There is a lot of talk lately about the federal budget, with Democrats and Republicans arguing over whether to raise the debt ceiling and allow the government to borrow enough money to fund already approved agency budgets and programs. But you know what they never argue about—financing the military.
Showing the love
In December 2022, President Joe Biden signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act, approving “national defense” spending of $858 billion for fiscal year 2023. The act covers Pentagon spending as well as work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy. That total represents a 4.3 percent increase over the previous year’s authorization, the second biggest increase in inflation-adjusted terms since World War II. If spending on other military-security related programs were added, such as homeland security, veterans’ care, and Ukraine related military aid, the total would exceed $1.4 trillion.
The National Defense Authorization Act was overwhelmingly approved by both houses of Congress. The House of Representatives passed it 350 to 80. The Senate 83 to 11. In fact, Congress actually voted to give the military $45 billion more than what Biden and the Pentagon had originally requested. Now, that is showing the love!
In March, the military proposed a national defense budget for fiscal year 2024 of $886 billion. We shall see how much that figure will grow once Congress takes it up.
With the Federal Reserve pushing up interest rates, we appear headed for a new recession. Sadly, our unemployment insurance system remains broken: too few unemployed receive benefits and the benefits are far too low. As a result, the next recession, when it comes, will again bring unnecessary suffering to millions of workers and their families.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Federal action during the recent pandemic crisis shows how our unemployment system can be dramatically improved. The problem is that many business and political leaders are content with the system as it is now. That means it is up to us to start agitating for reform, and the sooner the better.
Are you searching for a way to highlight the negative consequences of racism? Try this: Justin M. Feldman and Mary T. Basset, in a recently published study, found that if everyone living in the United States, aged 25 years or older, died of COVID-19 at the same rate as college-educated non-Hispanic white people did in 2020, 48 percent fewer people would have died, 71 percent fewer people of color would have died, and 89 percent fewer people of color aged 25-64 would have died.
Pretty much everyone accepts that inequality is a big problem in the US. But it is doubtful that most people truly grasp how successfully US elites have captured the benefits of economic growth and, as a result, how much the resulting inequality has cost them. Here is one estimate of that cost—according to Carter C. Price and Kathryn A. Edwards, authors of a Rand Education and Labor study on income trends:
[the] aggregate income for the population below the 90th percentile . . . would have been $2.5 trillion (67 percent) higher in 2018 had income growth since 1975 remained as equitable as it was in the first two post-War decades. From 1975 to 2018, the difference between the aggregate taxable income for those below the 90th percentile and the equitable growth counterfactual totals $47 trillion.
That $2.5 trillion was enough to give each and every worker in the bottom nine income deciles an additional $1144 a month, every month of the year. That is life changing money for tens of millions—and that is only a partial measure of the costs of inequality.
This is far from a “hot take”: financial wealth in the United States is highly concentrated, with most households, especially Black and Hispanic households, owning few financial assets. One consequence is that many Americans are likely to face a very challenging retirement. Sadly, if economic and social conditions remain as they are, we can expect to see an ever-growing number turn to for-profit crowdfunding platforms, like GoFundMe, for help in meeting expenses.
A recently published study by the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit research and education organization, using data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, paints a disturbing picture of the distribution of financial assets by generation, net worth and race.
The research is pretty clear that oppressive economic and social conditions are bad for one’s mental and physical health. And there is also research showing that protesting is good for one’s mental and physical health. As Dr. Bandy X. Lee, a psychiatrist at Yale University explains:
Can protesting and other forms of activism help people break out of those negative thought cycles? Yes, because protesting alone is therapeutic. It is acting on hope and it is also, in the case of oppression, therapeutic.
Now we have a study that finds that protesting actually saves lives. More specifically, that Black Lives Matter Protests reduce police killings. As Travis Campbell, the author of the study, concludes, “census places with Black Lives Matter protests experience a 15 percent to 20 percent decrease in police homicides over [the period 2014-2019], around 300 fewer deaths. The gap in lethal use-of-force between places with and without protests widens over these subsequent years and is most prominent when protests are large or frequent.”
It wasn’t that long ago that the country celebrated frontline workers by banging pots in the evening to thank them for the risks they took doing their jobs during the pandemic. One national survey found that health care workers were the most admired (80%), closely followed by grocery store workers (77%), and delivery drivers (73%).
Corporate leaders joined in the celebration. Supermarket Newsquoted Dacona Smith, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Walmart U.S., as saying in April:
We cannot thank and appreciate our associates enough. What they have accomplished in the last few weeks has been amazing to watch and fills everyone at our company with enormous pride. America is getting the chance to see what we’ve always known — that our people truly do make the difference. Let’s all take care of each other out there.
