Getting out of the red is the new black. Deficit hawks have swooped down on the U.S. budget. This week, they attacked unemployment benefits.
Ultimately, they are going after Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, the venerable programs once considered untouchable "third rails" of U.S. politics. These have been replaced by a new third rail, the defense budget. To really deal with annual deficits and a surging national debt, we are going to need to cut military spending.
We need some deficit doves.
First, let's call it what it is: the war budget. The government formed the Department of War in 1789, and only in 1949 renamed it the Department of Defense. The war budget President Barack Obama recently sent to Congress, for fiscal year 2011, is $548.9 billion, with an additional $33 billion, which is the 2010 supplemental that is currently being debated in Congress, and $159.3 billion more "to support ongoing overseas contingency operations, including funds to execute the President's new strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan." Recall, "overseas contingency operations" is how the Obama administration rebranded the "global war on terror."
This is just the publicly available war budget. There is also a "black budget," kept secret, for clandestine operations that former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair revealed was about $75 billion. As The Washington Post exposed this week, the post-9/11 security state has grown into a massive, unmanageable and largely privatized "enterprise."
Over 2,000 for-profit firms and over 850,000 people with top-secret clearance are engaged in military and intelligence activities, ostensibly for the U.S. government, with seemingly little or no oversight.
Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., has submitted a bill, H.R. 5353, called "The War Is Making You Poor Act." Grayson, with a few Republicans and a number of progressive Democratic co-sponsors, wants to force Commander in Chief Obama to run his two wars with "only" the $548.9 billion base budget. The $159.3 billion saved would be turned into a tax break, making the first $35,000 of income tax-free, and anything left over would be directed to paying down the national debt. The bill is in committee now and may generate genuine bipartisan support. Grayson, when introducing the bill, highlighted a fact worth repeating: The U.S. war budget is greater than the military spending of every other nation on Earth, combined.
Meanwhile, at the National Peace Conference to be held in Albany, N.Y., this weekend, people are targeting the military budget. Students are organizing around the connection between war expenditures and education budgets that are being slashed, sparking protests at campuses nationwide. Another effort, called "Bring Our War Dollars Home," promotes action at the city council and statehouse level, along with grass-roots campaigns to pressure members of Congress to stop funding war.
The cost of the Iraq war was estimated by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, with his colleague Linda Bilmes, at $3 trillion, calculating not only hard, current costs, but also the cost to society of caring for wounded veterans, and the long-term costs of having so many families disrupted by caring for their injured loved ones, or having a breadwinner killed in action. And that's just Iraq. As of May, the monthly cost of the war in Afghanistan surpassed, for the first time, the cost of war in Iraq.
Stiglitz was one of the many economists who said the economic stimulus package (at $787 billion) was too small. He argues that deficit spending, when done wisely, creates long-term returns for an economy.
Conversely, he wrote recently, "Deficits to finance wars or give-aways to the financial sector ... impos[e] a burden on future generations."
Economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research says President Obama's Deficit Commission, formally the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, is a major cause for concern. The co-chairs are former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, who is on the board of Morgan Stanley, one of the bailed-out Wall Street firms. Baker told me: "Both are on record saying they want to cut Social Security. This should have people very, very worried. That isn't a balanced commission."
Cutting Social Security isn't the answer. Cutting war spending, and bringing the troops home, is. This is the job for the deficit doves.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.