Jo Comerford, Three Cheers for the War Dividend

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[Note to TomDispatch Readers: I’ll be on the road for the next week with limited email access. I may not be answering letters and requests. Be patient. For those of you living in the Santa Fe, New Mexico area, this Wednesday night (October 21st) at 7 pm at the Lensic Performing Arts Center I’ll be introducing TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit and chatting with her after she reads from her works. She’s a national treasure, so come listen in. Tom]

If you want a picture of how Washington deals with American war-making today, check out a moment from NBC’s October 11th “Meet the Press.” David Gregory, the show’s moderator, is conducting a round-table discussion with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers, Senator Lindsey Graham, Senator Carl Levin, and retired General Barry McCaffrey (one of those generals who now spends his time on television explaining our wars to us). At one point, Gregory asks: “Can we beat the Taliban?” General McCaffrey’s reply starts this way: “Well, I, I think in 10 years of $5 billion a month and with a significant front-end security component, we can leave an Afghan national army and police force and a viable government and roads and universities. But it’s a time constraint that we can’t change things in 18 to 24 months. So I think we got to lower expectations.”

Now, if you were a normal citizen, you might begin frantically calculating: $5 billion a month… 12 months in a year… $60 billion a year… times 10 years… $600 billion dollars. If, in fact, the number of U.S. troops or trainers and advisors rises significantly and the U.S. commitment to the war rises as well, this will surely prove a gross underestimate. But leaving that aside, you, the normal, reasonable human being, might at this point say something like: “Hold on, general, $600 billion more dollars? Ten years? And where’s that money coming from? And is that really how you want to invest taxpayer dollars — in another supposedly too-big-to-fail bailout?” Or, of course, you might just jump up and yell, “Have you lost your senses?”

But of course this is Washington where such numbers for American war-fighting are so ho-hum, so run-of-the-mill, that none of the other participants even thinks to comment on or question them or stops for a second in wonder. In fact, when McCaffrey is done, here’s how Gregory begins his response: “Just with, with very little time left, I want to get to two other issues. The president spoke last night at the Human Rights Campaign dinner and spoke about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’…” And so it goes in “wartime” Washington.

Jo Comerford, a TomDispatch newcomer, runs the National Priorities Project, whose mission is to analyze “complex federal spending data and translate it into easy-to-understand information about how federal tax dollars are spent.” Its site even has a “cost of war” counter, constantly twirling as the dollars rise in dizzying fashion. Here, as a numbers cruncher, she makes the most basic point of all: Whoever may be losing in our country, others are cashing in their chips and I’m not just talking about Goldman Sachs. After all, there’s also the “war dividend.” Tom

Cashing in the War Dividend
The Joys of Perpetual War
By Jo Comerford

So you thought the Pentagon was already big enough? Well, what do you know, especially with the price of the American military slated to grow by at least 25% over the next decade?

Forget about the butter. It’s bad for you anyway. And sheer military power, as well as the money behind it, assures the country of a thick waistline without the cholesterol. So, let’s sing the praises of perpetual war. We better, since right now every forecast in sight tells us that it’s our future.

The tired peace dividend tug boat left the harbor two decades ago, dragging with it laughable hopes for universal health care and decent public education. Now, the mighty USS War Dividend is preparing to set sail. The economic weather reports may be lousy and the seas choppy, but one thing is guaranteed: that won’t stop it.

The United States, of course, long ago captured first prize in the global arms race. It now spends as much as the next 14 countries combined, even as the spending of our rogue enemies and former enemies — Cuba, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria — much in the headlines for their prospective armaments, makes up a mere 1% of the world military budget. Still, when you’re a military superpower focused on big-picture thinking, there’s no time to dawdle on the details.

And be reasonable, who could expect the U.S. to fight two wars and maintain more than 700 bases around the world for less than the $704 billion we’ll shell out to the Pentagon in 2010? But here’s what few Americans grasp and you aren’t going to read about in your local paper either: according to Department of Defense projections, the baseline military budget — just the bare bones, not those billions in war-fighting extras — is projected to increase by 2.5% each year for the next 10 years. In other words, in the next decade the basic Pentagon budget will grow by at least $133.1 billion, or 25%.

When it comes to the health of the war dividend in economically bad times, if that’s not good news, what is? As anyone at the Pentagon will be quick to tell you, it’s a real bargain, a steal, at least compared to the two-term presidency of George W. Bush. Then, that same baseline defense budget grew by an astonishing 38%.

If the message isn’t already clear enough, let me summarize: it’s time for the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, Health and Human Services, Labor, Education, and Veterans Affairs to suck it up. After all, Americans, however unemployed, foreclosed, or unmedicated, will only be truly secure if the Pentagon is exceedingly well fed. According to the Office of Management and Budget, what that actually means is this: 55% of next year’s discretionary spending — that is, the spending negotiated by the President and Congress — will go to the military just to keep it chugging along.

