Protecting Our Country

I have blogged about the reluctance of the Republican party to allow any cuts in “defense” spending — in spite of the fact that 60% of the budget they have pledged to cut to shreds is spent on the military in one form or another. In this regard a recent paragraph from a blogger friend jumped out and I thought it worth passing along:

Last year, the U.S. Army made an unusual request to Congress: Stop sending us tanks. That plea was issued after legislators ignored the Army’s objections and approved a defense appropriations bill that included $255 million for 42 new M1 Abrams tanks. With 2,300 M1s already deployed around the world, and 3,000 more sitting idle at a base in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, the military said it simply didn’t need any more tanks. But Ohio politicians pushed for the extra M1s, so as to keep open an 800-worker tank plant in the state. “A lot of lawmakers stuff funding into defense bills that could benefit their district,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Republican Rep. Jim Jordan, whose district is home to the tank plant, insisted that he supported the program for reasons of national security. “I think it’s in the best interests of the U.S. to defend our country,” he said.

Clearly waste in the Department of Defense is beyond our comprehension. Another article I read recently (also here) spoke about the waste of $5 billion by the Army attempting by trial and error to find camouflage that would protect the troops around the world — and make them look as “cool” as the Marines. Their camouflage, it turned out, made them more visible in every possible environment! They were unable to find the proper color combinations while the Marines simply went to Home Depot and looked at paint swatches and found the colors they wanted and had a material made in those colors which was then made into camouflage that works remarkably well — saving the taxpayers millions of dollars in the process.

I dare say there are many more stories like this that will never leak out as politicians are unwilling to turn a critical eye on “defense” spending since (as the above paragraph suggests) it would translate into a “weaker” country. Obviously defense spending is really less about defending our country than it is about defending special political interests. In any event this “weak” country would presumably result from a scheduled “sequestering” [reduction] of the military (which is opposed by Republicans in Congress (despite the fact that it would save the country $1.5 trillion over ten years). Our “weak” country would look something like this: it would only have 426,000 soldiers in the Army, only 1,512 fighter planes, only 230 ships in the Navy — not to mention the tanks alluded to above that are sitting and getting rusty and the tactical weapons we dare not mention. The question needs to be asked: what on earth is going on here? Just who are we defending ourselves from? It should be from the fat-cat politicians who talk about “national security” while they bed down with the corporations that make millions from selling defense equipment and weaponry.

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Money Matters

As you are doubtless aware, the college football season started recently. In fact, it started with a game in Dublin, Ireland between Notre Dame and the United States Naval Academy. That’s right, they flew the Naval Academy’s football team to Ireland to play a game. That would be our tax dollars, folks, part of our “defense” spending. And we might also note the “fly overs” at a number of other major games last weekend that have become a part of the jingoistic spectacle that is now American sports and which probably cost a dollar or two of our “defense” spending as well.

And we could total up the bill with other recreational spending on the military here and all over the globe where we have forces protecting us against whoever it is they are protecting us against. I suspect the cost of softballs alone would feed a family of four for a year. But that is speculation because I doubt very many people are privy to the inside dope on just what our defense spending goes toward. Ron Paul’s son recently had the audacity to suggest that there should be an audit of the Pentagon, but that suggestion fell on deaf ears and closed Republican minds.

But the Republicans are eager to cut federal spending and bring the government down a peg in order to help balance the budget. Yeah, right! So where will the cuts come from? You guessed it, social programs. 60% of the federal budget in the coming year will go to “defense” spending — Department of Defense, war, veterans affairs, and nuclear weapons programs. 6% will go to health and human services, 6% to education, 5% to the individual states, 4% to the Department of Homeland Security, 3% to Housing and Urban Development, and 4.5% to other programs. Oh, and there’s also a projected 1.5% that will go to helping develop and support new energy programs other than nuclear weapons programs. There are a few other piddling items, but you can see from this list where the major cuts will come — given that the “defense” budget will actually be increased in the future if the Republicans have their way. The cuts will come from programs designed to help folks survive and better themselves. Paul Ryan, for example, has suggested that Pell Grants be frozen or reduced in order to force the colleges and universities to reduce tuition costs for the nation’s college students.

