This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
In May 2012, TomDispatch featured a piece by Chris Hellman and Mattea Kramer, both then analysts at the National Priorities Project, headlined "War Pay: The Nearly $1 Trillion National Security Budget." The two of them ran through the figures for the cumulative annual budget for what we still mysteriously call "national security." In other words, they looked beyond the monumental Pentagon budget and found that the total for all such funding was at the time closing in on a trillion dollars a year. ($931 billion, to be exact.)
Strangely, though, in mainstream reportage while you'll see discussion of what Congress is likely to pony up in any given year for the Pentagon and some associated activities, I doubt you'll ever find a figure for total national security expenditures. In fact, I'm ready to make a modest bet that, outside of the technical literature, in the five years since the Hellman-Kramer article, you would have a tough time finding such a cumulative number in the mainstream world for what we (that is, "we the people") actually spend to support an ever more powerful national security state. Meanwhile, that state within a state continues its relentless post-9/11 expansion, as it officially girds itself for the eternal fight against a single threat to American "safety," one that holds only the most modest of actual dangers for Americans: terrorism.
Of course, staggering amounts of our "national security" dollars also go into preparations for and the fighting of the now-15-year-old war on terror, which has loosed the U.S. military to do its damnedest in an ever-spreading, never-ending, always-morphing set of conflicts across the Greater Middle East. In these, as I wrote recently, that military has proven remarkably successful at turning significant parts of the region into so much rubble. Add it all up and, at a moment when the domestic order of the day is cutting the funding for the sort of domestic services -- from health care to the environment -- that actually do keep us secure, we the people are essentially throwing our money into the black hole of war and preparations for yet more of it.
With that in mind and knowing that most Americans have little idea what their government is truly spending to "defend" them, we turned for help to TomDispatch regular William Hartung, an expert on the money eternally being wasted on our "security." (And yes, I'm aware that I've been putting some of the commonest words in Washington's vocabulary inside scare quotes. The reason: given the history of the post-9/11 era, they really should scare us.) In any case, in these early months of the Trump era we asked Hartung to add up just what we're now regularly pouring into our past wars, present wars, future wars, endless preparation for the same, and the national security state itself. Fair warning: buckle your seat belt; you're in for a bumpy, trillion-dollar ride into American financial hell. Tom
The Hidden Costs of "National Security"
Ten Ways Your Tax Dollars Pay for War -- Past, Present, and Future
By William D. Hartung
You wouldn't know it, based on the endless cries for more money coming from the military, politicians, and the president, but these are the best of times for the Pentagon. Spending on the Department of Defense alone is already well in excess of half a trillion dollars a year and counting. Adjusted for inflation, that means it's higher than at the height of President Ronald Reagan's massive buildup of the 1980s and is now nearing the post-World War II funding peak. And yet that's barely half the story. There are hundreds of billions of dollars in "defense" spending that aren't even counted in the Pentagon budget.
Under the circumstances, laying all this out in grisly detail -- and believe me, when you dive into the figures, they couldn't be grislier -- is the only way to offer a better sense of the true costs of our wars past, present, and future, and of the funding that is the lifeblood of the national security state. When you do that, you end up with no less than 10 categories of national security spending (only one of which is the Pentagon budget). So steel yourself for a tour of our nation's trillion-dollar-plus "national security" budget. Given the Pentagon's penchant for wasting money and our government's record of engaging in dangerously misguided wars without end, it's clear that a large portion of this massive investment of taxpayer dollars isn't making anyone any safer.
1) The Pentagon Budget: The Pentagon's "base" or regular budget contains the costs of the peacetime training, arming, and operation of the U.S. military and of the massive civilian workforce that supports it -- and if waste is your Eden, then you're in paradise.
The department's budget is awash in waste, as you might expect from the only major federal agency that has never passed an audit. For example, last year a report by the Defense Business Board, a Pentagon advisory panel, found that the Department of Defense could save $125 billion over five years just by trimming excess bureaucracy. And a new study by the Pentagon's Inspector General indicates that the department has ignored hundreds of recommendations that could have saved it more than $33.6 billion.
The Pentagon can't even get an accurate count of the number of private contractors it employs, but the figure is certainly in the range of 600,000 or higher, and many of them carry out tasks that might far better be handled by government employees. Cutting that enormous contractor work force by just 15%, only a start when it comes to eliminating the unnecessary duplication involved in hiring government employees and private contractors to do the same work, would save an easy $20 billion annually.
And the items mentioned so far are only the most obvious examples of misguided expenditures at the Department of Defense. Even larger savings could be realized by scaling back the Pentagon's global ambitions, which have caused nothing but trouble in the last decade and a half as the U.S. military has waged devastating and counterproductive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East and Africa. An analysis by Ben Friedman of the conservative Cato Institute estimates that the Pentagon could reduce its projected spending by one trillion dollars over the next decade if Washington reined in its interventionary instincts and focused only on America's core interests.
Donald Trump, of course, ran for president as a businessman who would clean house and institute unprecedented efficiencies in government. Instead, on entering the Oval Office, he's done a superb job of ignoring chronic problems at the Pentagon, proposing instead to give that department a hefty raise: $575 billion next year. And yet his expansive military funding plans look relatively mild compared to the desires of the gung-ho members of the armed services committees in the House and Senate. Democrats and Republicans alike want to hike the Pentagon budget to at least $600 billion or more. The legislative fight over a final number will play out over the rest of this year. For now, let's just use Trump's number as a placeholder.
Pentagon Budget: $575 billion
2) The War Budget: The wars of this century, from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond, have largely been paid for through a special account that lies outside the regular Pentagon budget. This war budget -- known in the antiseptic language of the Pentagon as the "Overseas Contingency Operations" account, or OCO -- peaked at more than $180 billion at the height of the Bush administration's intervention in Iraq.
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