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Published 24 May 2015
If U.S. military spending was merely returned to 2001 levels, it would free up $213 billion per year for social spending.

In a recent essay the incredibly creative and prolific David Swanson wrote a piece about military expenditures. He points out that "in 2001, U.S. military spending was $397 billion" but that it is $610 billion in 2015" and adds that if one accounts for "debt payments, veterans costs, and civil defense," the figure climbs "to over $1 trillion a year now," even "not counting state and local spending on the military."

Swanson adds that "Military spending is now 54% of U.S. federal discretionary spending." He offers many other eye opening statistics, as well. For example "Per capita the U.S. now spends $1,891 current U.S. dollars for each person in the United States, as compared with $242 per capita worldwide, or $165 per capita in the world outside the U.S., or $155 per capita in China" and he convincingly points out that the military benefits have been nil. The is steadily more dangerous, more fraught with war and terror.

But then comes Swanson's real point which is that the "spending has had other consequences." His research is worth repeating word for word: "The U.S. has risen into the top five nations in the world for disparity of wealth. The 10th wealthiest country on earth per capita doesn’t look wealthy when you drive through it. And you do have to drive, with 0 miles of high-speed rail built; but local U.S. police have weapons of war now. And you have to be careful when you drive. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure a D+. Areas of cities like Detroit have become wasteland. Residential areas lack water or are poisoned by environmental pollution — most often from military operations. The U.S. now ranks 35th in freedom to choose what to do with your life, 36th in life expectancy, 47th in preventing infant mortality, 57th in employment, and trails in education by various measures.

Then a conclusion comes - "if U.S. military spending were merely returned to 2001 levels, the savings of $213 billion per year could meet the following needs:

  • End hunger and starvation worldwide — $30 billion per year.

  • Provide clean drinking water worldwide — $11 billion per year.

  • Provide free college in the United States — $70 billion per year

  • Double U.S. foreign aid — $23 billion per year.

  • Build and maintain a high-speed rail system in the U.S. — $30 billion per year.

  • Invest in solar and renewable energy as never before — $20 billion per year.

  • Fund peace initiatives as never before — $10 billion per year.

  • That would leave $19 billion left over per year with which to pay down debt."

And Swanson ends, "You may say I’m a dreamer, but this is life and death. War kills more by how the money isn’t spent than by how it is spent."

I have one thing to add and to me, is perhaps most damning of all, but rarely recognized even though it should surface immediately. Motive!

If military spending doesn't curtail wars and violence or protect people, and if it is a gigantic drain on well being due to using so much wealth that could, instead, improve people's lives - why the hell do we keep allocating it in such gargantuan amounts?

The reason the U.S. spends as much as it does on military projects, rather than on infrastructure, ending poverty, education, health, and housing is not because of benefits that come from having more weapons.

Swanson is right that even for imperialism, even for being a bully, such benefits are meager - way less expenditure would accomplish as much for those rotten aims. Enough is more than enough. So why so much more?

The answer has to rest not with direct benefits from putting all that cash into guns, but benefits from not putting all that cash into peace and justice, into popular well being. It is just logic but what can it possibly mean?

It means the damage done by how money isn't spent, the benefits lost, are not, in fact, just a nasty byproduct of deciding to spend it on weapons for other reasons. Rather, the reason to spend it on weapons is precisely to avoid spending it on socially worthy and valuable programs. When you want to understand policies ask - what do they result in, who benefits, who loses.

All we have to do to understand is go one step further. Suppose somehow Swanson gets his way and the country cuts military spending by over $200 billion. Doing so would open a discussion of what to do, domestically, or to help others, with all that loot. Some would perhaps propose creating huge playgrounds for the rich. Others would propose Swanson's list. Swanson's list would win. Just imagine a vote - enlarge gluttony for a few, correct social ills and advance social gains throughout society. So, some variant on Swanson's list wins. It is done. Isn't this terrific?

Yes, for most people it would be, of course. But what about for the very rich and powerful. What would be the impact on them. Don't jump to answer too fast. It would still be their businesses that get the government payments to build the railways, develop solar, rebuild infrastructure, build houses, and so on. So it isn't that military spending yields short term corporate profits and rebuilding cities wouldn't do so. In this thought experiment we aren't proposing a whole new system, but just redirecting $200 billion a year from military waste and violence to sane and worthy ends.

So what is the problem with doing that? If it benefits people, doesn't interfere with defense, and earns corporations the same kinds of profits that war spending does (even more, in fact, I suspect), why is there so much incredible resistance. Are people just insane?

Envision society with this redirection occurring and then having effects on folks. There is a social safety net that really protects against unemployment and poverty. There is better housing. There are cleaner and repaired neighborhoods, with new parks. There is much better education, open, free. There is better health care, without fear. All that and more is in place, $200 billion worth each new year.

What happens to the relative well being of working people, to their ability to fight for a larger share, even? What happens to their fear of unemployment, to their levels of awareness, to their confidence? What happens, then, to the relative balance of power between elites, on the one hand, and those who finally get serious benefits from the country's productive capacity? The balance shifts in a major way. And, worse, in a way that could easily snowball into continuing gains for the poor as against the rich.

And that is the heart of it. The reason that military expenditures are sacrosanct - until very powerful movements displace them - is because the pain and suffering maintained by spending the funds on military ends is considered, however implicitly, vastly better for the "system" and its main beneficiaries than would be the growing security, confidence, knowledge, and means of beneficiaries of social expenditures.

The harm that Swanson points to as a result of our militaristic budget priorities is not just a nasty byproduct. It is a very large part of the reason for the priorities in the first place. Declining infrastructure, etc. etc. isn't a bit of collateral damage for undertaking military spending in such massive amounts only for military reasons. Beyond rather modest outlays, it is, instead, the reason for military spending - social spending, the only alternative, is anathema to the powers that be.

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