that wall is scheduled to come down. Congress will set a cap on
how large the discretionary pie will be, and then let the Pentagon
and all other programs fight it out among themselves for their
slices of the pie. Some programs, such as transportation and crime
prevention, have a lot of support, and Congress has already made
commitments to keep certain budget items in place. This means
that unless the overall budget cap is raised this year, programs
that address the needs of children and seniors, housing, education,
the poor, and the environment will be cut again to pay for Pentagon
The Pentagon has already begun its lobbying for those increases
by claiming it has been cut to the bone, and could become hollow
without an infusion of $ 110 billion in the next six years.
In fact the Pentagon budget has been cut back since the Reagan
build-up. But during that period, the Cold War ended. In spite
of that, the current $271 billion Pentagon budget stands at 83%
of Cold War averages, even though the Warsaw Pact fell apart,
and Russia's military budget is about a quarter of what it was
during the 1970s and early 1980s. Why are we spending so much
In 1993, President Clinton ordered a much-heralded "Bottom-Up
Review," a study meant to redefine national military priorities
in the post-Cold War era. Without the Soviets, the Pentagon identified
several "rogue" Third World countries that were "unlikely
to threaten the U.S. directly," but "have shown they
are willing to field forces to threaten U.S. interests, friends,
and allies." Those countries were Iran, Iraq, Libya, North
Korea, and Syria. The Bottom-Up Review essentially kept the military
budgets at Cold War levels, and justified these levels by envisioning
a highly unlikely scenario in which Iraq and North Korea attack
their neighbors at the same time. In order to respond to this
scenario, the Bottom-Up Review called for troops, weapons, air-
and sea-lift capabilities, and bases that provide the U.S. military
with the ability to: fight both wars (one on either side of the
globe); at virtually the same time; win both wars in a matter
of weeks; and succeed without the help (or even participation)
of our allies outside the region.
The Review called for procurement of many of the same weapons
systems that had been developed in the 1980s to challenge the
Soviets: aircraft carrier forces, the same four service branches,
the same heavy bomber wings, and air superiority fighter escorts.
Not only was the two-war scenario unlikely, the potential
threat was widely overstated. The combined threats of these five
countries amounts to one-eighteenth the military budget of the
Our military policy has not changed much since then. In 1996
Congress established a Quadrennial Review, requiring every new
administration to conduct "a comprehensive examination of
the military threats our nation faces, the strategy to thwart
them, and the forces needed to implement the strategy." But
Clinton's 1997 Quadrennial Review evaded any major changes in
mission, structure, or weapons plans, and projected indefinitely
annual military budgets of $250 billion plus. Pentagon officials
now want to increase the annual budget by up to $18 billion a
year, buying more weapons to modernize its forces and increasing
funding for maintenance and salaries.
Citing new realities brought on by the end of the Cold War,
a number of respected military authorities have called for major
cuts in the Pentagon budget. While not all critics would agree
on strategic policy, they are all in agreement about this much:
to cut weapons systems that are overpriced, duplicate others,
have no enemy and/or don't work. Each year the Military Spending
Working Group (MSWG), a network of arms control and military policy
analysts, identifies a "dirty dozen" weapons systems
they believe are not necessary. If the President and Congress
had followed their recommendations for scrapping these weapons
systems, they would have saved $25.8 billion.
The Real Threats
It is indeed ironic that the colossal commitments to these
military policies and the weapons they call for prevent us from
making the commitments necessary to respond to the other very
real threats facing our communities.
In fact, many of these threats have increased dramatically
over the past 18 years as Washington has chosen to prioritize
military spending over social spending. Many Americans had hoped
during the late 1980s that a peace dividend might provide resources
to focus on these domestic threats. However when it came to aid
to cities, that did not happen. As a result, the federal government
has cut back or reneged on its commitments to acknowledge and
address many economic and social problems that we are allowing
to become chronic and structural.
There are six major threats to virtually every community in
the country, and the declining federal role has made it more difficult
to address these issues.
* Twenty-one percent of our children live in poverty. What
kind of a future, and how strong an economy, can we expect when
we allow almost a quarter of our children to go to bed hungry,
live in miserable housing conditions, be refused health care,
and attend deteriorating schools?
Our child poverty rate is three to five times higher than
in other western European countries, and has increased dramatically
since 1980. Atlanta's child poverty rate is 43 percent; Hartford's,
44 percent; Minneapolis, 34 percent. But it is not just an urban
phenomenon. The most dramatic increase since 1980 has been in
the suburbs, where it has risen from 11.2 percent to 18.8 percent
in the past 18 years.
We know that programs such as Headstart, the Women, Infants,
and Children Nutrition program (WIC), school lunch programs, Health
outreach programs, and, as a last resort, Aid to Families with
Dependent Children (AFDC), help these children, but we either
under fund, cut back, or, in the case of AFDC, eliminate the guarantee
of help to our children.
In all other industrialized countries, adjustments to income
and payroll taxes and other forms of government transfers and
programs pull most of their children from poverty.
* Our schools are falling further behind other countries'.
Crumbling school infrastructure is not the only threat to our
students. A report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development in November 1998, is the latest in a series of
studies showing U.S. students lagging behind other industrialized
countries. Among the findings: The U.S. high school graduation
rate at 72 percent is second worst among 29 nations, above Mexico.
Earlier studies have shown the U.S. to rank twenty-sixth and sixteenth
respectively among 41 nations in math and science proficiency.
The federal government spends less than 3 percent of our income
tax dollars on elementary, secondary, adult, and higher education.
Since 1980 it has cut back in total U.S education spending by
one-third, from 9.8 percent to 6.8 percent.
