The Strange Political Economy of Death in the South


A lead story in The New York Times of October 16th warns that key regions throughout the deep South are about to run out of water. The Times story by Brenda Goodman, “Drought-Stricken South Facing Tough Choices,” notes that “for the first time in more than 100 years, much of the Southeast has reached the most severe category of droughtcreating an emergency so serious that some cities are just months away from running out of water.”

Most of the worst part of this drought (classified as “exceptional”) is concentrated in six Southeastern States: Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama. Extreme drought regions also include southern California and western Arizona. Aside from potential climate changes and the lack of rainfall, a central problem is the demand for water. Michael J. Hayes, head of the National Drought Mitigation Center, explains that the Southeast has become more vulnerable. With a growing population, there has been a both an increased demand and competition for water.

From Water to Guns

What then has been one of the primary engines of the South’s population growth (and resource demands)? The military inspired boom concentrated in these very same states. An economic geographical history of the key Southern states shows that their rise (together with regions like Southern California and Arizona), and part of the North East and Midwest’s relative decline, has been based on the extension of military spending. Ann Markusen and her colleagues chronicled this shift in The Rise of the Gunbelt, a book which also addressed the accompanying rise of political clout in such military dependent regions.

The Bush Revolution in military spending continues the familiar pattern. In a list of 55 states and territories, Arizona was ranked fifth and Alabama was ranked sixth, in defense contract expenditures by state, with Kentucky and California (sixteenth and eighteenth respectively) also high up on the list (see www.statematster.com). More impressive is the absolute growth in military expenditures in these states (Table 1). All these states are located in the Sunbelt and now blanketed by drought have been primary beneficiaries of Bush & Co.’s “War on Terror.”

Table 1: The Regional Bush War Dividend:
Defense Contracts-Expenditures in Thousands of
Inflation Adjusted Dollars

1996 2005 Percent Increase
Alabama $2,261,969 $7,216,743 219.0%
Arizona $3,592,956 $9,677,502 169.3%
California $22,652,009 $31,819,865 40.5%
Georgia $4,897,607 $5,887,889 20.2%
Kentucky $1,056,302 $4,392,927 315.9%
North Carolina $2,035,692 $2,912,429 43.1%
South Carolina $1,249,946 $1,984,848 58.8%
Tennessee $1,392,349 $2,866,649 105.9%

Source: Author’s calculations based on the National Priorities Project Database.

Convert to Peace or Die by Draught

These federal funds are not simply the redistribution of what Seymour Melman once called Pentagon capitalism. They also represent an opportunity cost against reinvestment in infrastructure and the kinds of alternatives that might better prepare a region for drought, e.g. water purification and recycling systems and the like. The Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED) is a leading national think tank which assesses the relative performance of states. In their “2007 Overview: Development Report Card for the States,” the CFED assessed the “development capacity” of all fifty states. By this they meant “the way current resources are used with an eye to the future.” This refers to quality investments in education, physical infrastructure, and “financial, natural, and technological resources.” The CFED gave Alabama, a state now almost completely blanketed by drought, an F. Arizona and South Carolina received a D. The balance of states listed above received a C.

The American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave California, where the southern region now confronts “extreme” drought, a C+ grade in its 2006 Infrastructure Report Card. The ASCE noted that “significant investments” were “needed to address renewal and replacement, maintenance, security and reliability funding for the State’s water infrastructure.” Such increased investments were needed to “increase sustainability” and to “ensure water supply and infrastructure reliability into the future.”

Nationwide, the bloated and oversized military budget means alternative investments to reduce oil and internal combustion dependency may amount to little more than public relations exercises. In his history of the U.S.’s oil addicting propulsion system, Internal Combustion, Edwin Black explains that internal combustion energy demands represent the consumption of 63 percent of petroleum use in the United States. He also notes, however, that “the war in Iraq cost about $6 billion per month, or three Manhattan Project-sized enterprises annually-that is, seventeen weeks of war in Iraq costs about the same as the Manhattan Project.” Black calls for a Manhattan Project scale investment in alternative energy systems.