Ryan’s suggestion reminds me of one of our local legislators who pushed through the Minnesota legislature a plan to increase the speed limits on two-lane country roads in order to reduce the speed of the vehicles and reduce accidents on country roads. That’s right: increase the speed limits in order to reduce the speed of local traffic. You heard it here, folks, it’s called “newspeak” or “policalese.” Whatever you call it, it’s hogwash and Ryan’s plan to cut Pell Grants in order to reduce tuition costs for students falls in that category.

Thus, if this crew is elected to run our government, we can brace ourselves for cuts to social programs that help people receive an adequate education, feed themselves, and find temporary shelter when they fall on hard times — while, at the same time, the military gets more money for softballs, golf balls, tennis balls, fly overs, and trips to Ireland to play football. I begin to know how Alice felt in Wonderland.

Sacred Cows

I have remarked from time to time that we might take an important step toward reducing our national debt and climbing out of our economic hole if we simply cut some of what we euphemistically call “defense” spending. This pie chart tells us that our country contributes a very large part of the money spent in the entire world on what is accurately called the “military”:

As we know, the military takes a disproportionate amount of our tax money in order to maintain this ascendency I am ashamed to say. We also know that our country leads the rest of the world in providing bellicose people with arms and ammunition to fight their wars. But when it is suggested that we cut some of our military spending in order to help balance the budget we hear an uproar. Clearly the military is a sacred cow in this country — much as sports are a sacred cow on the local levels when there is talk about balancing school budgets. Some things simply are not considered in the discussion: they cannot be touched. In the case of “defense” spending it’s not clear why, unless we probe the psychological depths of those who regard the military as essential to their well-being. The word that springs to mind is “fear,” but then I am not a psychologist. I do, however, recognize fear when I see it and I also know how our emotions frequently impair our reasoning abilities. Whatever the reason, what  we spend on the military is positively obscene.

Be that as it may, it is certainly the case that the military is the largest customer in this country for miscellaneous goods which may have nothing whatever to do with defense such as electronics, food, housing, recreational equipment, and clothing — not to mention arms and military equipment (such as planes and tanks) which clearly do. Last week the Department of Defense signed defense contracts with such companies as Boeing, Textron, Honeywell, Lockheed, Raytheon, Northrop Grummen, and Oceaneering International. As a recent report reveals, in part,

The number of contracts reached 90 for the week, ranging from weapons and vehicle development to night vision set replacement across different branches of the military.

The company realizing some of the largest contracts is Boeing (BA). The DoD agreed to pay Boeing $500 million to transition into post production of the C-17 jet because their need was being met. The company is likely still responsible for parts and maintenance for the fleet of C-17s.

Given this situation, when we talk about cuts in “defense” spending we are talking about cuts in the flow on great sums of monies to other segments of the economy that seem to have nothing whatever to do with killing other folks or keeping the world safe for democracy. We are dealing with a giant weed with a multitude of twisted roots that go deep into the economy of this country.

What this means, then, is that the pie chart above reflects the pie-in-the-sky thinking when we have the audacity to suggest cuts in the military. It would appear that the military keeps the economy afloat (though it seems at present to be in need of water wings). It’s no wonder that Republicans, especially, shout “foul” when they hear talk about cutting “defense” spending. It is, indeed, a sacred cow: it is the source of much of their livelihood.

“Defense” Spending

You have probably seen the chart here. It is making the rounds on Facebook, and it is alarming — not because our country now spends seven hundred billion dollars on the military, but because of the sharp contrast between this country and the rest of the world (including China!). Our priorities are clearly skewed.

Contrast Between The U.S. and The Rest of The World

In an election year when we might do well to do some deep thinking bout our priorities and about the huge debt we are passing along to our grandchildren it might be wise to consider this chart. We all believe the economy is “the problem,” or most of us seem to do so. It’s not. It’s the fact that we are throwing money into the black hole of the military (in the name of “defense”) while the nation goes deeper into debt. Meanwhile we refuse to pay more taxes while we cut and slash needed social programs, our infrastructure falls to pieces, and our health care system falls behind the rest of the developed world.

