Home of the Barricaded, Land of the 'Fraid

There are few statistics as stunning
as the following simple, single number: The United States spends
two times more on its military than all the other countries of the world,

Yes, that's right. All 200 or
so of them. Combined.

There are few statistics as stunning
as the following simple, single number: The United States spends
two times more on its military than all the other countries of the world,

Yes, that's right. All 200 or
so of them. Combined.

According to GlobalSecurity.org, last
year, the US dropped about $625 billion in taxpayer dollars on its military,
while all the rest of the world together spent $500 billion. (The aggregate
global figures come from 2004, but have been steady over the prior decade.)
However, if you also add in nuclear weapons costs handled separately
by the Energy Department, Veterans Affairs, interest on money borrowed
to fund previous wars, and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,
the total rises to a jaw-dropping one trillion dollars per year.

Think of how astonishing that is.

Imagine if you lived down the street
from a guy who insisted that his house had to be two times bigger than
all the other houses in the neighborhood, combined. You and your
neighbors live in 2,000 square foot houses, but he has to have an 800,000
square foot house. That's one that would be the length of three
football fields long, and three football fields wide.

Imagine you and all your fishing buddies
tied up next to a guy who had to have a boat that was twice as big as
all of yours combined. You guys have 15 footers. His would
be 6,000 feet long, or six Queen Marys, length-to-length.

Imagine that you knew someone who had
to spend double on dinner what everyone else dining in a decent restaurant
was spending. The average meal for the rest of you costs 25 dollars.
This guy insists on spending $10,000 on one meal, of the same food,
prepared by the same chef.

This is an astonishing ratio in so many

Perhaps the most amazing thing about
it is that nobody particularly talks about it. It's one thing
to say that military spending has now joined Social Security as the
third rail of American politics - you touch it, you die. And,
of course, now we are treated to the visage of the "liberal" -
even "socialist" and "defeatist" "pal of terrorists" -
guy in the White House actually increasing military spending, and doing
so at a time when the federal budget is hemorrhaging red ink as if it
were the Exxon Valdez, drunken captain at the helm and all. But
it's actually even worse than that.

Not only can you not seriously discuss
cutting military spending in America, you can't even know about this
spending ratio relative to the rest of the world, or contemplate what
it means. Do you know of any single politician who ever mentions

It's also astonishing because the Cold
War is over, the once Nazi-controlled Germany has turned into one of
the most pacifist countries in the world, Japan is all about making
cars and TVs, and there isn't a serious enemy of the United States
anywhere on either the geographical or temporal horizon. Right
now, we are spending vast sums of money to fight gaggles of angry young
men armed with box-cutters, and scraggly mullahs hiding in remote mountainous
caves. And they're winning.

It is conceivable that China might, maybe,
someday, spend something like what the US does on its military.
But for what? Right now China spends a tenth of what the US does
on its military, and considerably less than that if you count the other
items that bring the US total up to a trillion per year. If it
reached parity, what would that permit it that is now impossible, apart
from perhaps taking back Taiwan and creating a twentieth century Latin
America-style neighborhood it could dominate even more than it does
already? Would it allow China to invade the United States, or
bend it to Chinese will for fear of a military confrontation?
Of course not.

Which is another reason this ratio is
so astonishing. Say whatever you want about nuclear weapons from
a moral perspective. They have nevertheless changed the dynamic
of international politics radically. No state will ever again
invade another one which possesses a nuclear arsenal and the means to
project it in quantity. The doctrine of mutually-assured destruction
may indeed be mad from a psychological perspective, but it works -
at least apart from situations in which the attacking country's leadership
is either so bonkers or so determined on an issue that national suicide
isn't a deterrent. Of course, non-state actors like al Qaeda
are a problem, because they provide little target for retaliation, but
would spending another $100 billion on more destroyers or fighter jets
solve that problem? Of course not.

This grossly disproportionate ratio of
military spending to other countries is also astonishing, and astonishingly
obscene, for what it costs this country in missed opportunities.
We are by far the richest country in the world - no one is even close.
And we have no real enemies. And, as noted, we spend double the
entire world combined in order to defend against those non-enemies.

Such thoughtful priorities also entitle
our lucky population to have a national healthcare system that is ranked
37th from the top, worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
Isn't that special? Morocco does better than we do. So
do Colombia, Chile and Costa Rica. And Dominica. Does anyone
really even know where Dominica is? All those weapons systems
don't just purchase for us a lack of security, they also buy a country
where 50 million Americans lack health insurance of any kind, and countless
others are grossly under-insured (including those who don't know it
yet, but will find out fast if they ever get sick).

In part because of this fine health care
system, the United States also ranks 29th globally on infant mortality.
And the longitudinal trend isn't pretty. We were 12th in the
world in 1960, and 23rd in 1990. Now we are tied with Poland and
Slovakia. The good news, though, is that we are still by far and
away first worldwide on obesity, with 31 percent of the population qualifying
for that distinction, over six percent higher than our nearest competitor!
The rest of the world can kick us around all day long, but nobody can
ever take that distinction away from us. Oh, and we had almost
twice as many plastic surgery procedures as any other country in the
world. I guess these figures also partially explain why the richest
country in the world, by far, is ranked 47th in the world in terms of
life expectancy, below Boznia-Herzegovina, Jordan and Guam. Cool.

