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The Costs of War

“The impact of war is self-evident, since economically it is exactly the same as if the nation were to drop a part of its capital into the ocean”

— Karl Marx, Grundrisse, 1857-58.

Reports come fast and furiously from the Pew Research Center and the National Urban League. The news is bad. The Pew report shows that between 2005 and 2009 every “racial” group lost wealth, but the losses were largest amongst Hispanics and Blacks. Inflation-adjusted median wealth of white households fell by 16%, but Hispanic households lost 66% and Black households lost 53%. As of 2009, the typical white household had wealth (assets minus debts) worth $113,149, which Black households only had $5,677 and Hispanic households $6,325. The myth of the post-racial society should be buried under this data.

The most dazzling fact is not this decline. It is what is to come. The National Urban League Policy Institute’s latest study finds that unemployment for Blacks with four-year college degrees has tripled since 1992, and overall unemployment is near 1982 levels, namely 20%. Such numbers have not been seen since the Depression. Langston Hughes wrote that the 1930s “brought everybody down a peg or two,” but that those on the darker side of the Color Curtain had not much to lose. That is no longer the case. The thirty years since 1965 provided a boost to the Black and Latino middle class, largely thanks to employment at the various levels of government (and salutations to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for its battles to hold public sector wages). With unemployment on the rise, it will be difficult to build back those assets.

The shuttering of the U. S. industrial sector and the attack on public sector jobs hit the Black and Latino workers very hard. Rather than tax the rich and use these public funds to build up a different kind of economy (such as to make public rail networks), the Clinton administration harshly developed a massive prison archipelago and hacked at the modest social welfare system in the country. In the name of balanced budgets and supply side economics, a generation of young people of color lost access to decent education. It is difficult to try and get a job if your resume includes a stint in prison, often for non-violent economic crimes (such as employment in the drug economy, one of the few places to get a job in neighborhoods of the disposable class). The other place for employment, of course, was the military.

The proximate reason for this catastrophic loss of wealth is the housing crisis, and the racial impact of the foreclosure epidemic. The Center for Responsible Lending shows that 8% of Blacks who bought homes between 2005 and 2008 lost them to foreclosure, whereas only 4.5% of whites who bought in the same period lost their homes. A look back to the 1990s confirms these statistics: Blacks and Latinos are hit disproportionately hard by foreclosure.

The tendency is to blame all this on the Economy. But the “economy” does not exist outside our social relations, and the public policies enacted by governments to shape those relations. The United States government handed the keys of the treasury to large corporations (General Electric pays no taxes, and indeed won a rebate last year!). Policy-making benefits large corporations and the paper-thin class that controls them. The Supreme Court adjudged these corporations as individuals, so that they could exert their power through the constitutional protections of free speech.

Acknowledging this obscenity, Ralph Nader wrote in the Chicago Tribune (July 20) that big firms should be judged based on their “corporate patriotism.” They like to take tax breaks and be rescued by marines when it suits them, but they are unwilling to invest their untaxed profits to build up the productive capacity in the United States. Corporations, Nader wrote, “receive all the benefits of American corporate personhood and avoid all the expectations of patriotic behavior and the responsibilities that go along with those privileges and immunities.” Hand-over-fist they make money in the financial casinos and by defrauding workers across the world. Meanwhile, they are party to the view that the U. S. needs to balance its budget and cut “entitlements” so that the debt can be managed – but without their own positive contribution to that $14.46 trillion hole.

A few years ago, some progressives in Congress suggested that the government bring back the military draft. If the children of the well-heeled and the middle class had to go to war, sentiment for military adventures might decline. The feint went nowhere. There might not be a military draft for these wars in Droneland, but there certainly is an economic draft. The total cost of the adventures is now inching along to $2 trillion (the total cost of the security apparatus is going to go over $8 trillion as the year winds down). Congress’ progressives argued that the population does not have a palpable sense of the war’s cost, and that the draft would raise awareness. It does not help that the administration prevented pictures of those killed in action to be broadcast. The numbers of war dead are reduced due to the better body armor, but the numbers of those who are grievously wounded is greater now than it was in other wars (one authority suggests that in Iraq alone, the war wounded is roughly 100,000). The bulk of the population has been protected from this harm that affects the very same communities where foreclosure stalks the land.

There is no military draft, but there is an economic draft. The current economic collapse has reduced those who had built up some assets, on whatever fictitious foundation, to the level of bare life. The drain of wealth to the war economy is a massive regressive taxation on the population: the rich who pay a much smaller proportion of their taxes (and nothing on capital gains, which is also income) and the corporations (who pay little to no taxes) are insulated from the costs of war, and indeed some of them benefit from the windfalls of war. To balance the budget in the context of the economic draft means to devastate whatever social spending remains: education, healthcare, senior care, care for the indigent, resources for the environment, capacity for the state regulators and so on. President Obama seems to have picked Al Gore’s pocket and stolen the key to the lock-box that holds Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. These are all victims of the war economy.

The spinal cord of the nation rests in Springfield, MA. Here, on July 18, the City Council passed two ordinances that try to inoculate this city, which has the largest number of foreclosures in Massachusetts. The first ordinance denies banks the right to foreclose on a home unless they have participated in a city-facilitated mediation, and earn a “good faith participation” certificate from the city. Every day that the banks fail to go to mediation earns them a fine of up to $300. The second ordinance requires banks to pay $10,000 in a cash bond if they wish to foreclose on a property. Councilman Amaad Rivera and the Springfield No One Leaves/Nadie Se Mude Coalition proposed these ordinances. “The Springfield city council has given residents real, tangible tools to fight back against the damage banks have done to our city and our country as a whole,” said Sellou Diaite of the coalition. The Council and the Coalition have put down a marker against the war economy, and against the economic draft.

The message from this corner of America is simple: no more bombing houses in Droneland, no more foreclosing houses in America.

Vijay Prashad is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His most recent book, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, won the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Prize for 2009. The Swedish and French editions are just out. He can be reached at: vijay.prashad@trincoll.edu

Vijay will be speaking in Anaheim on July 30th at Soul of a Nation & the Audacity of Nope session sponsored by the Progressive Caucus and the Veterans Caucus.

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Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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