"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."
These revolutionary words from the Declaration of Independence are worth reflecting upon in light of the current struggle for economic justice in America. The government of the United States, the richest and most powerful country in the world, is perpetuating economic injustice within the United States and throughout the world. While the government seems to have unlimited funds for missiles and munitions, it is failing to provide health care, housing or education for large segments of the US population.
Millions of Americans, including working Americans, live below the poverty line. There are more than 40 million Americans without health insurance with little or no access to basic medical care. There are tens of millions of Americans without homes, and home ownership is becoming an impossible dream for most young Americans. The possibilities of a college education are also receding for young Americans, as the funds provided for education diminish. The truth is that we have no economic justice in this country and the situation is growing rapidly worse under the Bush administration.
State budgets are running in the red, and that means that their services to the people are diminishing. In 2002, states cut $49 billion in health care, welfare benefits, education and other public services. They plan to cut another $25.7 billion in 2003. State budget cuts this year and last year will be nearly equivalent to the initial amounts requested by Mr. Bush and allocated by Congress for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Rather than help the states in meeting their budgets, and thereby support the American people, Mr. Bush has squandered our federal funds on an illegal foreign war.
In spite of these shortfalls, Mr. Bush pressed for tax cuts of over $700 billion over a ten year period, tax relief that would go largely to the wealthiest Americans. Congress ended up passing tax cuts of $330 billion, less than half of the Bush request. While some $20 billion will go back to the states, the bulk of the relief will benefit the very rich, including Mr. Bush and many in his cabinet. Most Americans will receive a few hundred dollars or less, and the poorest Americans will receive nothing or next to nothing. By contrast, the richest Americans will receive tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in tax relief.
This means that those at the top of the economic pyramid will have more money to contribute to the candidates of their choice, who in turn will help them to get a larger share of the economic pie. The rest of us predictably will get a smaller share of the pie, and there are far more of us to compete for these leftovers.
In America, if you are rich, it is very likely that the president and the Congress will be working for your interests, by providing tax cuts and other benefits. If you are poor, who will be representing you in our democracy? It is not likely to be the present incumbent of the White House. Nor is it likely to be your member of Congress, when many in Congress are indebted to corporate interests.
If you are poor and not well educated in America, you may be able to work for minimum wage. That will probably be enough to keep you struggling below the poverty line, particularly if you have children, and your children will be forced to join you in poverty. Further, if these children do not receive a decent education, the cycle will go on and will likely be perpetuated to their children.
If you are poor in America and you are young, you may be able to join the military. We couldn’t have a voluntary military without high levels of poverty. And without a voluntary military, we couldn’t have perpetual wars because then the politicians and their financial supporters would have to send their own sons and daughters to fight. They wouldn’t be any more likely to do this than they would be to volunteer to go themselves to fight. They far prefer to send your sons and daughters to kill and die in foreign lands. In actuality, only one member of Congress had a child fighting in Iraq.
The war against Iraq is likely to cost the American taxpayer at least $100 billion and possibly much more. Those who profit will certainly include the Defense Contractors, those who provide the munitions and other material expended in the war. Other profiteers from the war will be those contracted to rebuild what we have destroyed in Iraq and, of course, the multinational oil companies.
Corporate names such as Halliburton, Dick Cheney’s old company, and Bechtel will be among the winners from this war. Lockheed Martin, Ratheon, the Carlyle Group and other giant defense contractors will undoubtedly also be among the winners. The poor and middle class in America, as well as the people of Iraq, will be among the losers.
We are now spending some $400 billion a year on our military forces, not including the special expenditures for the war in Iraq. This is approximately one-half of the money that Congress has discretion to allocate each year. The money that goes to the military cannot go to social programs that would lead to economic justice in our country. Money that goes to the military cannot even defend America as 9/11 demonstrated so dramatically.
Four hundred billion dollars a year on the military is over $1.1 billion dollars a day. It works out to $45.5 million per hour, $761,000 per minute. Imagine all of the important social programs that will go unfunded or underfunded to pay that $400 billion per year for a military that cannot defend us.
Some 500 billionaires on this planet, mostly Americans, have the equivalent assets of half of the world’s population. Three billion people on our planet live on less that $2 per day. More than one billion people live on less than $1 dollar per day. Over a billion people lack access to clean water, and over 2.5 billion people do not have access to basic sanitation. Millions of people die annually throughout the developing world due to water-borne diseases and inadequate sanitation.
On our planet over one billion people are illiterate, and some 100 million children are denied access to primary education. For a small portion of what the US government spends on its military, it could be saving lives and building friendships by humanitarian assistance in food, health care, education and sanitation.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has called for battling against poverty in the war against terrorism. "We have to go after poverty," he said. "We have to go after despair. We have to go after hopelessness."
Of course, Secretary Powell is right about this, but it isn’t what our country has done historically, and Powell’s clarion call will not likely be heard in the White House. The US remains last among industrialized countries in the amount of its gross domestic product that it allocates for international development at 0.11 percent. The US is spending more on its plans to research, develop and deploy missile defenses ($7.8 billion) than it for its international humanitarian and development assistance ($7.6 billion). We are not seriously "going after poverty," as Mr. Powell advised, but rather going after bombs, wars and missile shields.
Our failure to make a serious effort to stem poverty and injustice in the world is leading to resentment, anger and aggression toward America and innocent Americans. Pumping large amounts of money into the military is not an answer to these problems and makes the situation even less secure for the average American. We need to change our policies both at home and abroad to bolster economic and social justice. We need to fund bread rather than bombs.
If we want economic justice in America, we are going to have to change our direction. We are going to have to share the resources of the country with its people, not only the wealthy few, and also be more generous abroad. The United States is not meant to be a country "of the rich, by the rich and for the rich." It is a country, we are taught, "of the people, by the people, and for the people." We are the People and, for the good of ourselves and the world, we had better reclaim our country and reallocate our resources.
This means a far greater involvement of the people in our democratic processes. It means throwing out the politicians of both political parties who serve the interests of the corporations over the interests of the People. It means reallocating resources away from the militarization of America toward meeting the social needs of the poorest among us and allowing all Americans to live a better life.
The American dream is being squandered by a small group of extremist ideologues who are both greedy and myopic. Let us reclaim our land from these extremists. Let us strive to be a great country because we care for each other, particularly the least among us, and for the world in which we live. The implications of restoring economic justice are profound. They lie at the heart of environmental devastation of our planet and the suffering of large portions of humanity. Economic justice may prove to be a far more important factor in quelling terrorism than military force.
We can begin by empowering ourselves to bring about the changes necessary to achieve economic justice in our country and in the world. We can start by speaking out and urging our members of Congress to oppose tax cuts and instead allocate this money to support health care, housing and education. Let us also urge our members of Congress to vote to cut back on obscene military expenditures and transfer these funds instead to meeting human needs, in the United States and throughout the world. The next step should be to work through the electoral process to replace those political leaders who remain indebted to corporate interests and committed to the militarization of America. By taking these steps, by our engagement, we can move toward restoring dignity and economic justice at home and abroad.
DAVID KRIEGER is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. He is the editor of Hope in a Dark Time (Capra Press, 2003), and author of Choose Hope, Your Role in Waging Peace in the Nuclear Age (Middleway Press, 2002). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.