What the Pentagon Budget Could Buy You
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
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
* $75 billion: Existing DoE budget
* $75 billion: Hire 1.5 million new teachers at $50,000
per year in salary and benefits
* $200 billion: Build 10,000 new schools at $25 million
* $250 billion: Double the number of students receiving
Pell Grants to 10 million, and double maximum grants to $10,000.
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
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
* * *
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 running for US Senate as a Green Party
member against Sen. Dianne Feinstein. See www.Todd4Senate.org
for more info.