Dollars paying for a bloated military
are not only not spent on healthcare, they also aren't spent on social
development either. The United States had more teen pregnancies
per capita than anyone in the world by far - about half-again as many
as our nearest competitor. We have the highest number of prisoners
per capita, right up there (but still well ahead of) Russia and Belarus.
The US has two million prisoners, about half a million more than China,
despite having about one-fifth the Chinese population. We also
have more crimes committed than any other country in the world, about
twice the number as the number two country on the list. Oh, and
by far the highest divorce rate in the world. I'm pretty sure
you won't see this stuff mentioned in the tourist literature.

Expenditures on the military also mean
dollars not spent on teaching our kids (especially about comparative
national statistics!). The richest country in the world is ranked
39th on education spending as a percent of GDP, below Tunisia, Bolivia,
Jamaica and Malawi. As a result, the US shows up as 18th in mathematical
literacy, and 15th in reading literacy. Woo-hoo!

Spending on rockets and guns does not
bode well for economic development, either. Despite being in hock
for more national debt than any other country in the world - even
before recent events - we rank only 16th in broadband access per capita.
And, we are a dismal 92nd in the world in terms of the equitable distribution
of family income within our society. Cameroon does better.
So does Russia, Uzbekistan, Laos and Burkina Faso. Along with
most of the rest of the world.

In short, in exchange for the privilege
of dwarfing the entire rest of the solar system in military spending,
in order to defend ourselves against an enemy we don't have, the United
States has purchased a second rate healthcare system, a second rate
educational system, and social and economic characteristics within spitting
distance of Sub-Saharan Africa.

For all of these reasons, our devotion
to military spending is really quite amazing, and really begs the question
of what could explain so patently foolish a national policy. Undoubtedly,
there are many explanations.

To begin with, this would hardly be the
first essay ever to note the American propensity toward paranoia.
A country twisted enough that it can spend six years fighting a brutal
and costly war in Iraq on the basis of 9/11 attacks that Saddam Hussein
had nothing to do with is certainly a country capable of outspending
the entire rest of the planet on its military, two times over.

What does it say, moreover, about our
near-complete failing at the practice of diplomacy, that we feel compelled
to sit atop a military arsenal of such outrageous proportions, and to
send bombs and military bases, rather than diplomats, as our calling
card around the world?

Without question, furthermore, such an
obscene military budget is grossly inflated because of sheer greed.
It wasn't some long-haired, Birkenstocks-wearing, pipe-smoking, Berkeley
professor of French literature, after all, who warned us of the dangers
of the metastasizing military industrial complex. It was Dwight
Eisenhower - conservative Republican president, lifetime military
man, commander of NATO and hero of World War II.

Eisenhower was right, of course, although
it would have been nice had he acted on his wisdom during his two terms,
rather than sounding hypocritical warnings about this danger only as
he walked out the door. In any case, as in so many other domains
- but with an intensity unmatched elsewhere - when it comes to providing
military hardware, corporate America has come to see the federal government
as little more than a handy centralized collection system, to which
it then avails itself. But, of course, everybody is in the act
now, with members of Congress from every district in the land fighting
to protect their defense dollars, and selfish Americans screaming about
deficit spending on Sundays, and then going to work at the local defense
boondoggle plant on Mondays.

And there is another explanation, as
well. You don't need to spend a trillion bucks per year in order
to protect the United States from attack by another country. The
existing stockpile of nuclear warheads more or less guarantees that
that will never happen. You also don't need to spend that money
in order to fight some sort of conventional war on land or sea, as occurred
during World War II. No country comes remotely near the United
States in terms of battlefield and naval hardware, and even those who
possess significant quantities of such materiel almost entirely lack
the capability of projecting such military power beyond their borders.
Finally, you don't need all that money to fight ragtag bands of terrorists
either. On that front, smarts go a lot farther than dollars (not
that we would know, of course).

The only thing that such a seemingly
bloated military is good for is power projection. If you want
to intimidate developing countries into selling you their natural resources
at ridiculously low prices, a giant military is the only way to do it.
If you want to force weaker countries into joining political alliances
they are otherwise not remotely interested in, some good old-fashioned
gunboat diplomacy is the way to make that happen.

Or, at least, was. The United States
is no longer very much able to shove around other countries like it
used to, and yet, even the so-called liberal Obama administration is
now seeking to spend even more on the American military than the monsters
of the last regime did.

It was one thing - albeit still a stupid
bargain - to forgo health, education, and the good life for an empire.

But what Americans should be asking themselves
right now is, whether giving away happiness and prosperity in exchange
for a non-empire is finally a bridge too far, even for a country so
justly famous for its chronic political immaturity.

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