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Peace activists gathered outside the Internal Revenue Service offices in Manhattan on April 15, 2021 to protest against spending federal tax dollars on the Pentagon and U.S. wars. (Photo: Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

$3.5 Trillion Is Too Expensive, But $10 Trillion for War Is Business as Usual

The massive expenditure for war is not merely a fiscal issue. It reflects a system of governance that values war. That system was produced by a failure of political vision and an electoral process corrupted by corporate money.

Richard Eskow serves as something of a "company town" newspaper for Congress. Two stories were published there on September 23 that illustrate, if unintentionally, the true state of our national priorities. A prominently featured story had the headline, "Many lingering questions despite 'framework' for reconciliation offsets." The subheading read, "Democratic leaders say they have narrowed a 'menu of options' on how to pay for sweeping budget package."

In the end, a government budget is both a moral document and a reflection of the society that produced it. That should fill us all with shame.

The second story, which was featured less prominently, was headlined "House passes major defense policy bill" and subheaded, "Members voted down proposals to reduce authorized spending."
The first measure covers a range of programs designed to help working people and address climate change. It would cost $3.5 trillion over ten years. The second, which was apparently considered less newsworthy, authorized a one-year military budget of $768 billion. If that amount remains the same over the next decade, the ten-year cost would come to $7.7 trillion, more than twice the amount of the Democrats' so-called "sweeping budget package."
We have just completed a military withdrawal from Afghanistan. We have sharply reduced our military presence in Iraq. Nevertheless, the total budget approved by the House is $40 billion higher than last year's budget. Congress actually added $25.5 billion to the Pentagon's budget request. 
And that's not the total cost of our military spending. The United States actually spent $934 billion on the military in 2020-21, as this analysis explains. Unless there are cuts in other areas (which seems unlikely), the recently approved House budget would mean that the US will spend nearly $1 trillion on the military next year. 
The proposals that were rejected would have reduced spending were very modest. A measure from Barbara Lee would have cut the $25.5 billion that was added to the budget by the House Armed Services Committee. Another, from Rep. Mark Pocan, would have reduced the Pentagon budget by 10 percent. Needless to say, they were not widely supported by so-called "deficit hawks," inside or outside Congress. 
That means the United States is now on track to spend roughly $10 trillion on direct military costs over the next ten years. That's nearly three times as much as the cost of the Biden proposal. 
A recent report from the Institute for Policy Studies showed that "the U.S. has spent $21 trillion on foreign and domestic militarization" since 9/11. Adding in the "non-military" cost items in the IPS report, we are on track to spend more than $21 trillion in the next 20 years.
It's a different story for the Democratic proposal. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer felt compelled to join House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen this week to say they had "'reached agreement on a framework' on how to pay for sweeping social spending measure that will fund new programs on paid leave, child care, climate and much more." 
Nobody felt compelled to say whether or not they had "reached agreement on a framework" for funding our military spending, despite its vastly higher price tag.
The political psychology behind this thinking is no longer restricted to elected Democrats. Many of the party's more privileged voters also see any attempt to shift our country's spending priorities as effrontery. Author Stephen King, for example, compared elected representatives and activists who are fighting for climate and social justice to a group of squabbling children on a playground. 
It's noteworthy that King didn't merely frame his comment as a difference of opinion about tactics. Like many prominent Democrats, inside and outside politics, he expressed contempt for anyone who wants to fight for substantially different budget priorities. Look, Stephen King generally seems like a good enough guy. Sadly, however, comments like these reflect an ideological indoctrination that helps preserve the fiscal status quo. 
We're not thinking rationally about the budget. Consider climate change: The $3.5 trillion measure includes some initial measures to address climate change. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that climate catastrophes (which the $3.5 trillion plan makes modest attempts to contain) cost the US economy $95 billion last year. That comes to $9.5 trillion over ten years, enough to fund the Biden bill nearly three times over.
What about drug prices? "Moderate" Democrats are undermining proposals that would reduce drug costs for Medicare, as well as the public, even though these measures would also save both human lives and government money. (We're looking at you, Reps. Scott Peters, Kurt Schrader, and Kathleen Rice.) 
There are better approaches. Economist Dean Baker notes that eliminating our profit-driven system of drug patents could arguably pay for the Democratic proposal in its entirety, while saving patients a great deal of money. It would also save lives. (Baker and I discussed this and other topics here.)
Instead, we are in the process of strangling a proposal that is already moderate in the name of fiscal responsibility, even as our war budget remains sacrosanct. Two modest proposals to restrain that war budget were soundly rejected this week by Congress. 
It's not necessary to embrace everything in the $3.5 trillion bill to see that our priorities are profoundly misguided. The massive expenditure for war is not merely a fiscal issue. It reflects a system of governance that values war. That system was produced by a failure of political vision and an electoral process corrupted by corporate money. 
In the end, a government budget is both a moral document and a reflection of the society that produced it. That should fill us all with shame.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Richard Eskow

Richard Eskow

Richard (RJ) Eskow is a freelance writer. Much of his work can be found on His weekly program, The Zero Hour, can be found on cable television, radio, Spotify, and podcast media. He is a senior advisor with Social Security Works. 

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