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The Sacred Cow of American Defense Spending


2012 headlines were full of horrible depressing news: cuts on the federal, state, county and the city level.  The nation was subjected to a full time diet of descriptions of cities agonizing over whether to cut libraries or sewage treatment, or of the city that, in one fell swoop, cut all its employees—from firefighters to garbage collectors— to minimum wage.  Or the story of the governor who left the budget discussion to hide her tears over the cutting of hospice while one of her family members was in hospice dying.  We have argued as a nation over whether teachers and firefighters are “greedy” because they want a cost of living raise as compared to other private employees who also don’t have dignity in their pay.

But in all these discussions the sacred cow in the middle of the room remains invisible and unmentioned:  the Pentagon.   Never in the same article that talks about the painful cuts being made to public services do we discuss that the Pentagon (and the debt from our wars) got about half of the discretionary US federal budget in 2012.  In all the articles about the fiscal cliff and the prospect of the 10 percent across-the-board cut applying to the Pentagon, it is also never mentioned that our military budget dwarfs all others and is as large as the next 14 largest countries combined. Nor do we mention that it is five times that of China, the next largest military budget.  So if we cut our military budget by 50 percent, we would still far outstrip all the other countries of the world.  How much bigger do you personally feel it needs to be?

When our huge debt is endlessly decried, it is sometimes argued whether it is the Democrats’ or the Republicans’ fault.  It is never mentioned that we have not returned to a peace time budget since before the Vietnam War, nor are we informed that waging two wars simultaneously has created a huge debt.

However, when we utter the phrase “cutting our defense,” suddenly this specter of insecurity is raised.  But I must ask you as a parent are you personally more secure when a drone hits a village killing one “militant” plus a dozen civilians including children, or are you more secure when your children can get a good education, or when money is available for them to go to college?  Are you more secure when a nuclear missile sits in a silo unused or are you more secure when there are fireman and police in your community?  Do we really believe that there is enough money in the world to make us completely invulnerable to any attack? Are we as safe as the citizens in neutral countries like Switzerland, Sweden, Costa Rica or Japan?

Many years ago some friends had a booth at a county fair and with a big jar for each US dept: defense, education, health, agriculture, energy, etc.  When people approached the booth they were given a roll of 100 pennies and told to allot in accord with their budget priorities.  I don’t recall which dept usually won, but I do know it was not the Pentagon.  Day after day when they started new it came out very much the same.  Human needs were funded by average fair goers much more generously than by Congress.  What we are doing right now is not what we really need or want. Rather than believing that we are broke perhaps we could begin to notice that we are not getting our money’s worth when we fund the Pentagon.  When they start discussing eliminating Social Security COLA’s, or cutting Medicaid, or other human services, we need to remember where 60 percent of our money is sitting.  Can we afford this sacred cow?

Lynn Fitz-Hugh, Seattle, is a therapist, a lifelong peace proponent, an organizer with Just Sustainable Economy, and a mother.


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