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B is for Billion: What Military Cuts?

A U.S. Army helicopter taking off from Forward Operating Base Shindand, Afghanistan, Oct. 3, 2012. (Photo: DoD/public domain)

This week we’ll hear proposals to massively increase military spending in the face of last year’s outcries about “draconian” cuts to our defense budget and criticism of “out of control” spending on public services. But don’t be fooled by the hyperbole. In fact, our military budget, still at historically unprecedented highs, was cut by less than one percent last year. The president’s proposed FY16 budget again preserves our outsized military spending while continuing a long, dangerous trend of underfunding human needs.

I might describe cuts that will displace thousands of children from Head Start programs as ugly, or cuts to low-income families already struggling to survive as brutal. And cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that might send millions of kids to bed hungry could be described as draconian. But the military spending cuts that we’ve had so far are as gentle and easy as cuts come.  A better grasp on how much our government is actually spending on the military might be the first step to an honest debate about our spending priorities.

It’s hard to follow the money, even for those of us who study the budget process.  For example, the original cuts slated for military spending under the Budget Control Act in FY14 amounted to around $56 billion. However, there was a $20.3 billion reduction in cuts through the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013, then another $20 billion of non-war funding that was requested by the Pentagon, and an additional $10.8 billion from a Congressional war funding account (read slush fund) to cover regular military expenses. The final Pentagon reduction: $3.6 billion.  

Is that a big cut?  Not to an overall military budget of well over half a trillion dollars annually, a mindboggling amount that represents nearly half of the entire world’s military spending. But the money we spend on the military in the name of security becomes even more astounding when you consider what we’re not willing to invest federal dollars in.

I recently started attending meetings with other community members to discuss the U.S. non-military budget, and the newly imposed cuts in this sequestration era. In my first meeting, the chair began listing the millions of dollars in cuts on the table to several domestic human needs programs. “Excuse me,” I said. “Didn't you mean billions with a B?” Everyone laughed and said it would be a dream for even $1 billion to be spent on any of the programs being discussed.

It’s hard for most of us to understand the difference between a million and a billion.  But think about it this way: a million minutes ago it was March of 2013. A billion minutes ago was just after the time of Jesus. What a difference a letter makes!

Not many Americans realize that the vast majority of the U.S. discretionary budget goes to military spending. This is the spending that Congress has authority to determine every year -- a good indicator of our priorities as a nation. Although the official Pentagon budget in 2015 is “only” $495 billion, the actual budget for all Pentagon expenses is $645 billion. If we add the cost of nuclear weapons (usually classified under the Department of Energy) the total is around $665 billion, which is more than 57 percent of this year’s discretionary spending. The rest -- less than 43 percent -- will cover a broad set of public services, including education, environmental protection, job training, scientific research, transportation, economic development, and a bunch of low-income assistance programs.

No sticker shock yet? Wait until you hear about our so-called “National Security Budget.” When you add the Pentagon expenses to all the other money we spend on veteran’s affairs, non-Department of Defense national security, and the share of interest on our national debt attributed to military spending, the number in 2015 is $1,009.5 billion. That is one trillion – with a “t” -- and 9 billion bucks. It looks like this: $1,009,000,000,000.

Meanwhile, since 2011, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have scrambled to add billions back to the military budget, even as they’ve cut a further $87 billion – a staggering 15 percent – from regular non-defense discretionary spending. These programs are now in the fifth year of an austerity drive that is a true security crisis.

I’ll leave you with this: While a million seconds adds up to less than two weeks, a trillion seconds ago is almost 32,000 years to date. This is right around the time Neanderthals were discussing their national security (no offense to creationists).

It's about time for us to mind our Ms, Bs, and Ts and bring our budget priorities into the 21st century.

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Raed Jarrar

Raed Jarrar is an Arab-American political advocate based in Washington DC.

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