I was asked earlier this week by an reporter for PressTV, the state television network in Iran, if I could explain why the US political system seemed to be so dysfunctional, with Congress and the President having created an artificial budget crisis 17 months ago, not “solving” it until the last hour before a Congressional deadline would have created financial chaos, and even then not solving the problem and instead just pushing it off for two months until the next crisis moment.
I thought for a moment, trying to come up with a simple way to explain the peculiar politics of a fake democracy where two equally pro-capitalist, pro-imperialist parties vie with genuine bitterness for patronage spoils and legal bribes, all the while ignoring the real wishes and needs of the public, and then it hit me: it is really all about US militarism and the unwillingness of the either of the two political parties to admit honestly to to American people how much they are being gouged to allow the US government and its corporate owners to continue in their attempt to control the world.
It really is that simple.
The US currently spends almost as much on its military and on paying for current and past wars in terms of interest on war debt and care for wounded and aging soldiers as the entire rest of the world spends on arms and war. Approximately $1.3 trillion gets spent each year in taxpayer’s dollars and in more borrowed funds (50 cents of every federal tax dollar goes to pay for the US military, the intelligence apparatus, veterans’ benefits and other related military costs). It is simply ludicrous, given this situation, to imagine that the US can significantly reduce its budget deficit either by raising taxes or by cutting social spending.
Think of it this way. The US is currently running a $1.3 trillion deficit (that is federal spending less tax revenue). That deficit, significantly one must note, almost exactly matches the amount that is being spent annually on the US military, and on military/intelligence-related activities.
In contrast, the federal government budget in 2012 allocated $870 billion for Medicare, Medicaid and all other programs under the aegis of Department of Health and Human Services. The total Department of State budget is $56 billion, and a portion of that is actually for military activities, such as intelligence operations and protection of embassies and consulates. The Department of Agriculture got $150 billion, and that includes the Food Stamp program. Federal spending on education was just $100 billion a year. Social Security is not part of the tax take or the federal budget, as it is all paid from the Social Security Trust Fund, which in turn has been financed by the dedicated payroll tax paid by working people and employers.
None of these non-military budget spending categories could possibly be cut sufficiently to make any real dent in the nation’s massive deficit, which is running at $1.3 trillion a year and which now totals $16.3 trillion. Certainly cuts of 50% could theoretically be made in health and welfare spending, in education, and in other parts of the budget, but cuts of that scale would cause such mass suffering and chaos that the nation would erupt in open rebellion.
The military budget, on the other hand, could be slashed by 50% and nobody would know the difference! The public in the US barely knows there is are wars going on. We read about an occasional soldier killed or plane downed, but there is no day-to-day evidence that the US is a nation perpetually in a state of war. If the military were to end those wars, which are costing over $160 billion a year, pull out of all its far-flung bases, which are costing $250 billion a year, slash its huge Special Operations Command, which now number nearly 70,000 people at a cost of over $10 billion, eliminate or massively reduce its strategic nuclear forces, which costs $60 billion a year, and decommission its fleet of aircraft carrier battle groups, which counting construction and operation costs, plus the cost of the planes and missiles they carry, probably cost in the range of $100 billion a year, the US would be no less safe, but the federal budget deficit could be instantly slashed by close to $600 billion a year. That is the amount that is being cut in the current so-called “Fiscal Cliff” bargain over a period of ten years.
In a genuine democracy, there would be politicians and a political party that would be calling for just such an end to US militarism and the massive spending that is needed to support it. It is something that polls show the majority of Americans want to see happen, even though there are no people in government calling for doing it, and even though the very idea of seriously cutting military spending is blacked out by the US corporate media.
Instead, what the American public gets is a fake debate between Democrats and Republicans, and between the White House and the Republicans in the House of Representatives, all focussed on the rest of the US budget — the non-military part. This “debate” is basically a matter of Republicans saying they want to cut the non-military budget deficit by slashing “social spending” and Democrats saying that they are willing to cut “some” social spending, but they would rather raise taxes.
The thing is, cutting social program spending more than by a small amount would be catastrophic, leading to even more mass teacher layoffs, declining health, hunger, collapsing bridges, and to fewer people being able to afford to go to college. It would lead to even more homeless Americans, including returned veterans. Nobody would accept this. We’re already suffering from such cuts. And as for taxes, in a long-running economic crisis such as we are experiencing, nobody but the rich can afford to pay more, and the rich are given a free hand at escaping taxes through loopholes, offshore banking, and high priced accountants.
The reality is that there really is only one way to attack the nation’s massive and growing budget deficit without destroying both people’s lives and the nation’s economy, and that is to slash military spending and to put an end to the country’s militarism and imperialism.
The US today, as former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel famously said during an early televised Democratic presidential primary debate in 2008, “has no enemies.” It is not threatened by any nation, has a military that is without equal, and has a populace that is armed to the teeth. The United States simply does not need to be spending in excess of a trillion dollars — at least on defense. The country would be just as safe — it would be much safer actually since it wouldn’t be destroying lives around the globe and creating enemies where there were none — if it were a tenth of its current size.
The time for a real debate about cutting the US budget by focusing on military spending has come. It is long overdue. If it isn’t addressed now, it will be eventually, not by choice perhaps, but because the US will simply no longer be able to pay for its addiction to war.
Dave Lindorff is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He lives in Philadelphia.