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Opportunity Cost: $1 Trillion

January 27, 2011

Here’s what I was hoping the president would say on Tuesday night: “I’ve got the answer. We need to spend less money, we need to invest in our infrastructure, our economy, education and jobs.  So we need to look very carefully at what this nation needs and what it doesn’t need.”

The president’s own deficit commission concluded that military spending must be on the table when our elected leaders look at what this nation really needs.

But the president barely mentioned the commission’s recommendations on cutting back military spending.  He could have remarked on the reports coming from moderate to conservative bi-partisan groups that are calling for military spending cuts in the range of $970 billion to $1.1 trillion over the next ten years.  He could have quoted former Secretary of State Colin Powell, or fiscal conservatives like Sen. Coburn and Rep. Cantor, or even David Stockman — Ronald Reagan’s budget guru from decades ago.  All agree that military spending cannot be given a pass in this season.

There are no mysteries about the military spending that we don’t need.*  You don’t have to be a liberal or a pacifist to ask why our country is maintaining so many bases and so many troops in Europe, while we bring the members of the National Guard from home to fight in wars overseas.  It’s reasonable to wonder why the U.S. military budget is more than two and a half times the size of all of the nation’s potential adversaries’ budgets combined. It makes sense to ask why taxpayers continue to pay military contractors for weapons that don’t work, with cost-overruns far beyond their advertised price, under “cost-plus” contracts, with no audits.  Taxpayers do want to know why the Pentagon has never been subject to the kind of federal audits that every other major cabinet agency has to go through.

It makes sense to ask how many nuclear weapons this nation actually needs. The U.S. has nearly 2000  deployed strategic warheads — when senior Air Force strategic  planners say that a few hundred — 311 —  would be sufficient to achieve real deterrence.  Because of the global danger these weapons pose, many (including FCNL) would argue that zero is a better number — but certainly this nation doesn’t need more than it has right now.

And it makes sense to ask why the U.S. continues to send troops to a war that no one wants and that, according to military leaders, cannot be won with troops. In order to fund the wars, we cut our support of diplomatic and development programs that have great potential to avert future wars before they start.  As a nation, we spend so much on the wars that we don’t have enough to care for the wounded veterans that the wars produce, or to provide jobs to the veterans when they return home.

There’s not much mystery about what this nation actually needs, either.  We need jobs.  We need infrastructure repair — we need to replace those 40 to 60 year-old pipes that keep bursting in major cities around the country and washing cars and businesses away.  We need to keep our classrooms open, all the way through the college years, because more of us will need college and other specialized training in the future.  The president talked about all of this — and we all know it.  But what he missed was the opportunity to say how we can make these investments and still bring down the deficit.

The president had a unique opportunity in this time of deep and scary deficits and mountains of debt.  In this time when there is bi-partisan agreement on this one issue – military spending, this was the time to say, “OK, I’ve got the answer.  Let’s look at what this nation really needs and put our dollars where they need to be.”

In the coming year, we need to work to persuade the president and Congress that getting a handle on military spending is an opportunity worth seizing.

* The Sustainable Defense Task Force and the Rivlin-Domenici report issued by the Bipartisan Task Force both offer specific recommendations on how to reduce military spending.

  1. January 28, 2011 2:37 pm

    Dear Ruth Flower, Can we really cut the military budget, close 850 foreign military bases or substantially reduce nuclear weapons without facing the fact that our government is trying to maintain a hegemony (dominance) worldwide? At the end of W.W.II the U.S. produced more than 40% of the world’s GDP. Today we contribute less than 20%, yet we continue to try to have the same level of influence and freedom of action around the Earth. To maintain that dominance we are spending over 5% of our GDP on the military. Europe, for example, spends about 2 1/2% — even though the European Union has a greater total GDP than we do! Who pays for our dominance? American workers and taxpayers. They pay, while giant corporations benefit. If we returned to our traditional attitude of non-intervention, or at least friendly cooperation, we could vastly reduce our military establishment. Is it spiritually acceptable to try to dominate other peoples? Have we meditated on this? Has it been the vital question to be answered by
    yearly meetings? Friends must deal with this subject, if they are to continue their peaceful influence.

  2. Russell permalink
    January 28, 2011 10:07 pm

    We need to keep the pressure on our congressional representatives.

  3. January 29, 2011 9:27 am

    Peter, yes, this is key. This evil paradigm pervaded the SOTU speech. Obama kept talking about winning, and he made the assumption that it’s a zero-sum game – for us to do well, others have to do less well. His theme was “Win the Future.” The future is not a contest to be won or lost!

    We could choose cooperation, not dominance. Choosing that course would mean enormous budget savings from closing our more than 700 major foreign military bases, stopping our wars of aggression, greatly reducing the size of the military, etc. We would save enough to greatly reduce the deficit while expanding funding for constructive programs.

    But the President’s paradigm dominates our society, including both major parties. While the Democrats have historically gotten us into most of our wars, the Republicans are not really any better these days. How do we change the whole framework of the dialogue into something more sensible and humane?

  4. J Bridges permalink
    February 10, 2011 4:56 pm

    My impression is that the President will not take any position which would give the Republicans a chance to attack both him and the Democratic party as “soft on defense.” This has been the heavy club that Republicans have yielded for years. I see only two ways out.

    The first is for the President to simply do the right thing without regard for re-election. I think this would allow the Republicans total control in the next election because they have the advantage that scare tactics work. There is little chance this will happen.

    The other, our best hope (I think) is for a very strong third party to rapidly emerge which gathers enough vote to put neither Republicans nor Democrats in the majority. Both would be forced to deal with a real alternative to the status quo.

    The Tea Party is not really an alternative – they are a slight distance away from Republican rhetoric and are easily gathered into the fold.

    If we are lucky, there is an alternative party gathering strength right – but not yet visible. I would love to know how to make it happen.

  5. February 10, 2011 6:45 pm

    Yes, we many be able to cut military spending by closing some of our bases overseas, I belive we have too many. We can put these on our borders to keeep illegals out. Anybody got any better suggestions

  6. February 11, 2011 8:19 pm


    “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

    The desperate people seeking to build a life that is not horribly deprived are not our enemy. Scripture tells us to welcome the alien.

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