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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 6/24/18

Altruism and Sadism in Public Policy

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Remarks at Peace Resource Center of San Diego, June 23, 2018.

There are three things that are almost always underestimated: the U.S. military budget, altruism, and sadism.

First, the military budget.

The U.S. military budget, including all things military in various departments, is roughly 60% of federal discretionary spending, meaning the spending that Congress members decide on each year. It is also, by my very rough estimate, the topic of well under 1% of the discussions of government spending engaged in by candidates for Congress. Most Democrats running for Congress this year have websites that don't even acknowledge the existence of foreign policy, beyond expressing their passionate love for veterans. They're campaigning for 40% of a job.

U.S. political debate for decades has been framed between those who want a smaller government with fewer social benefits, and those who want a larger government with more social benefits. Someone like myself who wants a smaller government with more social benefits can't even be comprehended. Yet it shouldn't be so very hard to grasp that if you were to eliminate one little program that makes up 60% of discretionary spending, you could increase many other things and still have a smaller government.

The U.S. military budget is over $1 trillion. When you hear an advocate for peace tell you that U.S. wars in recent years have cost some outrageous figure in the hundreds of billions or low trillions, what they are doing is normalizing most military spending as somehow being for something other than wars. But military spending is, by definition, spending on wars and preparations for wars. And it is $1 trillion each and every year for that and nothing else.

When you hear an advocate for economic fairness tell you how much money you could get by taxing billionaires, it's less than one year's military budget. If you taxed every dime away from every billionaire, I'd throw you a party and raise a toast, but the next year you'd have to tax millionaires instead, as there wouldn't be any billionaires left. In contrast, the trillions for militarism just keep flowing, year after year. For a little over 1% of a trillion dollars a year, you could end the lack of clean drinking water everywhere on earth. For about 3% of a trillion dollars a year, you could end starvation everywhere on earth. For larger fractions you could put up a serious struggle against climate chaos. You could provide much of the world with cleaner energy, better education, happier lives.

You could make yourself widely loved in the process. While 95% of suicide terrorist attacks are motivated by a desire to get a military occupier to end an occupation, exactly 0% of such attacks thus far have been motivated by resentment of gifts of food, medicine, schools, or clean energy.

Militarism threatens nuclear apocalypse and is the single biggest cause of climate and environmental collapse, but in the short term it kills more by the diversion of funds from useful projects than through all the mass-murdering horrors of war. That's how big the military budget is. And by "horrors of war" I mean to include the intentional creation of famine and disease epidemics in places like Yemen, and the creation of life-shortening hells from which refugees flee only to get themselves resented as illegal alien immigrants.

Global military spending is roughly $2 trillion, meaning that the rest of the world combined makes up roughly another $1 trillion, to match the United States' trillion. So, now you're talking about a doubly incomprehensible number, and a sum capable of doing doubly unimaginable good if converted, redirected, and put to moral use. And I'm not even counting the trillions of dollars of damage that the violence of war does to property each year. Well over three-quarters of world military spending is spent by the United States and its close allies and weapons customers whom the U.S. government leans on hard to increase their spending. China spends a fraction of what the U.S. does, Russia a tiny fraction (and Russia has been reducing its military spending dramatically); Iran and North Korea each spend 1 to 2 percent what the U.S. does.

This is why the Pentagon has struggled for years to identify an enemy to justify U.S. spending. Military officials in recent years, including before and after Trump's arrival in the White House, have openly told reporters that the motivations behind the new Cold War with Russia are bureaucratic and profit driven. The lack of a credible national enemy has clearly also been a motivation behind the generation, exaggeration, and demonization of smaller, non-governmental enemies, as well as the marketing of wars as means to rid small non-threatening nations of non-existent weapons and to prevent imminent if fictional massacres. With the United States in the lead as the top weapons dealer to the world, to poor nations, and to dictatorships, it has become unusual not to have U.S. weapons on both sides of a war. And the counter-productive nature of the wars, generating more enemies than they eliminate, has been well established and conscientiously ignored. As I've said before, given the record of the war on terrorism spreading terrorism, the war on drugs spreading drugs, and the war on poverty increasing poverty, I would strongly support a war on prosperity, sustainability, and joy.

