From every corner of America urban, suburban and rural the news of shrinking budgets and slashed community services sounds forth like a tragic Greek chorus.
According to Pew Trust's Philadelphia Research Initiative, balancing a city's budget has become a year-long necessity due to the uncertainty of revenues and cutbacks in state aid. In 2009, Baltimore, Boston and Phoenix had to revise already completed budgets. Bus services are being canceled in ClaytonCountyGeorgia leaving suburban working poor, many of whom are car-less, stranded from their jobs in sprawled metropolitan Atlanta. A national survey of 151 public transit agencies found that 3 of 5 agencies cut services or raised fares because of flat or decreased local and state funding. On March 13, 2010, my local newspaper laid out in bold front page headlines a litany of economic woes for Franklin County, Massachusetts: "United Way falling short on fundraising goals"; "Tight times in FranklinCounty"; "State aid to towns to be cut by up to 4%." Human service programs, education, police officers, firefighters, and child support are threatened with continuing budget cuts and losses in tax income, according to the news articles.
With striking consistency, local politicians, media, and economic analysts lay the blame for budget woes on the unholy trinity of recession, falling tax revenues, and diminished federal aid to states, cities and towns. Their consistent remedial response: cut jobs and services; raise sales and property taxes, institute work furloughs, and negotiate with unions to reduce pension and health benefits.
This week, however, the mayor of Binghamton, New York broke with this mantra and exposed the elephant in the room of local budget crises the obese, yet untouchable, military budget which over-consumes our income taxes and causes cities and towns to starve as their federal aid declines. Urged by residents he will install a large, digital cost-of-war counter, funded by private citizens, on the front of City Hall. Binghamton taxpayers have paid $138.6 million since 2001 to support failed wars, an amount which could fund renewable electricity for every home over the next 11 years and provide 4 year scholarships for most of the 2010 entering class of SUNY Binghamton.
Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq bleed resources from Franklin County, Massachusetts as well. According to the National Priorities Project taxes paid by Franklin County residents for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, namely $270 million, could have funded 28,027 scholarships for university students for one year, or the construction costs of 934 affordable housing units, or as many public safety officers and elementary school teachers needed plus renewable electricity costs for tens of thousands of homes for one year.
Defense apologists argue that the Pentagon and the military industrial complex form the keystone of the economy, assuring military and defense-related civilian jobs as well as technical innovation. However, recent analysis of the effect of defense spending on job creation challenges this axiomatic notion. Comparing $1 billion spent on clean energy, health care, and education to the same amount spent on defense, researchers found that a larger number of jobs with mid- to high-range salaries and benefits would be created in the non-defense sectors than in defense. The reason? Military jobs provide higher average wages and much more generous benefits than the other sectors, thus fewer jobs overall per billion dollars spent. A related study assessed the long-term (20 year) effect on jobs and economic growth of current defense spending. The results reveal a diminished economy: a loss of 2 million jobs and a reduction of 1.8% GDP.
In the end, it's a question of learning from recent history and choosing our priorities. Are we to join the club of 20th century militarized empires which over-stretched and failed, namely Britain at mid-century and the Soviet Union at the century's end? Do we want our core identity to be that of the world's largest military (as large as the rest of the world's together), the world's largest maker and marketer of military weapons (70% of world's market), a de facto military society masquerading as a civil society? Do we want to continue spending more on defense (55% of the discretionary budget) than on education, energy, environment, social services, housing, and new job creation taken together (45% of the discretionary budget)? If so, we may fulfill the intent of Osama bin Laden to draw the U.S. into a long war and bleed us dry. But spiritual decay may overtake us first. "A nation that continues to spend more money on military defenses than on programs of social uplift," warned Martin Luther King, "is approaching spiritual death."