The sacred cow in a time of plague

by Phil Anderson

We are finding out – very painfully – that there is much more to “national security” than weapons of war. The current pandemic sweeping the nation adds angst and urgency to the situation. We are seeing the results of excessive military preparedness and insufficient investment in all other government activities that actually make our lives secure.

The U.S. military is the largest and most expensive in the world. It has been since WWII. We spend more on defense than the next eight top spenders combined. We have military bases in 140 countries, more than any empire ever. We have 11 nuclear aircraft carrier battle groups (China and Russia have one each). With the exception of Russia having more tanks, the U.S. exceeds every other nation in ships, planes and weapons. The U.S. arsenal is the most advanced.

But an outbreak of disease is bringing our country to its knees. We don’t have enough paper face masts to protect people We don’t have enough hospital beds, enough test kits, or enough ventilators. We don’t have a universal national health care system or paid sick leave needed in this time of crisis. So people with COVID-19 (or any other communicable disease) are not getting the attention needed. Many people are not financially able to stay home. So we have a poor health emergency response system because we have been unwilling to pay for a good system. This should be a wake up call about our poor spending priorities.

Cost is no problem, however, for the military sacred cow. We have enough nukes to destroy the world. We have the money for unnecessary military bases and naval fleets circling the globe. We have unlimited war funds. No one every asks how we will pay for a war. The money magically appears.

Military spending typically consumes about 55% of the federal “discretionary” budget each year (and this figure only includes the Department of Defense, nuclear weapons, and the Overseas Contingency Operation (i.e., war funding). This spending for FY 2020 was $733 billion. The proposed 2021 budget for $740.5 billion. In contrast the Centers for Disease Control in 2020 received a total of $6.6 billion. This was $1.3 billion or 19.3% less than 2019. The proposed 2021 CDC budget is cut another 9%. Clearly this in not what is needed.

Even worse, the figures above are not the total cost for “national security.” Analysis by the Center for Defense Information adds up all other war-related spending in the federal budget. Using this measurement the total proposed national security spending for 2021 is $1.21 trillion out of a proposed $1.5 trillion discretionary budget. This is 81.5% of discretionary spending, which is the annual operating budget of the federal government.

This means all other operations of government – education, law enforcement, food safety, public health, children’s health, environmental protection, medical research, farm subsidies, housing, economic development, disaster relief, etc. –  get only 20 cents of your income tax dollar. War and preparation for war gets 80 cents of every disposable dollar. When even the court system, the backbone of conservative “law-and-order,” is underfunded, it is time to re-assess.

This is troubling because our personal, community, national and international problems can’t be solved by military action. The current pandemic is only one example. Climate change, environmental destruction, population control, poverty and economic inequality have no military solutions. Most of the world’s serious problems can only be solved through cooperation and diplomacy. In addition our obsession with militarism exacerbates these problems. Increasing international cooperation will reduce conflict and diminish the risk of costly wars while creating a better, cleaner, safer, more just and equitable world. But federal spending for diplomacy and international cooperation gets only 3% of the budget.

Defense is a necessary function of government, but most of our bloated military is not defensive. It is offense. It is for “projecting power” and maintaining the capability for military intervention that got us into quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. A national security that is truly defensive would invest much more in diplomacy, cultural exchange, international cooperation, respect for treaties and enforcement of international law.

Instead we are building 10 new $12 billion aircraft carriers (each twice the CDC budget). Some experts say aircraft carriers will soon be obsolete. They are vulnerable to a new generation of guided missiles. We are spending $1.5 trillion to “modernize” nuclear weapons which is creating a new arms race. More than half of the Pentagon budget goes to weapons manufacturers and other contractors. It does not “support the troops.” This spending is legendary for widespread waste and fraud. Just cleaning up the corruption could fund large increases in public health spending.

Even conservative advocates for a strong military object to the current level of military spending. Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis (U.S. Army, ret.) writing in 2016 for the Project on Government Oversight said, “But is there such a thing as too much defense spending? Is it possible that, counter-intuitively, more defense dollars could make us less safe? Yes. The fact is, that is exactly what’s happening. There are tens of billions of defense dollars being wasted every year. That’s not just bad for our checkbook. It’s bad for our military effectiveness.”

Christopher A. Preble, writing for the libertarian Cato Institute, says, “If U.S. foreign policy was less focused on trying to transform the world in America’s image by force, and more on leading by example, that would allow for a smaller and less costly – but still extremely capable – military. Allocating more attention to the other instruments of U.S. power and influence, meanwhile, would enable Americans to remain globally engaged through trade, diplomacy, and cultural exchange.”

No matter how you spin the numbers, we spend way too much on war and preparation for war. It is time to change our priorities.

Our country would be stronger, our people safer, and the world more peaceful it we did. We have to stop throwing more and more money at the military sacred cow.