A big chunk of U.S. military spending goes to maintain some 1,000 military bases in other people's countries. The rest of the world's nations combined maintain a couple of dozen bases outside their borders. When President Trump recently mentioned ending war rehearsals in Korea and the bare possibility of bringing U.S. troops home from there, many Democratic Party members in Washington, D.C., and in the corporate media nearly lost their minds. Senator Tammy Duckworth immediately introduced legislation to forbid bringing any troops home, an action she seemed to consider would be an attack on those troops.

I need to pause in my remarks here for a few sadly necessary diversions related to personalities, parties, and troops. First, personalities. I don't think any cause is helped by the deification or demonization of any individual politician. I think the best of them in the U.S. government do far more harm than good, and the worst of them do good sometimes. I think activists need to focus on policy, not personality. When Trump was threatening nuclear war on North Korea, I was demanding his impeachment for it. I still am demanding his impeachment for a long list of quintessentially impeachable offenses, none of which involve unproven and ridiculous accusations of having conspired with Vladimir Putin to besmirch the utterly corrupt, antidemocratic, unverifiable, broken beyond belief U.S. election system. But when Trump stopped threatening North Korea and began talking about peace, I didn't need to turn against peace because I'm on the anti-Trump team or a card-carrying member of the so-called Resistance that steadily votes Trump bigger war budgets and expanded tyrannical powers. It's fair to recognize that the main thing Trump has done is cease prolonging a crisis of his own buffoonish creation. It's fair to be embarrassed by the propaganda video he showed in Singapore, and his dishonest and ignorant discussion of recent events. But the people of South Korea and the world have been demanding an end to the war rehearsals, the so-called war games. When Trump announces something we've been demanding, we ought to express our approval and insist on follow-through, because we ought to be on the side of peace and not care a fig for being on the side for or against the current king of the kakistocracy. In saying that, I'm about a trillion miles away from supporting Trump for a Nobel peace prize. Even President Moon, who is far more deserving, is not a peace activist in need of funding for the work of abolishing war. Others in Korea and around the world actually qualify under Alfred Nobel's will.

Second, parties. I want to offer a similar caveat. Activism is not served by devotion to a lesser evil political party. If you want to do lesser evil voting on election day, knock yourself out. But if you can't do it without becoming an apologist for the evils of a particular party throughout the year, then it's not a good trade off. What we do on non-election days is more important than what we do on election days. Nonviolent activism in all of its millions of forms is what has always changed the world. And the fact that both the lesser and the greater evil continue to steadily grow more evil is not an argument for or against lesser evil voting, and certainly not an argument for lesser evil activism.

Third, troops. The United States has a poverty draft. No volunteer in its so-called volunteer military is permitted to cease volunteering. The massive budget increases for more weapons are not actually for the troops. No war has ever actually been extended for the benefit of the troops; nor has the ending of any war ever damaged the troops. The top killer of U.S. troops is suicide. The top cause of troop suicide is moral injury, which is to say deep regret for what these young men and women come to realize they were swindled into taking part in, namely mass murder. There are zero recorded cases of moral injury or PTSD or brain injury from war deprivation. Admitting that this is a cruel system is a first step in fixing it, not a treasonous attack on troops. Demanding basic human rights, like free college, guaranteed retirement, or a habitable future climate for troops and non-troops alike is not anti-troop. Demanding free job retraining for all former troops during a process of conversion to a peaceful economy is not anti-troop, even if one believes that we ought to stop calling mass murder a service and stop thanking anyone for it, that people should board airplanes in the fastest rather than the most militarist or the most profitable order, that the handicapped rather than the uniformed should get the close parking places at the supermarket, and that aircraft carriers should not be used as tourist attractions in non-sociopathic societies. So, in my view pollsters who ask if you are pro-war or anti-troop are engaged in a nasty sort of deception, while hash tags that encourage veterans of recent wars to make up their own personal beliefs about what they claim to have been fighting for is pure anti-intellectualism of the worst sort. You may very well favor democracy or freedom or faith or family or any number of other phrases, but that doesn't mean you were sent to Iraq for that purpose or that your being in Iraq served that purpose, or that I can't denounce the criminal enterprise you were part of without opposing you and your noble sentiments.

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David Swanson is the author of "When the World Outlawed War," "War Is A Lie" and "Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union." He blogs at and and works for the online (more...)
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