Petroleum based automobiles not only have pernicious health effects, but are also an incentive system for various resource wars, described by Michael T. Klare in a series of articles and books. A recent Klare article argues that “wars in the future may be fought just to run the machines that fight them.”

The Pentagon needs oil and supports the militarization of foreign policy to secure a nation addicted to oil. The vast diversion of resources into the military coffers is part of the continuing depletion of critical infrastructure. As Seymour Melman noted, “for every $100 of new civilian capital formation in 1979, the military were given $33 in their budget.” In the first three months of 2004, “defense work accounted for nearly 16 percent of the nation’s economic growth, according to the Commerce Department” according to an article in the Washington Post (May 11, 2004). A recent study by Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz estimates the projected total costs of the Iraq war to be from about $1 trillion to an excess of $2 trillion. Finally, for those thinking Melman’s figures part of distant history, consider more recent numbers assembled by Dr. Fred Magdoff at the University of Vermont in Burlington. In a recent article in Monthly Review, Magdoff writes: “During five years just prior to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (through 2000), military expenditures relative to investment were at their lowest point in the last quarter century, but were still equal to approximately one-quarter of gross private investment and one-third of business investment (calculated from National Income and Product Accounts, table 1.1.5).” Granted military spending may provide a short term Keynesian boost to the economy, but all this matters very little when the water runs out and defense and civilian spin-offs in the aerospace sector are increasingly made in China.

The Greening of the Pentagon and War Planners

A growing group of activists already recognizes the mutual interests of demilitarization (or at least opposing war) and environmental restoration. Nevertheless, while the peace and environmental movements have joined forces (see http://www.nowarnowarming.org/), part of the political elite is enamored by another kind of coalition, what might be called greenpentagon.com. The linkage between militarism and environmentalism has taken concrete form in SAFE (Securing America’s Future Energy). This coalition is comprised of leading corporate and former military leaders. The principal leaders include Frederick Smith, head of FedEx, and General P. X. Kelley, a former Marine Corps Commander. This latter coalition helped force U.S. automakers to adopt new fuel economy standards back in June.

The connections do not stop there and are embraced by various intellectuals and policy makers. In Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger’s recent article, “A Manifesto for a New Environmentalism,” published in the September 24th issue of The New Republic, one finds the environmental equivalent of humanitarian imperialism. The Pentagon is again the agent of political praxis. The authors call for “a five- or ten-fold increase in investment in clean energyfrom less than $3 billion per year to $15 to $30 billion.” This sounds reasonable, but they continue: “Some of this money ought to be used to create a new military-industrial-academic complex around clean-energy sciences, similar to the one we created around computer science in the 1950s and ’60s.” They describe how funds could “be used to buy down the price of clean-energy technologies like the Defense Department did with mircochips.” If only the Department of Commerce or the EPA were given the authority to develop microchips!

Dr. Jon Rynn, a blogger at Gristmill, explains part of the logic of military procurement. He writes that “the central thrust of the conservative movement since Reagan has been to inculcate the idea of ‘government bad, market good.'” In other words, “the idea of making a virtue of public investment runs totally counter to a conservative world view.” He argues that Nordhaus and Shellenberger have tried to be “politically relevant” by supporting “the two institutions that conservatives and moderates have been able to agree are legitimate sources of public investment: the Pentagon and government-supported R&D.” Noam Chomsky argues that in the first twenty-five years of the postwar era, “the cutting edge of the economy was electronics-based and the way to fool the public into paying for that was” to support various wars. A shift to biology-based economy, he argues may shift the locus of government funding. While Pentagon subsidies for high technology industry are still high, environmentalism now gives the Pentagon another reason to make a claim on public monies.

