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Bloomberg’s Armsmaker-Funded Columnist Wants You to Know: Military Spending Is Woke

They can call it whatever they wish—"think tank," "nonprofit," "Center"—but by any objective metric, this organization is just a lobbying entity for the weapons industry and Western militaries.

This is what a very "progressive" battleship looks like.

You may not know it, but bloated Pentagon budgets are actually “progressive.” Or so says a recent opinion piece in Bloomberg News (3/17/19), “Progressives Should Learn to Love the Pentagon Budget,” by Hal Brands.

Bloomberg identifies Brands as the “Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.” “Kissinger” is ominous enough, but surely Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments is some innocuous, wonky academic institution, no?

In a piece explicitly defending bloated military budgets, however, perhaps it would be useful to know what exactly the “Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments” is.  We can start by reading this section taken directly from their website (unabridged):

Below is a list of organizations that have contributed to our efforts over the past three years.

  • Aerojet Rocketdyne
  • Army Strategic Studies Group
  • Army War College
  • Austal USA
  • Australian Department of Defence
  • BAE Systems Inc.
  • Carnegie Corporation of New York
  • Chemring Group
  • Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)
  • Department of the Navy
  • Embassy of Japan
  • Fincantieri/Marinette
  • Free University Brussels
  • General Atomics
  • General Dynamics—National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO)
  • Harris Corporation
  • Huntington Ingalls Industries
  • Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies
  • Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force
  • Kongsberg Defense Systems, Inc.
  • L3 Technologies, Inc.
  • Lockheed Martin Corporation
  • Maersk Line, Limited
  • Metron
  • National Defense University
  • Navy League of the United States
  • Northrop Grumman Corporation
  • Office of the Secretary of Defense/Office of Net Assessment (ONA)
  • Office of the Secretary of Defense/Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE)
  • Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment (AT&L)
  • Polski Instytut Spraw Miedzynarodowych (PISM)
  • Raven Industries
  • Raytheon Company
  • Sasakawa Peace Foundation
  • Sarah Scaife Foundation
  • SEACOR Holdings
  • Secretary of Defense Corporate Fellows Program
  • Smith Richardson Foundation
  • Submarine Industrial Base Council
  • Taiwan Ministry of National Defense
  • Textron Systems
  • The Boeing Company
  • The Doris & Stanley Tananbaum Foundation
  • The Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation
  • United Kingdom Royal Air Force

Brands is a senior fellow at an organization funded almost entirely by those with a clear interest in the upcoming $750 billion defense budget Brands is pushing for. While we don’t have a tax filings for CSBA since Brand was hired there, and thus we do not know his specific income, the average senior fellow at the organization, as of its last tax filing, makes just under $300,000 a year.

They can call it whatever they wish—”think tank,” “nonprofit,” “Center”—but by any objective metric, this organization is just a lobbying entity for the weapons industry and Western militaries. A cursory glance at their policy briefs reveals they, unsurprisingly, always support more spending on weapons systems. Unlike other weapons-funded lobbying groups such as Center for Strategic and International Studies (FAIR.org, 8/12/16), they don’t even bother throwing some banks or soda companies in there to give the appearance of being anything other than a weapons industry trade group. (Don’t be fooled by the “Sasakawa Peace Foundation”—that’s an organization founded by far-right Japanese business executive Ryoichi Sasakawa, who was jailed as a war crimes suspect after World War II, and who once described himself as the “world’s richest fascist”—Time, 8/26/74.)

Setting aside its disqualifying conflicts of interest, Brands’ piece is an assortment of sophistry about how weapons systems create middle-class jobs for Americans. Given that any meaningful definition of “progressive” must take into account the 95 percent of the world who are not Americans—e.g., those on the other end of these weapons systems and military occupations—the column rests its premise on a massive category error.

One passage in particular displays a rather goofy notion of what “progressive” means (emphasis added):

The progressive critique misses the fact that military spending already serves progressive ends. Yes, defense spending benefits the executives who run major defense contractors, just as infrastructure spending benefits the executives of companies that build highways and airports and schools. But the Pentagon budget also serves as a huge jobs program and source of economic security for the middle class. This includes the roughly 2 million people who serve either on active duty or in the reserves and 730,000 civilian employees. The vast majority of them qualify as middle class and enjoy precisely the sort of healthcare and other benefits progressives seek to provide for the population as a whole.

