In the preface to his 1974 classic, The Permanent War Economy, Seymour Melman decried America's choice of guns over butter. He wrote:
"Traditional economic competence of every sort is being eroded by the state capitalist directorate that elevates inefficiency to a national purpose, that disables the market system, that destroys the value of the currency, and that diminishes the decision power of all institutions other than its own. Industrial productivity, the foundation of every nation's economic growth, is being eroded by the relentlessly predatory effects of military economy."
The time couldn't have looked riper for beating swords into plowshares. After more than 10 years, U.S. combat in Vietnam had ended and President Nixon had recently begun normalizing relations with China, that Communist behemoth. And yet, in 1986, more than a decade later, Melman surveyed the governmental landscape and saw the same forces at play in the same ways. By then, however, deindustrialization had obliterated whole American industries -- especially in what came to be called the Rust Belt -- that had once produced durable goods and offered well-paying jobs that had once been the pride of the planet. "Instead of enjoying guns and butter, we are suffering a national blight of street begging, homelessness, and hunger, unseen since the Great Depression," he wrote then.
In the years since, the primary Communist behemoth on the planet, the Soviet Union, went belly up and its satellite states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia spun out of its orbit. Still, even with no real enemies on the horizon, talk of a "peace dividend" in Washington came and went in the blink of an eye. A smoldering war with Iraq, combat in the former Yugoslavia, an abortive intervention in Somalia, and attacks in Sudan and Afghanistan followed. Not long after, the permanent war economy, still thriving, found itself profitably joined to the idea of permanent war, aka the Global War on Terror. A decade of disaster followed, in which successful invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan devolved into ruinous, wheel-spinning occupations, and interventions in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere produced at best dubious, at worst disastrous, results. Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex and the national security state continued to engorge themselves on taxpayer dollars.
In 2004, Melman died without ever seeing his dream of converting any significant part of the American war economy into a peace economy get the slightest traction. Today, however, Washington has recently quit one major war and is winding down another. For the first time in memory, a bipartisan coalition in Congress has also pushed back against a presidential rush to war. In addition, and to the amazement of Washington watchers of every stripe, a bipartisan agreement in Congress will, albeit modestly, ratchet down runaway Pentagon spending. Were Melman still alive, he would no doubt be writing with increased vigor about converting the military economy to a civilian one. In his stead, TomDispatch regular Mattea Kramer of the National Priorities Project and Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies pick up the banner and suggest how America's overabundance of swords might, in the foreseeable future, be beaten into wind turbines. Nick Turse
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A trillion dollars. It's a lot of money. In a year it could send 127 million college students to school, provide health insurance for 206 million people, or pay the salaries of seven million schoolteachers and seven million police officers. A trillion dollars could do a lot of good. It could transform or save a lot of lives. Now, imagine doubling the money; no, tripling it. How about quadrupling it, maybe quintupling it, or even sextupling it? Unfortunately, you really will have to imagine that, because the money to do it isn't there. It was (or will be) spent on Washington's disastrous post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
War, the military-industrial complex, and the national security state that go with it cost in every sense an arm and a leg. And that, in the twenty-first century, has been where so many American tax dollars have gone.
That's because the cost of war always turns out to be more than estimated. Who could forget the $60 billion high-end figure the Bush administration offered in early 2003 as its estimate for its coming invasion of Iraq? A decade later, we've spent $814 billion in Iraq to date with the full price tag yet to come in. Recently, when the Obama administration was planning to launch Tomahawk missiles against Syria, just about nobody even bothered to talk about what it would have cost. (Before Washington even considered such a strike, the Tomahawk program was already costing U.S. taxpayers $36,000 per hour all year long.)
This reality has slowly sunk into American consciousness, which may be why the public in opinion polls has proven so clearly opposed to jumping into another overseas conflict when tax dollars are desperately needed at home.
And those Tomahawk missiles are just icing on the cake of what this country spends on its military and the national security state that goes with it, estimated at nearly a trillion dollars a year. A fire hose of taxpayer cash -- to the tune of around $600 billion -- gets pumped into the Department of Defense each year (and that doesn't include the "civilian" intelligence community or the Department of Homeland Security).
The spending on that war machine is so profligate, in fact, that the Pentagon has never successfully completed an audit; its officials can't even tell you where all that money goes. The U.S. accounts for a staggering 40% of all military expenditures globally. And some members of Congress -- their bread buttered by military contractors -- are ready to use the next war, whether in Syria or elsewhere, as a pretext to sustain or even expand our current wartime military budget.- Advertisement -
Early Experiments in Civilianizing the Military Economy
Here's what no one is talking about: maintaining that staggering level of military funding would mean squandering a once-in-a-generation opportunity. That's because right now is a rare moment when two pieces of bad news Americans are accustomed to hearing could be converted into one piece of very good news.
First, there's the bad news that threatens to change the course of human civilization. Following a year of record wild fires and droughts, crop failures, record flooding, and the punishing winds and waves of Hurricane Sandy, there's the urgent crisis of climate change, already well underway. Intertwined with that is the mammoth problem of how to feed humanity's insatiable appetite for energy, while somehow radically cutting our consumption of fossil fuels.