Monday, April 13, 2009

Cash Rules Every-military-thing Around Me

The stimulus bill passed in February, much to the chagrin of many Republicans, and some Democrats, who think the final price tag is an obscene amount of money for the US to spend. Libertarians such as Ron Paul argue that spending is actually the worst way to deal with the economic crisis, that letting banks fail, etc., would be rough, but we'd get out of this recession in a relatively short period of time. I am not quite sure about that, but I definitely think the final bill is an insane amount of money. I think we're all just hoping that it gets spent effectively to stimulate our ailing economy, and doesn't further line the pockets of powerful bankers, etc., who've made out like bandits the past few months even though they thoroughly failed.

More importantly, though, all this talk got me thinking...what about the amount we spend on the military? We kick and scream over a few billion here and there for public programs, and have cartoonists draw racist and ultra-violent cartoons in response to hundreds of billions in spending programs, but almost no politician even blinks when it comes to the military...well, except for ensuring the troops have ample body protection and benefits. Everything else the government funds has to justify itself...which begs the question, is our military spending effective? Considering how much money we spend on defense (or offense - remember, DoD was previously called the Dept. of War, and the name was changed more for PR than functional reasons), you'd hope the crowd in Washington paid attention to this question.

To understand the numbers, for FY 09, we're talking about around $515 billion. Throwing in the costs of the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear weapons research, etc., we get up to about $1 trillion for all US defense-related spending. There is also the black budget military spending, kept secret from the public, which is supposed to be $32 billion. So, yeah...this is a hell of a lot of money - we spend almost as much as the rest of the world combined on the military. We have over 700 bases around the world as well. So...does this spending help any?

Or is it making us less safe? The more we increase our own military might for "security", the more others feel insecure - the massive gap in military capability between the US and the rest of the world makes it harder for others to believe we are credible in espousing that we won't use our military power to impose our will on others. Our foreign policy certainly hasn't helped lessen this problem any, as we have asserted ourselves in numerous parts of the world frequently for our pure self-interest. Now, the truth is, every country largely looks out for its own self-interests, and there is nothing fundamentally unusual about the US in that regard. However, what is unusual is the massive gap in military capability between America and everyone else. The combination of the two is problematic for that very reason - our historical aggressiveness (which, again, may not be all that unusual compared to other great powers) + our unprecedentedly huge military capability advantage (which is unusual) = major fear of America abroad.

In many parts of the world, anti-American sentiment is pretty clearly linked to this overseas military presence. Think about US bases and troops in South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. Our allies are also increasingly worried about this massive gap. Europe is pushing for increased military spending - this might just be talk, but it is something. The gap isn't sitting well with Russia, either. I don't mean to raise this as an all-or-nothing question, but more of a magnitude question. Does it really benefit us, security-wise, to spend this much money on our military? Would we be more secure if we spent quite a bit less? We would still maintain a massive advantage on any other nation in terms of military capability, while easing back the level of threat perception our current military power evokes. Would it cost military jobs? Sure it would. But that is also money that could be redirected into our economy to help create jobs that don't depend on the risk of conflict. And again, we'd still maintain a massive military advantage over anyone, even if we cut our defense budget in half.

Also, are we even getting a good bang for our buck? Or are these massive contracts going to politically-connected businessmen who then do a mediocre job when contracted? Chalmers Johnson's book, The Sorrows of Empire, covers some of this ground. He highlights a number of cases where huge amounts of money were given by the US government to their friends through military contracts whereby these friends didn't do a particularly good job. Also, Johnson notes how ridiculously opulent some of the bases are.

So, our continued ultra-militarization continues to raise little alarm in DC from either party, despite the fact that it might actually make us less safe, and, as taxpayers, we might also be getting swindled at times. Yet, mention the idea of raising federal spending for programs where the market simply fails, and people will go absolutely insane. This conversation is becoming absurd. This country badly needs health care reform. We've got baby boomers getting ready to retire. There is a critical need for infrastructure building projects, expansion of public programs during an economic downturn like we have right now, etc. In response to these major needs, we hear many crying about the irresponsibility of government spending this will require. Yeah, it's going to cost some money. But we could cover those costs by cutting the massive defense budget. We could cut off contracts to politically-connected defense companies who have done crappy work for their money. We could stop building some of these bases as kingdoms. All these moves would save us a lot of money and make us just as secure, if not more. It's too bad talking about such a move is political suicide. That doesn't bode well for us moving forward.

1 comment:

Eddie W said...

Ask residents of South Korea, Japan, Bahrain, or Germany how they feel about the US leaving- behind the love/hate relationship, you'll see that those countries want us there to address their perceived security needs. Yes, even the Arab world, and yes, even modern Europe. If America really acted in its self-interest, it would take many of your suggestions and bring our servicemen home and stop playing rent-a-cop to the world. But self-interest makes up as much of our foreign/defense policy as capitalism makes up our economic condition.

BTW, which overseas bases are "opulent" or "kingdoms?" Most servicemen I know were lucky to have a 20-year old gym and 30-year old bowling alley on their base.