Local View: Military spending feeds national debt

Linda Ruchala
Posted Sunday, April 24
Lincoln Journal Star 

Friday's Lincoln Journal Star opinion noted that Congress was finally "getting serious about national debt", but chided them and the president for not proposing changes to Social Security: "Why ignore that issue?"

Indeed. I am curious as to how the Editors could write an editorial about getting serious about national debt without mentioning the real elephant in the room -- our soaring expenditures on military activity. Earlier last week, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reported that $ 1.6 trillion was spent world -wide on military activities, with the United States alone spending just under half that amount. They went on to report that "The United States has increased its military spending by 81 percent since 2001. At 4.8 percent of gross domestic product, U.S. military spending in 2010 represents the largest economic burden outside the Middle East."

The too-easy responses from military supporters to these figures are 1) we must support our soldiers and 2) we must fight against terrorism. While I have no argument with the first response, supporting soldiers does not extend to supporting a bloated and mismanaged military apparatus. The second response I will follow up on later.

The $698 billion the SIPRI cites does not include all military expenditures by the United States; it counts only portions that are in the Department of Defense. This does not include Homeland Security, veterans' services, the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons program, the CIA, special operations and like activities. In addition, Hank Van den Berg, economics professor at the University of Nebraska, estimates that the interest on the federal debt alone that is due to military activity is nearly $200 billion per year. Taken together, the total annual military-related expenditures are more like $1.2 trillion.

Figures in the billions and trillions can be hard to fathom. Just to get a comparative perspective on these numbers, the U.S. spends more than the military expenditures of the next 15 largest-spending countries, taken together! China, the next-largest military spender, spends only $100 billion, one tenth of the US expenditure. France follows in third place with approximately five percent of U.S. expenditures. From a spending perspective, even cutting half of our military expenditures each year we would vastly outspend any country who would be our rival.

So why spend so much? One reason is that our military has very poor financial management. Just before September 11, 2001, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that the money wasted by the military poses a serious threat. "According to some estimates we cannot track $2.3 trillion in transactions," Rumsfeld stated.

The General Accountability Office, often called the U.S. government's accountants, or the watchdog of the federal government, have reported "significant weaknesses in the management analysis, decision-making, and reporting." Each year, for more than 20 years, the GAO have attempted to audit the Department of Defense and each year they have been unable to issue an opinion -- in the GAO's own words: "The main obstacles to a GAO opinion were: (1) serious financial management problems at the Department of Defense (DOD) that made its financial statements unauditable..." Only three major agencies in the Federal Government -- DOD, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Labor -- did not get clean opinions on their 2010 financial statements.

A second reason for such excessive spending on military activity can be found also in the SIPRI reports: Seven of the largest 10 arms suppliers in the world are U.S. corporations. The top 10 U.S. arms industry corporations had annual arms sales of $204 billion (this excludes non-arms related sales for those corporations). Fifty years ago, President Dwight Eisenhower spoke of the "conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry [which] is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government." He went on to warn that the "potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist." Eisenhower's chilling prophesy is evident in our nation's capital today; amid soaring debt and deficit spending, military expenditures are off the table in any meaningful way.

And, what about protection from terrorists? International terrorism, while it exists, should not be the driver behind the massive military spending and consequent disregard of our nation's domestic spending needs. On average, we have more to fear from homegrown terrorist threats -- from those with mental or emotional needs like Jared Loughner, or anti-government ideologues like Timothy McVeigh -- than we do from a tiny-membered sect like al-Qaida that can claim no country as its own. Our international ‘War on Terror' strategy is destined to be no more successful than an elephant's battle against a flea. But the exorbitant cost of this ill-conceived military strategy, if not stopped, promises to drive us right to our knees and permanently undermine our nation's economic security.

Linda Ruchala, Ph.D. is an associate accounting professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and a board member of Nebraskans for Peace. The opinions expressed in this editorial are her own.

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