* Forty-three million of us have no health insurance. And
the number is predicted to be 50 million by the year 2004. Virtually
every other industrialized country provides universal coverage.
We rank the lowest of 15 industrialized countries in infant mortality
and low birth weight.
For the last four years, the federal government has chosen
to abandon any meaningful effort to provide affordable, accessible,
and quality health care to all Americans. Instead, it has chosen
to propose piecemeal, incremental reforms such as increased regulation
of the health insurance industry, which does not address the fundamental
problems of affordability or availability.
* We lack five million affordable housing units. A little
more than 20 years ago, we had more affordable housing units than
we had renter families. Today, we have a gap of over five million
units. One-third of all renters are unable to afford one-bedroom
housing units, and must forgo other necessities such as food,
clothing, and health care to afford rent.
No wonder, that the U.S. Conference of Mayors has found the
demand for emergency shelter increase six-fold since 1985; 36
percent of the homeless were families with children.
Perhaps more than any other area, the federal government has
dramatically decreased its commitment to housing. Between 1980
and 1997, the annual Housing and Urban Development budget has
declined from $70 billion (in 1997 dollars) to $23 billion, a
cumulative $784 billion cut between 1980 and 1998.
* Our environment is threatened. Polluted air, water, and
land threaten us in many ways. Drinking water systems serving
more than 50 million Americans violate health regulations and
standards, and 40 percent of our nation's waters are still not
safe for fishing or swimming. Power plants, cars, and trucks emit
two-thirds of the total carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, adding
up to almost half the global warming gases that are created by
people. Air pollution causes 15,000 premature deaths every year
from increased pulmonary disease.
In spite of this, the federal government gave up a long time
ago on funding for alternative energy and has cut way back on
clean water funds. In 1997 Washington funded clean water programs
at the lowest amount since the Clean Water Act was passed, allocating
only $3 billion to both clean water and drinking water initiatives,
despite an estimated need for $6 billion in federal contributions.
Cumulatively, the EPA budget has been cut by $71 billion since
* Forty-six percent of the jobs with the most growth pay less
than half a livable wage. Don't look for the jobs in the "new
economy" to save us. The National Priorities Project recently
released a report on job growth with Jobs with Justice that established
a livable wage nationwide of $32,285. The report found that 46
percent of the jobs with the most growth pay less than half of
that wage; that four of the five fastest growing jobs are cashiers,
janitors, retail sales clerks, and waiters and waitresses, none
of which pay, on average, more than $15,236 a year. Most of these
jobs do not provide benefits and are part-time.
The Budget Surplus
Some budget observers feel that the FY 1998 budget surplus-the
first in almost 40 years-and the announcement by the Congressional
Budget Office this past summer that given current economic trends
we will continue to have surpluses well into the future may change
the terms of the guns versus butter debate.
About 200 national organizations focused on human needs and
community development, organized by Invest in America in Washington,
D.C., have recently signed on to a letter to the President asking
for more money for social spending. It will be very tempting for
Congress and the President to address these conflicting needs
by giving some money to the Pentagon, some to social spending,
and passing some more tax cuts.
But this is a dangerous strategy. It would give the Pentagon
more money when it ought to be getting less, would provide only
a token amount of money to the most organized and powerful advocates
for social spending (transportation, crime prevention and perhaps
education) without addressing the issues of child poverty, housing,
and other critical concerns, a process that continues to pit advocates
for more social spending against each other for crumbs from the
A better strategy would be for many social spending advocacy
groups to demand that the Pentagon size its budget downward, so
that this nation would have the resources to address critical
security needs in our communities. Social spending advocates,
their clients, and other allies would have to become familiar
with some of the most outrageous weapons systems and Pentagon
spending policies, and challenge the funding of weapons systems
that are overpriced, duplicate others, are unnecessary, or don't
However, just going after weapons systems does not address
a larger question that this nation needs to begin to address:
What role should the U.S. play in the international community
in the future? The peace and arms control community must help
answer this question. In a recent letter to a number of arms control
and peace advocates, Carl Conetta and Charles Knight of the Project
on Defense Alternatives make the point that currently, Pentagon
architects and a number of elites are re-implementing a strategy
of primacy or "world hegemony. Conetta and Knight believe
that most Americans would rather be "first among equals,"
which would call for a national strategy of military sufficiency
and real cooperation with other nations on security matters, rather
than hegemony which requires the U.S. to be able to single-handedly
out-gun all potential rivals. They challenge those in the arms
control and peace community to work together to further articulate
this vision and the kind of military spending such a vision would
Bringing the Issues Back Home
The budget debate this winter and spring and the elections
in the year 2000 provide us with the opportunity to raise these
questions of national security The public needs to understand
what is at stake, and polling shows that the more the public understands
about these issues the more the public supports cutting Pentagon
spending and reinvesting in our communities.
As we enter the next millennium, this country must decide
what kind of a nation it wants to be, and assess whether the direction
we are heading will get us there. Do we want to become the world's
lone super-cop, and continue to use so many of our resources to
build the ships and planes and weaponry to intervene in situations
around the world?
Grass-roots organizations focused on housing, education, children,
health care, neighborhood empowerment, and living-wage jobs must
make the connection between their local concerns and our distorted
federal priorities. These groups must then find ways to hold their
elected federal officials accountable to a definition of national
security that means access to affordable housing and health care,
clean drinking water, access to the skills to get real jobs, and
a future for all our children.
Greg Speeter is the founder and executive director of the
National Priorities Project, based in Northampton, Massachusetts;
17 New South St., Northampton, MA 01060; 413-584-9556; www.natprior.org.