Year after year we hear that federal programs like Social Security and Medicare are heading for bankruptcy. We never hear about the Pentagon heading for bankruptcy. Yet the military budget increased 67 percent in the last five years, a rate by far exceeding that projected for any of the country's social programs in their costliest coming years. Military spending last year, at $494 billion, exceeded combined Medicare and Social Security spending by $16 billion. The presumption is that social programs can and must be cut back if the nation is to survive, but military spending cannot be: Defense is indispensable if we're to have something left to live for.
We have it backward. Military spending as a share of gross national purpose is driving us to bankruptcy in every way -- economic, social, moral -- faster than Social Security or Medicare could, regardless of how "burdensome" the baby boom generation will be on those programs.
The Iraq war will cost $100 billion this year alone. (The number is based on a 2006 Defense Department appropriation bill that included $50 billion in a "bridge fund" for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, about $40 billion of which went to Iraq; and an emergency "supplemental" appropriation, in February, of $72.4 billion, $60 billion of which went for Iraq.) Compared to the $333 billion spent on Medicare last year, it's not much -- less than 1 percent of America's $13 trillion economy, and about 4 percent of the $2.4 trillion federal budget.
The relatively small proportion of the war costs helps Bush administration apologists defend what we, in fact, are contending with: an indefinite war.
But all dollars aren't wasted equally.
A fraudulent Medicare reimbursement might buy a doctor an undeserved vacation in Aspen. That's still money spent into other Americans' pockets. A dollar wasted on a useless war pays deadly interest.
Take one symbolic example of occupation: the checkpoint killing of civilians by trigger-happy American soldiers. There've been countless cases of such killings, not a single case of a soldier charged or disciplined for them. A single bullet costing less than $1 can kill a man driving with his family toward one of those -- and make future insurgents of the man's surviving children, now that the American occupation is seen no differently from any old oppressor's. Multiply that dollar by $100 billion. Relatively small sum no more. That sort of investment yields only "blowback." And while we're busy attempting to "fight them over there so we don't fight them over here," we're turning a crescent-shaped swath of the Muslim world -- from North Africa to Indonesia -- into a tectonic plate of enmity.
Back to Medicare. A dollar spent on that program is still a dollar shuffled back into the American economy. Call it a subsidy if you like. It primarily ensures the health of an entire segment of the population. It sustains hospitals, doctors, nursing homes and, by extension, research and teaching hospitals. Add Social Security to the mix, and the result is a vast reshuffling of money to socially and economically irreproachable ends. It's a reinvestment in national purpose.
The problem with those programs has never been financial. Any nation that can afford a wasteful, $100-billion-a-year war (not including its wasteful war-on-terror accomplice) can afford what "supplementals" will be needed to keep Medicare and Social Security going.
But those programs face an ideological problem. They redistribute money, usually from the wealthier to the poorer. They stand in the way of wealth concentration. Or greed. They're engines of greater equality. They're proof of government's effectiveness in ways private enterprise could never match, when the common good supplants (but does not replace) the profit motive.
They drive right-wingers nuts. But those programs aren't bankrupting us. They're enriching us. Still, Medicare and Social Security are targeted for controlled demolition in a continuing unbalancing of a social system already at second-rate status for most.
A strong defense is absolutely necessary, too. But every dollar spent on defense isn't inherently a defensive dollar.
The kind of military spending we are opting for is an investment in defeat. Billions are wasted on weapons programs -- the missile shield, the F-22 fighter jet -- that only grease up corporate dividends and illusions of security. Hundreds of billions of dollars spent on a fraud of a war are fueling our enemies, wrecking our one-time strategic advantages abroad, weakening the "homeland" and inviting future ruin.
In exchange for what, when the nation's priorities are going the way of its moral sense? If we're to have something left to live for, recognizing the engines of demolition for what they are, at home and abroad, would be a start.
Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his personal Web site at www.pierretristam.com
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