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Under fiscal strain the United States is abandoning its $6 billion plutonium bomb factory

Starving the Real Beast

by DARWIN BOND-GRAHAM

“How does the American state finance both its expensive social welfare programs and its powerful military, while most other nation-states can barely afford one or the other? The answer lies in the system of progressive income taxation resurrected by political leaders in the early twentieth century and perfected during the Second World War. The income tax is the centerpiece of a robust system of revenue extraction that provides the national government with an efficient means of penetrating society and appropriating wealth from the domestic economy….”

“Revenue is critical to state development because modern states, with their powerful armies and vast bureaucracies, require enormous revenue. Without that revenue, maintenance of state institutions, let alone expansion is impossible [....]when the revenue-raising capacity of a state is in jeopardy, there arises the distinct possibility of institutional decay and perhaps even regime collapse.”

—Sheldon Pollack, War, Revenue and State Building.

In the 2013 US federal budget proposal released yesterday by the Obama administration  some of the contradictions of American empire are finding expression in cuts, delays, and cancellations of once “absolutely necessary” weapons systems. What’s happening isn’t even close to regime collapse, but it is a product of institutional decay resulting from the now chronic fiscal crisis of the federal state.

The war machine has begun to eat itself for the sake of preserving hyper-inequalities resulting directly from the less progressive tax code instituted a decade prior, and the multitude of shelters capital now hides behind. The plutocratic society today literally devours plutonium in order to sustain this social inequality, and to shield citadels of corporate wealth from the otherwise universal devaluation of equity resulting from a global economy that actually shrank last year.

Admittedly the monster’s autosarcophagy is only nibbling bites at this point, but still the appendages, the fingers and toes being chewed off are significant, and may portend greater opportunities for the American people to check the largest single source of expanded federal deficit spending (besides privatized health care) – the US military.

Most conspicuous among cuts in the 2013 budget is the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR). The Obama administration proposes “deferring construction for at least five years,” and cuts $165 million (actually $265 since the expected funding level was $300) from the project’s budget, leaving a paltry $35 million this year, barely enough to keep the lights on for an undertaking so massively expensive (http://www.scribd.com/doc/81479308/CMRR-Cut-from-2013-Budget). It’s effectively the end, unless Congress dramatically rebels and restores funding. Moans of defeat and unsatisfied greed can be heard drifting out of the offices and boardrooms of Bechtel and the University of California, and their subcontractors who until recently were burning through hundreds of millions of federal dollars yearly designing the project.

Planned to be built at the Los Alamos weapons lab in New Mexico, the CMRR was to be the centerpiece of a new bomb-plex for the US nuclear weapons establishment. Costing upwards of $6 billion, according to the most recent estimates, the CMRR never graduated from its design phase because the engineering challenges of constructing a plutonium handling facility of its magnitude and purpose, atop an earthquake fault, and vouching for its “safety,” has proven all but impossible. Institutional decay prevents such complex undertakings today. Construction preparations only began to take shape last year, and even though they revealed a firm commitment to build, activities on the ground never reached a stage of coherency.

In 2010 the CMRR —even in the midst of its own impossibility and the incompetence of those tasked with building it— became a potent bargaining chip around which much larger struggles over the social contract were negotiated. As I reported for CounterPunch  the Obama administration willingly traded away upwards of $90 billion in commitments to the US nuclear weapons complex for CMRR and other facilities and programs, and another pot of money measuring in the hundreds of billions for new nuclear equipped submarines, aircraft, and missile systems desired by the armed services. Going further, Obama’s staff promised billions more to authorize exotic non-nuclear weapons systems. It was a feast of dollars and authorization, all to secure votes in favor of the New START treaty.

It was also readily apparent at the time that these huge spending increases on nuclear and non-nuclear strategic weapons would require equally large cuts in other areas of the federal budget. This withering reality was only reaffirmed when the administration caved on extension of the Bush tax cuts and fell victim to the debt ceiling trap, among other grave economic injustices. Guns starved butter, repeatedly, and no one in government seemed willing or able, or even mature enough, to scale back the debt-inducing and paralyzing experiment in less-progressive taxation accelerated ten years prior. Still they wanted their exorbitant weapons factories and systems.

In the past two years, as the fiscal situation of the United States has further deteriorated, it has become apparent that even the sacred cow of military spending must bear the burden of cuts, with none other than the sage of the national security state Leon Panetta endorsing the idea of a leaner Pentagon. Guns are now beginning to starve guns. So far proposals, in dollar terms, have been modest. In sum the military’s growth would be slowed, not reversed. This year’s Department of Defense budget is $613 billion, essentially no change from last year. However $487 billion in planned increases are to be eliminated over the next ten years, and if within the next year further cuts are not finalized a trigger cut of $500 billion would be enacted. The Project on Government Oversight has a good rundown of cuts to weapons systems on their blog.