The 14 million American children in poverty, the millions of citizens who will remain without health insurance (even if some version of the Baucus plan is passed), the 7.6 million people who have lost jobs since 2007, all of them will have to take a number. The same is true of the kinds of projects needed to improve the country’s disintegrating infrastructure, including the 25% of U.S. drinking water that was given a barely passing “D” by the American Society of Civil Engineers in a 2009 study.

And don’t imagine that this is a terrible thing either! There’s no shame in paying $400 for every gallon of gas used in Afghanistan, especially when the Marines alone are reported to consume 800,000 gallons of it each day. After all, the evidence is in: a few whiners aside, Americans want our tax dollars used this way. Otherwise we’d complain, and no one makes much of a fuss about war or the ever-rising numbers of dollars going to it anymore.

$915.1 billion in total Iraq and Afghanistan war spending to date has been a no-brainer, even if it could, theoretically, have been traded in for the annual salaries of 15 million teachers or 20 million police officers or for 171 million Pell Grants of approximately $5,350 each for use by American college and university students.

Next March, we will collectively reach a landmark in this new version of the American way of life. We will hit the $1 trillion mark in total Iraq and Afghanistan war spending with untold years of war-making to go. No problem. It’s only the proposed nearly $900 billion for a decade of health care that we fear will do us in.

Nor is it the Pentagon’s fault that U.S. states have laws prohibiting them from deficit spending. The 48 governors and state legislatures now struggling with budget deficits should stop complaining and simply be grateful for their ever smaller slices of the federal pie. Between 2001 and 2008, federal grant funding for state and local governments lagged behind the 28% growth of the federal budget by 14%, while military spending outpaced federal budget growth with a 41% increase. There is every reason to believe that this is a trend, not an anomaly, which means that Title 1, Head Start, Community Development Block Grants, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program will just have to make do with less. In fact, if you want a true measure of what’s important to our nation, think of it this way: if you add together the total 2010 budgets of all those 48 states in deficit, they won’t even equal projected U.S. military spending for the same year.

Take the situation of Massachusetts, for example. Yankee spirit or not, that state will see a 17.3% decrease in federal grants in 2010 no matter how hard Governor Deval Patrick wrings his hands. True to the American way, Patrick’s projected $5 billion fiscal year 2010 deficit will be his problem and his alone, as is his state’s recently-announced $600 million budget shortfall for 2009. Blame it on declining tax revenue and the economic crisis, on things that are beyond his control. No matter, Patrick will have to make deep cuts to elderly mental health services and disabled home-care programs, and lose large chunks of funding for universal pre-kindergarten, teacher training, gifted and talented programs in the schools, and so much more.

Still, that Commonwealth’s politicians are clearly out of step with the country. On October 9, 2009, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino joined with Congressman Barney Frank in calling on President Obama to find extra money for such programs by reducing military spending 25%. President Obama, cover your ears! Menino, who actually believes that a jump in military spending contributed to “significantly raising the federal deficit and lowering our economic security,” asked the federal government to be a better partner to Boston by reinvesting in its schools, public housing, transportation, and job-training programs, especially for young people. Of course, this is delusional, as any Pentagon budgeteer could tell you. This isn’t some Head Start playground, after all, it’s the battlefield of American life. Tough it out, Menino.

One principle has, by now, come to dominate our American world, even if nobody seems to notice: do whatever it takes to keep federal dollars flowing for weapons systems (and the wars that go with them). And don’t count on the Pentagon to lend a hand by having a bake sale any time soon; don’t expect it to voluntarily cut back on major weapons systems without finding others to take their place. If, as a result, our children are less likely to earn high school and college diplomas than we were, that’s what prisons and the Marines are for.

So let’s break a bottle of champagne — or, if the money comes out of a state budget, Coke — on the bow of the USS War Dividend! And send it off on its next voyage without an iceberg in sight. Let the corks pop. Let the bubbly drown out that Harvard University report indicating that 45,000 deaths last year were due to a lack of health insurance.

Hip hip…

Jo Comerford is the executive director of the National Priorities Project. Previously, she served as director of programs at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and directed the American Friends Service Committee’s justice and peace-related community organizing efforts in western Massachusetts.

[Note on sources: For more information and many of the figures on defense spending in this piece, see the National Priorities Project’s Security Spending Primer: Getting Smart About The Pentagon Budget, which can be found at the top of the project’s website. The Primer answers the most frequently asked questions about, and supplies the most commonly requested information on, the Pentagon budget and U.S. military spending. Note also that Jo Comerford can be seen in Robert Greenwald’s striking new film Rethink Afghanistan.]

Copyright 2009 Jo Comerford

Jo Comerford is the executive director of the National Priorities Project. Previously, she served as director of programs at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts and directed the American Friends Service Committee's justice and peace-related community organizing efforts in western Massachusetts.