New Internationalist

Taboo economics

Issue 441

I have a proposal: Let’s double US government funds devoted to promoting renewable energy. Let’s expand allocations for foreclosure prevention to help another million Americans keep their homes. Let’s launch a $10-billion infrastructure programme to repair crumbling roads and bridges. Let’s double the number of new maths and science teachers that President Obama hopes to train, bringing the total to 200,000. And let’s hire back all of those police officers fired by the city of Camden, New Jersey – already among the most dangerous places in the country before budget constraints compelled it to dismiss half of its police force in December.

While we’re at it, let’s reduce the deficit by about $40 billion.

This proposition is not voodoo economics. It is taboo economics. All of these things could be accomplished by trimming US military spending by just 10 per cent. Some of these suggestions (teacher training, Camden cops) are trifling items by the standards of Pentagon budgeting, together accounting for less than the cost of a single Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet.

Last year, the New York Times website offered an interactive feature, through which readers could attempt to balance the budget by choosing between a variety of cost-saving measures. The exercise showed that runaway healthcare expenses must be controlled for the US government to remain solvent in the long term. Yet, even with the troublesome burden of our private healthcare system, covering the projected 2015 budget shortfall was easy, provided you did two things: allowed Bush-era tax cuts to expire (including estate tax cuts for the wealthy) and opted for a selection of modest rollbacks for the military.

You can learn a lot from Americans’ attitudes about the budget, which are out of whack in several notable areas. When polled, US voters consistently overestimate the amount spent on foreign aid. Most believe it’s now around a quarter of the federal budget. In a show of iron-willed (if isolationist) penny-pinching, the average survey participant proposes it should be pared down to just 10 per cent of government spending.

In contrast, Americans wildly underestimate Pentagon spending. Only 25 per cent of those in a recent Rasmussen poll thought the country should spend at least three times as much as any other nation on defence. (Some 40 per cent thought we should spend less, with the remaining 35 per cent unsure.) Yet the United States’ annual outlays on its military – around $700 billion – come to more than six times the amount paid out by arms-happy China, our nearest rival.

US weapons-makers are geniuses at preventing cuts. They spread production for pricey armaments widely across Congressional districts so that lawmakers take military allocations personally, viewing them as a source of jobs for people back home. Thus, even as rightwingers spare no vitriol in attacking Obama’s stimulus spending – arguing ‘if Washington wants to help the economy, the best thing it can do is get out of the way’ – their ‘free market’ convictions disappear when it comes to stemming the flow of Pentagon largesse.

This year, several freshly elected Tea Partiers broke with traditional conservatives and vowed that defence cuts should be ‘on the table’. Yet, for all the talk of a new regime, both Democratic and Republican budget proposals actually increase military spending. The Pentagon’s 2012 funding request is the largest since World War Two. Even adjusting for inflation, it exceeds anything that Ronald Reagan or George W Bush had the audacity to push forward.

Would we not be a more humane, more responsible country if we spent far less on arms? Even in this age of austerity, answering in the affirmative in Washington remains seriously taboo.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus and author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the website www.DemocracyUprising.com

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