July 2002

Half our tax dollars feed the American war machine

"The issue isn't just jobs. Even slaves had jobs. The issue is wages." --Jim Hightower


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As early-20th-century humorist Kin Hubbard noted, “The less a statesman amounts to, the more he loves the flag.” Beware, then, of Bush, Cheney, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld & Co., for they have turned flag-waving into performance art, transforming the presidency into a medicine show of hyperbolic Yankee Doodle Dandyism—with George W. as George M. Cohan. Bush even used his annual colonoscopy last month as a media event to portray himself in patriotic-warrior mode. He convened a White House press briefing and solemnly told us that “because we’re at war,” he was invoking the 25th Amendment to transfer power to Dick Cheney for a couple of hours, letting the veep play president while he underwent the procedure. The hearts of the multitudes undoubtedly swelled with pride, knowing that the president was a patriot to the core . . . or at least the colon.”

Everything that this bunch does is hyped in the name of patriotism-in-a-time-of-war. Never has so much bunting been used to cover up so many bad ideas. Among the most nefarious examples is the 2003 Bush budget, published as a humongous book that they literally and shamelessly covered front and back with slick photos of a rippling red, white, and blue American flag. Between the covers, however, is a decidedly unpatriotic budgetary blueprint for transmuting America’s democratic ambitions into a militaristic, autocratic, plutocratic society. Cartoonist Kevin Siers of the Charlotte Observer got it right in a one-panel cartoon showing W. with his left hand holding his flag-draped budget and his right hand over his heart as he beams at a boy who is dutifully reciting a Bush-revised pledge: “I pledge allegiance to the budget of the United States of America and to the defense build-up for which it stands, one nation, under-funded, class divisible, with security and tax cuts for the rich.” Presidential budgets are always sleights of hand, pretending that less is more and vice versa, but this one is dangerously deceptive, intentionally low-balling the startling degree to which the Bushites seek to militarize federal spending. As ammunition for agitation, the Lowdown takes apart some of their numbers for you in this issue, revealing a very different picture of national priorities than the propagandists want you to have.

"Two wrongs don't make a right, but three left turns do." --Jim Hightower


Budget Chicanery 101

The official White House budget offers a simplistic, budgeting-for-morons pie chart that slices federal spending into a few easy-to-digest slices. They title this “How Will the Federal Government Spend Your Tax Dollar in 2003?” We title it “The Lie.” The key number is the one they put on national defense: 17 cents. Gosh, a casual observer might think, we’ve got a mighty military machine with all of those zap-’em-dead razzle-dazzle missiles they show us on CNN, plus we can send troops hither, thither and yon to eradicate evil-doers from the face of the earth forever—and it only costs us 17 cents out of our tax dollar? That leaves 73 cents for other needs. Bargain, dude! Hardly. Bush and his bean-counters have pulled two simple but huge tricks with this chart. First, they continue the flim-flam of mixing national trust-fund spending with the money that Washington allocates each year through the general budget. Payouts that Americans get from Social Security, Medicare, and other national trust funds are not subject to the budgeting choices of the president and Congress. Monthly Social Security benefits, for example, are already committed to be paid to retired Americans, and it’s sheer deceit to pretend that this is money that Washington appropriates annually. These trust-fund payments are financed by their own taxes, which are taken out of our payroll checks. It’s a separate system. The real budget—the annual operating budget that Bush and the Congress are free to divvy up each year among various federal programs—comes mostly from our income taxes. But beginning in the 1960s, when a huge percentage of this budget began to be siphoned into the war machine for the Vietnam conflict, the White House created the fiction of the “unified budget”—a dishonest ploy that lumps our trust-fund payouts with the pot of income-tax money over which Washington actually has spending discretion. By engaging in this statistical muddling, the pols artificially bloat the size of the pie, making it appear that they parcel out more money each year than they actually do. The result is—hocus pocus!—to make the military’s gluttonous share of the real budget seem smaller than it actually is. If we simply remove the artificial bloat of the trust-fund payments from the phony unified budget, we get a more honest picture in which Washington’s annual appropriation of our tax dollar to the military machine is not a mere 17 cents, but 31 cents.