It isn’t just the pressure of stagnating revenues, the stalled economy, and exploding costs that have forced federal leaders to ax weapons systems, however. And it isn’t just random weapons systems that are now on the chopping block.

Interventions begun years prior to stall and ultimately terminate projects like CMRR by organizations such as the Los Alamos Study Group (of which I am a board member) have been instrumental in creating these possible outcomes. The Study Group’s two lawsuits to halt construction of the CMRR, filed in the Federal District Court of New Mexico, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit have contended since August 2010 that the CMRR has no applicable environmental impact statement, and more fundamentally that the facility is entirely unnecessary even if one accepts the insane nuclear policies  agreed to by leadership of both the Democratic and Republican Parties.

Had federal planners conducted the legally required studies for CMRR, Study Group executive director Greg Mello argued in briefs submitted to a federal judge two years ago, cheaper alternatives would have been chosen long ago, taxpayers would come out ahead, the environment would be spared permanent harm, and perhaps most importantly the economy of already impoverished northern New Mexico would be spared the disfiguring effects of extremely harmful ‘investments’ of human and natural resources in a glorified bomb factory, a plan that will simply drain money and talent from the increasingly besmirched region (http://www.lasg.org/CMRR/Litigation/Mello_aff2_12Nov2010.pdf).

Throughout 2010 and 2011 the Study Group struggled to make this case, both the narrow legal case pertaining to the illegality of the Department of Energy’s actions under the National Environmental Protection Act, and also the political and moral case most visible in the fiscal crisis of the American empire. The Study Group’s difficulties were not for lack of factual or legal grounds. Rather, the problem was the reigning political atmosphere of bad faith and fiscal denial prevailing among the largest liberal foundations and arms control organizations in Washington, D.C. Many had given up opposing CMRR, or chose to never oppose it in the first place, so as to pursue instead a misguided agenda of lobbying for ratification of the New START treaty, a process that was itself in complete denial of the profound economic emergency confronting the United States.

New START ratification, as I explained in another previous report for Counterpunch did little-to-nothing to secure disarmament. Ironically it was actually utilized by pro-nuclear representatives in government to secure billions in promises for nuclear weapons complex upgrades, including at least $6 billion for construction of CMRR.

So why the sudden about face? Why is a project that once had the highest commitment from the White House, and cultish levels of support from both Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, and which was watered and fed by an utter lack of opposition from major arms control groups, now suddenly being phased out? Why now is the White House effectively canceling CMRR?

Legal intervention by the Los Alamos Study Group has been instrumental in slowing the project and preventing the waste of hundreds millions more than has already been burnt. There’s much more to it though.

The deeper truth we have attempted to communicate all along, and will continue to explain to those policymakers willing to listen, is that the CMRR will never be built, lawsuit or no lawsuit. The nation’s fiscal capacity —along with collective abilities more difficult to quantify, but no less real, intangibles such as moral authority and intellectual integrity— simply cannot sustain the grandiose vision of militarism that CMRR represented.

That the national military establishment planned all along to build not one, but three massive, hyper-complex, and enormously expensive nuclear weapons factories, the CMRR, the Uranium Processing Facility in Tennessee, and the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility (PDCF) in South Carolina was all the more unreal in the context of repeated tax cuts in the face of a flatlining economy and the institutional decay of the US nuclear weapons establishment, especially the internal problems plaguing the Department of Energy. The nuclear weaponeers only recently have realized the absurd impossibility of their plans. The demise of CMRR follows the earlier cancellation —or should I say self-cannibalization— of the PDCF.

It is in the account of revenue, the lifeblood of the state, the essence of state power and war-making that we now see the unraveling, even if just in small parts, of the American military machine before our very eyes. Whether the Right realizes their folly at this point is not yet clear. After a decade of record breaking tax cuts for the wealthy, and economic deregulation that fundamentally altered circuits of capitalist accumulation, leading to explosive inequality and a historic crash of over-leveraged and debt ridden markets, the American plutocracy has not only assaulted the dignity for half the nation’s population by driving millions into poverty, they have now gone so far as to undermine the budgetary and organizational basis of the military establishment upon which a larger global system of inequality, which they benefit from, rests.

The American empire is over. Resources and wealth are no longer limitless. The Reaganesque swagger of militarily spending opponents into submission is no longer possible. This is especially true in the new political era of extreme austerity and inequality; politicians from both parties have converged on tax policies that ironically are beginning to create more than ballooning US debt. The abandonment of more progressive taxation systems tapping wealth and capital, combined now with resistance to the further immiseration of the bottom half of America (via the Occupy Movement), is setting the table for what could be large forced cuts in military spending.

But this is only possible if the American people continue to resist austerity measures targeting non-military portions of the budget. There’s still plenty of revenue to raid within the existing US budget pie in order to feed the military beast. The real beast will only starve if movements organize to defend spending priorities on education, health, welfare, the environment, and other humane needs.

Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and author who lives and works in Oakland, CA. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.