The Alternative to War and Poverty
The U.S. government spent $2.25 trillion last year, not counting Social Security. This pile of dollar bills could be laid out end to end and stretch from the earth to the sun and back, and still have enough left over to get to Mars.
According to the War Resisters League, about half of this eye-popping sum goes to military spending.
The League arrives at this figure by adding the official Pentagon budget for 2006 ($450 billion), plus the “supplemental” funds that Congress granted for the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq ($120 billion), plus the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons maintenance and development costs ($17 billion), plus veterans’ benefits ($76 billion), plus the portion of federal debt interest payments accrued from past military spending (at least $275 billion), plus another $10-20 billion from various federal departments that goes toward military costs.
Lest you imagine that rank-and-file soldiers and sailors are rolling in the dough, keep in mind that only $110 billion of military spending goes to salaries, and only $76 billion for VA benefits. In fact, starting pay for an Army private is about $16,000 a year.
By way of comparison, China spent $35 billion on its military last year. Since the former USSR collapsed in 1991, U.S. military spending has increased by over 50 percent. By and large, this obscene military budget inflation has been a bipartisan effort, with the parties squabbling over this or that high-tech system, and this or that base closure.
The people of Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering most acutely from the U.S. government’s militarism. But working-class people here in the U.S. are bearing the costs as well.
Over the past few years, the Bush administration and Congress have cut billions of dollars in social spending, hitting the poorest people in our society the hardest. These cuts have done real and lasting damage to millions of people’s lives.
But to understand the structural role of the federal budget in maintaining inequality in U.S. society, you have to step back from the budget cuts and look at the overall budget itself.
There is no better way to understand the bipartisan consensus in Washington than to compare the endless rhetoric of both parties about “putting education first” with the actual amount they are willing to spend on it.
Federal budgets are notoriously difficult to understand because of all the small print, but the U.S. Department of Education’s budget is around $70 billion, depending on exactly how you count it. This has remained relatively stable over the last 10 years, going up and down by 10 percent per year.
The Education Department estimates that total education spending in the U.S. is around $909 billion (K-12 and college, public and private), most of it funded at the state and local level.
These figures tell you two things: First, that the federal government doesn’t really care about education at all, as it funds less than 10 percent of it; and two, that military spending exceeds all spending on education at all levels. So the next time your hear a politician talking about education, keep these figures in mind.
The fact that the federal government refuses to take responsibility for funding public education means that local school districts are left to survive off local property taxes, which is one of the main reasons for the dramatic inequality between schools. Districts with high property taxes (in upper-middle class and rich areas) do fine, while districts with low property taxes (in working-class suburbs, inner cities and rural areas) get -- to paraphrase Bush -- left behind.
The easiest way to redress inequality in our schools would be for the Department of Education to exchange budgets with the Department of Defense.
While this might be considered “unrealistic,” let’s take a moment to look at the potential benefits before we dismiss it out of hand.
As for the Pentagon, it would have to get by on $70 billion a year, which would mean spending only twice as much as China. This would still leave the United States with the largest military budget in the world -- though it would require bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan, and closing hundreds of overseas military bases.
As for the Education Department, let’s just give it the $450 billion that the Pentagon lists as its official budget, plus the $100 billion used to occupy Iraq and Afghanistan. Right away, you can see the impact -- a more than 500 percent increase in the amount the government spends on education.
What could we do with that money? Here’s a proposed budget (amendments are welcome):
* $75 billion: Existing DoE budget
What do these figures mean in human terms? Hiring 1.5 million teachers would roughly double the number of public school teachers in America and allow us to cut class sizes in half. We could recruit and train teachers from the poorest communities with the promise of a good-paying union job in exchange for teaching close to home.
We could radically reduce unemployment and give every laid off defense worker a good-paying job in construction or education by embarking on a nationwide school-building plan.
Instead of gutting bilingual education, we could teach every kid in the country to speak two or three languages, and instead of slashing art and music, we could begin a public school-based renaissance. And we could make public college or technical school free for all graduating seniors, thereby greatly expanding the number of people who see a reason to graduate from high school and virtually eliminating student debt.
Imagine the dramatic changes that flooding our communities with education would bring -- more hopeful youth, less crime, a spectacular increase in scientific interest and the arts, combating institutional racism and segregation, and showing the world that our country values children over military aggression.
Of course, these huge benefits will force some to sacrifice. The corporate board members of Halliburton and Bechtel will have to tighten their belts, and the shareholders in Northrop Grumman would have to go without their second summer homes.
What’s the point of this flight of fancy? We have grown so accustomed to the bipartisan blather about “security” and “no child left behind” that we can lose sight of how the system is actively robbing us and our children.
Realizing what’s at stake can be the first step toward joining the struggle. Our country is messed up, and tinkering around the edges is not enough. To get the kind of changes that will actually begin to improve our lives, it isn’t enough to elect this or that Democrat to replace this or that Republican.
To force any genuine change in the government’s priorities will require a huge social force -- like the beginnings of the one we witnessed in Los Angeles and Chicago and other cities, when millions of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets.
This has always been true in American history, from the revolution against British colonialism, to the abolitionist movement to end slavery, to the fight for industrial unionism in the 1930s, to the civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s.
But this time around, our social movements must have their own political party or parties that aim to help strengthen and coordinate our struggle, not co-opt and derail it as the Democratic Party has traditionally done.
Creating that genuine party of the people is perhaps the hardest challenge of all, but knowing what we could do with all the wealth the working people of this country have created should be a good enough incentive to try.
Todd Chretien is the Green Party candidate for the U.S. Senate from California, running against Dianne Feinstein, and a member of the International Socialist Organization. Thanks to Alan Maass at Socialist Worker.