Though the military has had the lion’s share of the budget for years, the “war on terror” has given them virtual carte blanche. It is worrisome. It’s one thing for the money to go toward building “drones” that are sent into dark places and kill indiscriminately. That is a moral horror story. But perhaps we can rationalize it, together with our world-wide military presence, on the grounds that these things are keeping us safe from terrorists. Perhaps. But, as we all know, the amount of waste in this part of the budget alone is almost certainly enough to bail Greece out of its present economic woes — though you never hear those calling for tax cuts suggesting that the military budget be cut. No sir!

I recall a few years ago we got a little money at the University where I taught and it was decided that we would resurface two tennis courts with “omnicourt” and if they worked out we would resurface four more. These synthetic courts were terribly expensive and as it turned out we never could afford the four new ones and settled for two courts that were elegant but seldom used. The company that resurfaced those two courts left our town after installing the courts and headed for Omaha where they were scheduled to resurface 12 such courts for the officers at the Air Force base in Bellevue, Nebraska nearby. The tennis courts were located close to the golf course as I understand it.  I am also told the armed forces spend a small fortune in soft balls each year.  All in the name of “defense spending.”

These are anecdotes, of course, and anecdotes don’t prove anything. But they sometimes do tell a story: they reflect a mind-set, and in this case reveal the sorts of waste of taxpayers’ money that are typical — not only in the state’s revenue in the case of our two pathetic tennis courts, but the nation’s tax revenue in the case of the waste on frivolous,  needless luxuries in the name of “defense.” I daresay we could multiply these examples a  thousand-fold and it would give us a headache — especially when our kids aren’t getting an adequate education and the poor and the sick in this country are about to be abandoned, while the military grows fat. We really do need to reshuffle the deck. Someone isn’t playing fair!

Al Franken and the N.D.A.A.

The Senate recently voted to pass the National Defense Authorization Act which places domestic terror investigations in the hands of the military. The act would allow the trial-free indefinite detention of anyone the government regards as a terrorist. For a nation whose Founders didn’t want anything to do with a standing army in the first place and who fully understood how power could be abused, this act defies the imagination — even if it didn’t violate the basic presumption of innocence our system of jurisprudence is founded upon. In the name of fighting terrorism, this is the latest in a series of steps that seems to suggest that some of those in our government have learned that fear is an excellent way to control the electorate, a lesson taught us by Russia and Germany in the 30s and 40s of the last century.

Senator Al Franken of Minnesota gave a powerful speech on the Senate floor opposing this bill, referring to it as a step toward a “police state,” noting  “. . . if we pass the defense authorization with Section 1031, Congress will, . . . for the first time in 60 years, authorize the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without charge or trial. This would be the first time that Congress has deviated from President Nixon’s Non-Detention Act. And what we are talking about here is that Americans could be subjected to life imprisonment. Think about that for a minute. Life imprisonment. Without ever being charged, tried, or convicted of a crime. Without ever having an opportunity to prove your innocence to a judge or a jury of your peers. And without the government ever having to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In conclusion, he noted: “. . . these provisions should not be passed. They are not well-considered counterterrorism policy, and they would authorize poorly understood but deeply troubling policies. . . .. That’s why I cosponsored Senator Udall’s amendment that would have sent these matters back to the Administration and the relevant committees of Congress for the full consideration, discussion, and debate they deserve. Our national security and our freedom require nothing less.”

Most eloquent, and also most persuasive. But not so: it failed to persuade hardly anyone as 93% of the Senators voted in favor of the bill — including Franken himself! Of those opposing the bill, we find the names of two Republicans, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky. One must wonder what is going on behind closed doors as this seems the height of hypocrisy on Franken’s part and not a simple party-politics-as-usual gambit in the Senate. We shall wait and see how it turns out. At the risk of rushing to judgment, Franken’s  vote in favor of the bill suggests a change of heart that defies explanation — except the obvious one that he is playing the political game and currying favor with the powers who can help him be reelected. When I asked for clarification, both by email and on the phone with one of Franken’s fundraisers, I got no response.

The Harvard economist Paul Schumpeter long ago pointed out that our Congress is made up of professional politicians whose only real skill is electioneering and whose  main focus once in office is to be reelected. Few of them have any aptitude for governance, which has become so complicated very few can keep up. But they learn quickly which side of their bread is buttered and where the dollars come from that will help them stay in office. It is hard to argue with Schumpeter’s thesis, especially in light of what appears to be a typical political turnabout on Franken’s part. Stay tuned….