A military-money shell game

Thanks to a second scam in Bush’s dandy little pie chart—hiding the pea under assorted shells—military spending is not encompassed just by the national-defense category: . The War Resisters League calculates that half of the budgets of both NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency goes to military functions, including military reconnaissance and civil defense. . While Paul O’Neill, Jesse Helms and that ilk squawk endlessly about the sliver of federal spending that goes for foreign aid (about a penny of each tax dollar), what goes unmentioned is that more than a third of foreign aid goes not for humanitarian or economic assistance, but straight into military and police operations abroad—and the two largest recipients of our aid, Israel and Egypt, get three-fourths of theirs for military purposes. . The FBI’s $4-billion-plus budget has been switched by Attorney General Ashcroft and Director Mueller from focusing on domestic crime-fighting to focusing on Bush’s interminable war on international terrorism, including imprisoning thousands of people without charges and trying suspects in unconstitutional military tribunals. . The infamous Drug War, a $19-billion-a-year program ostensibly intended to stop drug use here, increasingly is being converted into a military operation in such places as Colombia, Peru, and Venezuela to prop up economic elites. . We are still paying tens of billions of dollars each year for past militarism, both in terms of former soldiers (military retirement and veterans’ benefits) and in terms of interest paid on the national debt, more than half of which is derived from past military buildups. . The Department of Energy’s budget covers the maintenance of our nuclear-weapons stockpiles and the enormous cost of nuclear-weapons dumps. . And now comes “The Thing,” Bush’s lumbering new bureaucratic behemoth called the Department of Homeland Security, which will amass 22 agencies (from hoof-and-mouth inspectors to Secret Service agents to the Coast Guard) into a domestic-security detail that’ll suck up at least $38 billion more for militaristic purposes. By the way, Bush wants this awesome new federal authority to be exempt from both the Freedom of Information Act and the Whistleblowers Act. The bulk of this spending is a transfer of wealth from ordinary taxpayers to major corporations that have become welfare-dependent on military largesse. These special citizens maintain hordes of lobbyists to assure that, no matter what else the country might need, the war machine is fed first and most. A staggering amount of this is sheer waste. The Pentagon’s own inspector general, for example, recently conceded that the Defense Department cannot account for 25% of the funds it spends. It is unable to account for $2.3 trillion in transactions. It was reported at a Senate hearing that $13 billion handed out to weapons contractors between 1985 and 1995 was “lost”—yes, gone missing! Yet Washington is throwing even more of our tax dollars down this hole. Bush and Rumsfeld once talked the language of smaller government, saying that they would only push for necessary new weaponry. But after September 11, they said: “Oh, the hell with that, now we can have it all!” So in their budget is such gross waste as $2 billion for Boeing’s technologically challenged V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft that keeps crashing, having already killed 23 Marines in test flights; $3.5 billion for Lockheed’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that can’t fly the long sorties to reach landlocked countries like Afghanistan; another billion bucks for Boeing’s Comanche helicopters, an unnecessary aircraft that’s already saddled taxpayers with huge cost overruns; a half billion for United Defense’s Crusader artillery system, a 42-ton mobile cannon that’s too slow for today’s warfare, more than twice as heavy as the Army says is feasible for field use, and that even Rumsfeld doesn’t want; and $9.3 billion more for the embarrassing but continuing Star Wars boondoggle (see Lowdown, March 2001).

War—at any cost!

