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.

Consider This:

* 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 prevention.

* 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 increases.

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 money?

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 U.S.

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 1980.

* 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 budget pie.

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 work.

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 call for.

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;

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