See, if only all 330 million Americans could work in the military industry, building bombs and F-35s, no one would die due to preventable disease or an inability to afford chemotherapy. To Brands, the most “progressive” vision for society is the Klingon Empire—a perpetual war state where service to large-scale mechanized violence is the cost of survival. The idea that healthcare could, maybe, not be tethered to exporting weapons, occupation, hundreds of military bases, CIA dirty tricks and bombings is simply not an option. Progressives’ only hope: piggyback off US imperialism which evidently, to Brands, is simply a law of nature like ocean tides or entropy.

Brands also suggests that you can’t have trade except at gunpoint:

Defense spending produces massive positive spillovers in the form of national security and the ability to protect access to the global commons – critical to promoting U.S. trade and improving living standards at home.

And he says that what progressives should be worrying about as a “long-term threat to America’s ability to invest in infrastructure, education and other progressive priorities is not the Pentagon,” but “runaway entitlement spending.”

New York’s Eric Levitz (3/18/19) does a good job debunking Brands’ argument, such as it is, and his piece is well worth reading. But it’s not totally clear how useful it is to assume good faith from someone with such deep, undisclosed conflicts. We learned years ago to dismiss out of hand experts funded by the tobacco industry commenting on the effects of smoking, or climate scientists funded by big oil; why, exactly, do we take at all seriously organizations like CSBA when they comment on military budgets, and broader questions of US militarism, while receiving the vast bulk of their funding from those with a vested interest in bloating the US military machine?

The reason is, compared to the fossil fuel industry and tobacco, the military-think tank complex’s mercenary experts are 100-fold more intertwined into the US bipartisan consensus. It’s a product of ubiquity and professional courtesy borne from having influence with both Democrats and Republicans, rather than just the increasingly fringe and anti-science GOP.  From an ontological standpoint, there’s little difference between experts on the take pushing cigarettes and those on the take pushing weapons; it’s simply a matter of scope and sophistication.

In addition, Brands’ Bloomberg bio omits Brands is also a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, which also receives sizable funds from the weapons industry. While its funders are not posted on its website, Rightwing Web, a website that monitors the influence of right-wing funding, does report that

major supporters listed in the group’s 2012 annual report include Boeing, Piasecki Aircraft… Historically, FPRI has also benefited from the largesse of conservative foundations. Between 1985 and 2005, FPRI received nearly $5 million from the Lynde and Harry Bradley, John M. Olin, Earhart, Smith Richardson and Sarah Scaife Foundations, among others.

A variation on the Inexplicable Republican Best Friend (FAIR.org, 2/26/19), Brands––a career conservative whose recent output includes columns in Bloomberg downplaying Elliott Abrams’ laundry list of war crimes (2/20/19) and calling for a “new Cold War” in Latin America (2/10/19) and a 34-page paper in Journal of Strategic Studies making “The Case for Bush Revisionism” (7/28/17)––is here to tell progressives what’s good for them; in this case, supporting the funding of massive, expensive weapons systems. The fact that he’s potentially paid hundreds of thousands of dollars from a group funded almost exclusively by weaponsmakers and US and foreign militaries isn’t disclosed.

Laundering conflicts of interests through “think tanks” isn’t a new phenomenon for the media, and it’s one FAIR has documented for years (e.g., 5/17/17, 3/7/18), but perhaps editors can explain what exactly groups like “Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments” are, who funds them, or what their political leanings may be. These militaristic propaganda outfits are specifically designed to sound boring and Official and Serious, so the average reader won’t make the connection between their funding sources and their ideological end product.

Perhaps an enterprising editor, not wanting to collaborate in this transparent scam, will break convention and actually make clear to the reader what 20 seconds of Google would show: that these columns are written by people directly invested in the continued bloating of the Pentagon and function in effect, if not intent, as little more than marketing tools for industries and armies that build, stock and use weapons systems.

 You can send a message to Bloomberg here (or via Twitter: @business). Remember that respectful communication is the most effective.

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Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson is a New York-based  journalist, a contributing analyst for FAIR.org, and co-host of the Citations Needed podcast. Follow him on Twitter at @adamjohnsonnyc

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