What we have here is a vicious cycle of welfare, with a whole class of corporations lined up at the government trough generation after generation demanding a steady flow of military-oriented contracts, which requires that the country be kept in a perpetual state of war. The “Red Menace” and the “Yellow Peril” served this purpose during the 40 years of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union collapsed (in large part because of the financial crush of sustaining its own military machine), there was no celebration at warfare-dependent corporations. Why? Because the rationale for massive military budgets suddenly disappeared. You might remember some serious talk in the early ’90s of a “peace dividend,” “new priorities,” and “military conversion.” Even within the weapons-making industry, there were anxious discussions about finding other kinds of work to do, like mass transit. However, the industry’s hawks and warfare hogs prevailed, flatly asserting that militarism was their business and, by God, they would simply press Washington to keep their troughs full: . New global threats were conjured up, such as “dirty bombs” and biological warfare (remember Clinton’s bombing of the aspirin factory in Sudan); old bugaboos were puffed up (including that nasty ol’ Saddam and even the pathetic North Koreans); and regional and ethnic wars were entered—all to keep politicians, media, and voters scared. “See,” they warned, “it’s a dangerous world out there, folks!” . The Drug War was militarized and privatized (one outfit alone, DynCorp, is drawing hundreds of millions of dollars for drug interdiction, eradication missions, reconnaissance, search and rescue operations, and other armed military actions it performs against the rebels in Colombia). . Subsidiaries and subcontractors were dispersed literally into every Congressional district to create a “local” political base for demanding continued financing of our militarized economy. . More lobbyists were hired, including lots of former Congress critters—such as Norman Mineta, who resigned from the House to become a Lockheed lobbyist, until George W. plucked him out to become Transportation Secretary. . Executive suites were beefed up with top Washington insiders to serve as rainmakers for their corporations—such as Dick Cheney, the former Defense Secretary who went to Halliburton (where he more than doubled the company’s consumption of government money, snarfing up $3.8 billion), and even Daddy Bush, the former prez, joined former Defense Secretary Frank Carlucci and former Secretary of State Jim Baker at the Carlyle Group, which quickly rose to become America’s 11th-largest military contractor through its ownership of such entities as United Defense (which grabbed the $11 billion deal to produce the practically useless Crusader artillery system). . They expanded their marketing, and by the end of the century America has become the No. 1 arms dealer in the world (including sales to many of the thugs and madmen we now send our troops to fight). Within ten years, these warmongering contractors had dispelled all talk of a peace dividend, and in the 2000 presidential election both Bush and Gore campaigned on pledges to hike military spending, with Al promising the biggest boost. Still, the contractors enthusiastically put their money on the GOP ticket, and Bush and Cheney incessantly parroted the industry’s line that America’s military muscle had atrophied since the Cold War, creating a crisis of “readiness.” Hogwash. We were still spending as much as we were in the Cold War, even though we had no Soviets threatening us. Also, we were spending six times more money on our military than all of our potential enemies combined were spending on theirs. Yet in his first year in office, Bush and Congress gleefully poured even more gravy onto the plates of the contractors. Then came September 11 . . . and the contractors finally had what they wanted: a long-term replacement for the Cold War, a rationale for ripping the lid off the public treasury and taking all they wanted. The honcho of a San Diego-based defense consortium reacted like a fat man getting a trainload of Ding Dongs earlier this year when Bush added an extra $30 billion to the Pentagon’s budget and gave $20 billion to Homeland Security: “I think it’s real good news. This is probably going to be the first year of some very substantial investments in new technologies to create the new weapons systems to fight terrorism,” he exulted. Let’s ask ourselves: Is fighting terrorism now what America is about? Where does this take us? Bush and the rest can mouth platitudes about America’s democratic ideals until the cows come home, but the no-bullshit answer to the question of where we’re headed is to be found in the numbers, in the skewed national priorities our elected officials support with our public funds. Yes, we have to defend against terrorists. But I daresay that the bulk of the bucks—now almost a trillion dollars a year—that Bush’s 2003 budget proposes to pump into ever-expanding military and police purposes will do nothing to stop terrorists. It will, however, shrink the historic possibilities of our country. It’s absurd that Washington will put $11 billion into a dog like the Crusader, but won’t spend $2 billion to fund Head Start for every child. It’s an embarrassment that they will sink another $9.3 billion next year into the vast vacuousness of Star Wars, but won’t invest $1 billion a year for the next 10 years in the renovation of all of America’s crumbling schools. It’s criminal that they keep giving billions in insider deals to weapons contractors who “lost” $13 billion of the previous funds they got, but Washington won’t allocate $6 billion to provide health coverage for every uninsured child. Myriad other national needs go begging, from a clean environment to industrial infrastructure. To build the autocratic “anti-terrorism” empire that Bush envisions—from all around the globe to your neighborhood—means not building the America that could be. This generation of Americans has it within our grasp to advance our society dramatically with such investments as a crash program based on conservation and renewable fuels, free higher education for all, a high-speed train system criss-crossing the country, affordable housing in every community, health care for all . . . and so much more. It’s time to fight for the America we want.

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