Military Spending vs Everything Else

by Eric Weltman

Dollars and Sense magazine, January/February 2000


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 spending levels.

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.

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