More Bucks for the Bang
by Greg Speeter
Covert Action Quarterly magazine,
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 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
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
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
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
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;