This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
Who could forget it? There were the $37 screws (no need to say who was getting screwed), the $2,043 nut (McDonnell Douglas made it specially for the U.S. Navy), the $7,622 coffee pot, the $74,165 aluminum ladder, and the $640 plastic toilet seats for the Air Force. All of those examples of Pentagon waste were from ancient times, the 1970s and 1980s when such revelations still generated literally hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. These days, in the age of America's never-ending credit-card wars and a Pentagon budget eternally going through the roof, stories of that sort are surprisingly rare. It's as if that budget and the waste that goes with it has, by now, become such a strikingly bipartisan Washington phenomenon that the details hardly matter. Who's going to be shocked? Who's going to complain? Who would possibly contest anything the Pentagon did or spent for American "safety" and "security"?
So I recently felt a wave of almost Trumpian nostalgia for those long-gone days of American "greatness," or at least well-publicized great wastefulness, when I stumbled across an obscure piece about the $10,000 toilet seats the Air Force is presently buying for its Boeing C-17 Globemaster III transport planes. Admit it: even taking inflation into account, that's impressive! That's waste on a scale that should make any American proud! Now, imagine that, as TomDispatch regular William Hartung points out today, when it comes to government investment in the American economy and our disintegrating infrastructure, there really is nothing much left but the Pentagon and its $10,000 toilet seats. It should make your heart beat faster to know that if anything is going to lift the economy long term, it's going to be Pentagon spending. If that isn't MAGA, what is? Tom
Trump's "Infrastructure" Plan
Pump Up the Pentagon
By William D. Hartung- Advertisement -
Other than shouting about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, one of Donald Trump's most frequently proclaimed promises on the 2016 campaign trail was the launching of a half-trillion-dollar plan to repair America's crumbling infrastructure (employing large numbers of workers in the process). Eighteen months into his administration, no credible proposal for anything near that scale has been made. To the extent that the Trump administration has a plan at all for public investment, it involves pumping up Pentagon spending, not investing in roads, bridges, transportation, better Internet access, or other pressing needs of the civilian economy.
Not that President Trump hasn't talked about investing in infrastructure. Last February, he even proposed a scheme that, he claimed, would boost the country's infrastructure with $1.5 trillion in spending over the next decade. With a typical dose of hyperbole, he described it as "the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history."
Analysts from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania -- Trump's alma mater -- beg to differ. They note that the plan actually involves only $200 billion in direct federal investment, less than one-seventh of the total promised. According to Wharton's experts, much of the extra spending, supposedly leveraged from the private sector as well as state and local governments, will never materialize. In addition, were such a plan launched, it would, they suggest, fall short of its goal by a cool trillion dollars. In the end, the spending levels Trump is proposing would have "little to no impact" on the nation's gross domestic product. To add insult to injury, the president has exerted next to no effort to get even this anemic proposal through Congress, where it's now dead in the water.- Advertisement -
There is, however, one area of federal investment on which Trump and the Congress have worked overtime with remarkable unanimity to increase spending: the Pentagon, which is slated to receive more than $6 trillion over the next decade. This year alone increases will bring total spending on the Pentagon and related agencies (like the Department of Energy where work on nuclear warheads takes place) to $716 billion. That $6-trillion, 10-year figure represents more than 30 times as much direct spending as the president's $200 billion infrastructure plan.
In reality, Pentagon spending is the Trump administration's substitute for a true infrastructure program and it's guaranteed to deliver public investments, but neglect just about every area of greatest civilian need from roads to water treatment facilities.
The Pentagon's Covert Industrial Policy
One reason the Trump administration has chosen to pump money into the Pentagon is that it's the path of least political resistance in Washington. A combination of fear, ideology, and influence peddling radically skews "debate" there in favor of military outlays above all else. Fear -- whether of terrorism, Russia, China, Iran, or North Korea -- provides one pillar of support for the habitual overfunding of the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state (which in these years has had a combined trillion-dollar annual budget). In addition, it's generally accepted in Washington that being tagged "soft on defense" is the equivalent of political suicide, particularly for Democrats. Add to that the millions of dollars spent by the weapons industry on lobbying and campaign contributions, its routine practice of hiring former Pentagon and military officials, and the way it strategically places defense-related jobs in key states and districts, and it's easy to see how the president and Congress might turn to arms spending as the basis for a covert industrial policy.
The Trump plan builds on the Pentagon's already prominent role in the economy. By now, it's the largest landowner in the country, the biggest institutional consumer of fossil fuels, the most significant source of funds for advanced government research and development, and a major investor in the manufacturing sector. As it happens, though, expanding the Pentagon's economic role is the least efficient way to boost jobs, innovation, and economic growth.
Unfortunately, there is no organized lobby or accepted bipartisan rationale for domestic funding that can come close to matching the levers of influence that the Pentagon and the arms industry have at their command. This only increases the difficulty Congress has when it comes to investing in infrastructure, clean energy, education, or other direct paths toward increasing employment and economic growth.- Advertisement -
Former congressman Barney Frank once labeled the penchant for using the Pentagon as the government's main economic tool "weaponized Keynesianism" after economist John Maynard Keynes's theory that government spending should pick up the slack in investment when private-sector spending is insufficient to support full employment. Currently, of course, the official unemployment rate is low by historical standards. However, key localities and constituencies, including the industrial Midwest, rural areas, and urban ones with significant numbers of black and Hispanic workers, have largely been left behind. In addition, millions of "discouraged workers" who want a job but have given up actively looking for one aren't even counted in the official unemployment figures, wage growth has been stagnant for years, and the inequality gap between the 1% and the rest of America is already in Gilded Age territory.
Such economic distress was crucial to Donald Trump's rise to power. In campaign 2016, of course, he endlessly denounced unfair trade agreements, immigrants, and corporate flight as key factors in the plight of what became a significant part of his political base: downwardly mobile and displaced industrial workers (or those who feared that this might be their future fate).
The Trump Difference