The ideological interest of Green Militarism follows a concrete material interest. Eco-militarism has a powerful but pernicious logic, taking diverse forms. It’s clear that the vast procurement power of the Pentagon could be used to support green technologies. That is clearly why many in the environmental movement cringe at any talk about linking sustainability to military budget cuts. They are clearly angling for a crack at the Bush war dividend. And whether or not this phenomenon is desirable, it exists. A recent post on the Government Executive website (October 4, 2007), noted that “the Defense authorization bill approved by the Senate this week would require the Pentagon to consider the effects of climate change on military capabilities, facilities and missions.” The Pentagon itself is going green (see

While some question the merits of hydrogen power a key firm involved in fuel cells called Plug Power, together with Ballard Power Systems Inc., was awarded a $3.5 million award by the Department of Defense. The grant was for collaboration “on the next phase of fuel cell systems development” according to the company’s webpage. These companies “have worked together since early 2006 on backup power applications that target the U.S. DoD and Department of Homeland Security and other government agencies.”

With “industrial policy” considered an obsolete term and the “war on terror” colonizing the federal budget, there are often few alternatives for civilian high technology firms. Making bedfellows with the Pentagon is part of the present insanity of the U.S. federal budget. We are left with regional military industrial complexes whose populations may be starving for water. We help prop up the military divisions of multidivisional defense firms and thereby depress the clout of any civilian entrepreneurs remaining in such firms. Green industry learns to adapt to the Pentagon’s rulebook and checkbook, potentially corrupting their ability to deliver the low cost energy solutions which large scale government procurement is supposed to foster. The Green alliance with the Pentagon helps provide political cover for the whole brutality of the “war on terror,” which itself is a primary generator of terrorists through U.S. military massacres of civilians. The Pentagon, probably the world’s biggest polluter, is legitimated in all its doings by environmental charlatans.

Democratic Planning Versus the Auto-Oil Industrial Complex

The U.S. has an auto-oil industrial complex. Together, with its cousins in the military-industrial complex, media barons and unchecked monopoly capitalist accumulation, such forces threaten to block any comprehensive reforms. The late Robert Engler, who died in February of this year was an early and paramount figure in the political economy of energy. Engler explained a large part of the problem long ago. In The Politics of Oil, his masterwork published 1961, Engler described how “the oil lobby” could “be found right within the Congress itself.” He noted that “twenty-seven per cent of the land area of the United States has oil production or is under lease to the industry.” Moreover, “thirty-two states have oil and gas production.” He wrote that “certainly it is difficult to find a congressman from an oil or gas state who will ever vote ‘wrong’ on oil or gas legislation.” Just like in the military industrial complex, the state and corporate order were joined hand in hand: “public bureaucraciesfrequently function as administrative lobbies for policies that are essentially private.” The Interior Department was a champion for the big oil lobby.

Engler’s alternative was to support democratic planning. In books like The Politics of Oil and the The Brotherhood of Oil, Engler repeated this theme. Engler wrote: “Responsible planning thus requires a thorough overhaul of the American political apparatus to create the channels for maintaining democratic involvement. It will also require a scaling down of energy-intensive technologies so as to lessen the necessity for centralization and for the social control that remorselessly follow.”

Where is the power to come from to challenge these vast conglomerates of power? The drought crisis is but one on a continually growing list of crises and opportunities where concerted organizing could provide a foundation for democratic planning. The scandals around outsourcing, Katrina, civil liberties, failed banking policies are part of a countless list of problems which NGOs and social movements could address if they simply broadened the list of dots that they should be connecting. Militarists have a decided advantage in linking war and environment. Coalitions should also link the labor movement. They should promote democratic alternatives to an economy that increasingly depletes equality and productive investments. Without politicizing the budget and procurement decisions and the without the creation of democratic economic alternatives, the progressive movement will fall farther and farther behind.

Jonathan M. Feldman is a lecturer at Stockholm University and part of the network, www.economicreconstruction.com where he can be reached. He is author of an article published in Social Text this summer, “From Warfare State to ‘Shadow State’: Militarism, Economic Depletion and Reconstruction.”


Jonathan M. Feldman is a founder of the Global Teach-In (www.globalteachin.com) and can be reached at @globalteachin on Twitter.

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