How Much is Enough?

Once upon a time, people researched and wrote reports about lower defense spending and converting the military-industrial complex into a peacetime economy. These reports came from university research institutions, private think tanks, and the federal government. They are memorials to the hope kindled in the brief post-Cold War and pre-War on Terrorism moment when anything seemed possible. Even cutting the military budget was not unthinkable because we had pulled the planet back from the brink and survived five decades on the edge of nuclear midnight. Scholarship turned itself to the work of dismantling the war machine in such a way that no one -- no machinist turning bolts on bombs or aircraft engineer with his polished plans -- was crushed in the process.These reports read not just like they are 15 years old. They read like dispatches from a remote and almost unimaginable planet.

Converting the Cold War Economy, published in 1993 by the Economic Policy Institute, began with the premise that President George H. W. Bush's $281 billion budgets could be halved over the next decade. The report proposed even bolder actions: "Deeper cuts resulting in budgets as low as $67 billion a year are conceivable if the U.S. were to defer preparations for unilateral action in favor of a cooperative approach to security based at the United Nations and if arms sales by the major industrialized countries to the Third World were stopped."

What a difference 15 years makes! The Pentagon lost $13 billion alone in the sofa cracks last year. The Government Accountability Office put the price of Pentagon accounting problems at $13 billion in 2005.

For fiscal year 2008, we are looking at a "base military budget" of $520 billion and another $127.5 billion in war spending, which means that total military spending will hit $647.5 billion. The Bush administration has presided over one of the largest military buildups in the history of the United States. $647 billion is a lot of money. After adjusting for inflation, it represents the highest level of military spending since World War II.

Following the Money

Why are we spending so much? In large part, it is because of the many Cold War systems that have managed to stay in the budget and in the Pentagon's "toolbox" despite having no relevance, no rival, or no hope of ever delivering what they promise. One of the best examples of all three of these categories is ballistic missile defense -- a problematic, unjustifiable and immensely expensive military programs. Since concept development in 1983, the United States has spent close to $100 billion dollars on various version of the program. In tests, the system has failed in five out of 11 tests since 2004. This rate was so abysmal that the Missile Defense Agency stopped releasing the results of system and component tests.

The U.S. military budget has never been bigger and our propensity toward militarized solutions from immigration and totalitarianism to terrorism and nuclear proliferation has never been stronger. To speak of cutting the military budget, reallocating resources to support a broader range of security tools, converting away from military-dependent production is a tough task right now. But it is necessary. The military-fits-all solution is failing to deliver on a single promise. We are not safer. "They" are not freer. And we are more hated abroad than ever before!

Oxfam recently published "Africa's Missing Billion: International Arms Flows and the Costs of Conflict," which estimates the economic cost of armed conflict to Africa's development at about $300 billion since 1990. This sum, says Oxfam, is the equivalent of all the international aid from major donors during the same period. The money lost to war and weapons, asserts Oxfam, could have helped develop new approaches to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, cured malaria and tuberculosis, and addressed Africa's need for education, clean water and adequate sanitation.
The Losses at Home

The report demonstrates that it is possible to quantify the economic potential lost to wars. Here, we, too, can measure what we lose with a half trillion military "base budget" and many hundred billions more spent waging war in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is visible in every panhandler and soup-line, in overcrowded classrooms and dwindling health-care budgets, in each hard choice that is made in U.S. cities, towns, and rural areas.

It is also visible in our crumbling infrastructure. The Report Card for America's Infrastructure from the America Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) assessed the physical state of aviation, bridges, dams, drinking water, the national power grid, hazardous waste, navigable waterways, public parks and recreation sites, the rail lines, the roads, schools, security, solid waste, transit, and wastewater throughout the United States and gave the American infrastructure a grade point average of D (poor). The ASCE estimated that it would take $1.6 trillion in investment over five years to repair and restore this infrastructure.

How can we be a secure nation when bridges collapse, water mains explode, and the power grid fails? In each of these recent three instances, the first thought was terrorism. But gravity, neglect, and overuse were the only three active members of the cell that brought down the bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota in August 2007.

Where will the money come from to rebuild American infrastructure? Who will do the work? These are hopeful questions that can be answered with visionary and practical economic and social policy decisions in Washington. Not asking the questions means continuing to lose out in our economic, human, and national security.

FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate at the Arms and Security Project of the New America Foundation.

Copyright (c) 2007, Institute for Policy Studies

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