This week, the National Priorities Project (NPP) released a snapshot of U.S. “defense” spending since September 11, 2001. The eye-popping figures lend credence to the theory that al Qaeda's attacks were a form of economic warfare – that they hoped for a massive overreaction that would entangle us in costly foreign wars that would ultimately drain away our national wealth.
They didn't bankrupt us the same way the Mujahadeen helped bring down the Soviet Union decades before, because our economy was much stronger. But they did succeed in putting us deep into the red – with an assist, of course, from Bush's ideologically driven tax cuts for the wealthy.
The topline number is this: we have spent $7.6 trillion on the military and homeland security since 9/11. The Pentagon's base budget – which doesn't include the costs of fighting our wars – has increased by 81 percent during that time (43 percent when adjusted for inflation). The costs of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have now reached $1.26 trillion. But that only scratches the surface; it doesn't include the long-term costs of caring for badly wounded soldiers, for example.
One line-item suggests that 9/11 has been used to justify greater military spending across the board; the nuclear weapons budget has shot up by more than a fifth after adjusting for inflation. How intercontinental ballistic missiles that can vaporize whole cities are useful in a “war on terror” is anybody's guess.
The Pentagon itself acknowledges these dollars haven't all been spent effectively – there is certainly plenty of waste. According to the Washington Post, the DoD has blown $32 billion (enough to offer free, universal college tuition for a year) on canceled weapons programs since 1997. According to the Post story, which is based on an unreleased Pentagon report, “For almost a decade, the Defense Department saw its budgets boom — but didn’t make the kind of technological strides that seemed possible.”
“Since 9/11, a near doubling of the Pentagon’s modernization accounts — more than $700 billion over 10 years in new spending on procurement, research and development — has resulted in relatively modest gains in actual military capability,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in an address last week.
He called that outcome both “vexing and disturbing.” Some might find the relentless focus on cutting benefits for vulnerable Americans “vexing and disturbing” in light of this profligate spending. Budgets, after all, are a reflection of our priorities.
Toward that end, let's put these numbers in perspective by looking at some of the other things we might be doing with those dollars. Because a buck spent on guns is one less for butter.
1. Post-9/11 Defense Hikes Equal Five Times the “Medicare Gap”
Economist Dean Baker notes that “the projections in the Medicare Trustees report, as well as the CBO baseline budget, show that the program faces a relatively modest long-term shortfall.” The amount of money needed to balance the program's finances over its 75-year horizon, he adds, “is less than 0.3 percent of GDP, approximately one-fifth of the increase in the rate annual defense spending between 2000 and 2011.”
2. Afghanistan Costs Alone Could Pay for 15.6 Years of Head Start
Head Start provides education, health, nutrition, and parenting services to low-income children and their families. It's an incredibly successful, effective and popular program, but there are only 900,000 places in the program for more than 2.5 million eligible kids. According to the National Priorities Project, what we've spent on the Afghanistan war so far could fund Head Start for all eligible children for the next 15.6 years.
3. Covering the Uninsured
A 2007 study conducted by researchers at Harvard University estimated that 45,000 people die every year in the United States from problems associated with lack of coverage. The study found that “uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts,” even “after taking into account socioeconomics, health behaviors, and baseline health.”
According to NPP's analysis, the costs of the Afghanistan conflict alone could cover every uninsured American for 1.7 years.
4. Closing State Budget Gaps
Forty-six states face budget shortfalls in this fiscal year, totaling $130 billion nationwide. The supplemental requests for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan this year add up to $170 billion – that doesn't include the Pentagon's base budget, nukes or Homeland Security.
5. Iraq, Just in 2011
Iraq is still a bloody mess, with an insurgency still underway. But our politicians have declared vistory and the media have largely moved on. That doesn't mean we won't spend almost $50 billion on those “non-combat troops” which remain, however. What else could we do with that kind of scratch if we just brought them home? NPP tells us it would buy:
- 24.3 million children receiving low-income health care for one year, OR
726,044 elementary school teachers for one year, OR
829,946 firefighters for one year, OR
6.2 million Head Start slots for children for one year, OR
10.7 million households with renewable electricity — solar photovoltaic for one year, OR
28.6 million households with renewable electricity-wind power for one year, OR
6.1 million military veterans receiving VA medical care for one year, OR
9.8 million people receiving low-income health care for one year, OR
718,208 police or sheriff's patrol officers for one year, OR
6.0 million scholarships for university students for one year, OR
8.5 million students receiving Pell grants of $5,550
The Big Picture
It's a tragic irony that so much of the discussion surrounding the public debt centers on “entitlements” like Social Security (which hasn't added a penny to the national debt) when we're still paying for Korea and Vietnam and Grenada and Panama and the first Gulf War and Somalia and the Balkans and on and on.
Estimates of just how much of our national debt payments are from past military spending vary wildly. In 2007, economist Robert Higgs calculated it like this:
I added up all past deficits (minus surpluses) since 1916 (when the debt was nearly zero), prorated according to each year's ratio of narrowly defined national security spending—military, veterans, and international affairs—to total federal spending, expressing everything in dollars of constant purchasing power. This sum is equal to 91.2 percent of the value of the national debt held by the public at the end of 2006. Therefore, I attribute that same percentage of the government's net interest outlays in that year to past debt-financed defense spending.
When Higgs did that analysis four years ago, he came up with a figure of $206.7 billion just in interest payments on our past military adventures.