Driven by a desire to burnish their public image, deflect attention from their soaring profits, and attract more workers, many of the country’s leading retailers, including Walmart, proudly announced special pandemic wage increases and bonuses. But as a report by Brookingspoints out, although their profits continued to roll in, those special payments didn’t last long.
There are three important takeaways from the report: First, don’t trust corporate PR statements; once people stop paying attention, corporations do what they want. Second, workers need unions to defend their interests. Third, there should be some form of federal regulation to ensure workers receive hazard pay during health emergencies like pandemics, similar to the laws requiring time and half for overtime work.
Workers in the United States are in the midst of a punishing COVID-19 economic crisis. Unfortunately, while a new fiscal spending package and an effective vaccine can bring needed relief, a meaningful sustained economic recovery will require significant structural changes in the operation and orientation of the economy.
In the month following the May 25th death of George Floyd, the largest technology companies collectively pledged more than a billion dollars in support of racial justice. Sounds like a lot of money, but for these companies it is pocket change. And, despite the accompanying corporate statements of support for structural change to fight racism, there is little indication that they plan to back up their words with meaningful action.
Big tech is riding high
In early June Apple announced the launch of a $100 million Racial Equity and Justice Initiative to “promote racial equality for people of color with a focus on ‘education, economic equality, and criminal justice reform.’” But, as Jay Peters, writing in The Verge, makes clear, the amount doesn’t sound so impressive when you consider Apple’s earnings.
The excessive use of force and killings of unarmed Black Americans by police has fueled a popular movement for slashing police budgets, reimagining policing, and directing freed funds to community-based programs that provide medical and mental health care, housing, and employment support to those in need. This is a long overdue development.
Police are not the answer
Police budgets rose steadily from the 1990s to the Great Recession and, despite the economic stagnation that followed, have remained largely unchanged. This trend is highlighted in the figure below, which shows real median per capita spending on police in the 150 largest U.S. cities. That spending grew, adjusted for inflation, from $359 in 2007 to $374 in 2017. The contrast with state and local government spending on social programs is dramatic. From 2007 to 2017, median per capita spending on housing and community development fell from $217 to $173, while spending on public welfare programs fell from $70 to $47.
Thus, as economic developments over the last three decades left working people confronting weak job growth, growing inequality, stagnant wages, declining real wealth, and rising rates of mortality, funding priorities meant that the resulting social consequences would increasingly be treated as policing problems. And, in line with other powerful trends that shaped this period–especially globalization, privatization, and militarization–police departments were encouraged to meet their new responsibilities by transforming themselves into small, heavily equipped armies whose purpose was to wage war against those they were supposed to protect and serve.
The military-to-police pipeline
The massive, unchecked militarization of the country and its associated military-to-police pipeline was one of the more powerful factors promoting this transformation. The Pentagon, overflowing with military hardware and eager to justify a further modernization of its weaponry, initiated a program in the early 1990s that allowed it to provide surplus military equipment free to law enforcement agencies, allegedly to support their “war on drugs.” As a Forbes article explains:
Since the early 1990s, more than $7 billion worth of excess U.S. military equipment has been transferred from the Department of Defense to federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, free of charge, as part of its so-called 1033 program. As of June , there are some 8,200 law enforcement agencies from 49 states and four U.S. territories participating.
The program grew dramatically after September 11, 2001, justified by government claims that the police needed to strengthen their ability to combat domestic terrorism. As an example of the resulting excesses, the Los Angeles Timesreported in 2014 that the Los Angeles Unified School District and its police officers were in possession of three grenade launchers, 61 automatic military rifles and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle. Finally, in 2015, President Obama took steps to place limits on the items that could be transferred; tracked armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and bayonets were among the items that were to be returned to the military.
President Trump removed those limits in 2017, and the supplies are again flowing freely, including armored vehicles, riot gear, explosives, battering rams, and yes, once again bayonets. According to the New York Times, “Trump administration officials said that the police believed bayonets were handy, for instance, in cutting seatbelts in an emergency.”
Outfitting police departments for war also encouraged different criteria for recruiting and training. For example, as Forbesnotes, “The average police department spends 168 hours training new recruits on firearms, self-defense, and use of force tactics. It spends just nine hours on conflict management and mediation.” Arming and training police for military action leads naturally to the militarization of police relations with community members, especially Black, Indigeous and other people of color, who come to play the role of the enemy that needs to be controlled or, if conditions warrant, destroyed.
In fact, the military has become a major cheerleader for domestic military action. President Trump, on a call with governors after the start of demonstrations protesting the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd while in police custody, exhorted them to “dominate” the street protests.
“You’ve got a big National Guard out there that’s ready to come and fight like hell,” Trump told governors on the Monday call, which was leaked to the press.
[Secretary of Defense] Esper lamented that only two states called up more than 1,000 Guard members of the 23 states that have called up the Guard in response to street protests. The National Guard said Monday that 17,015 Guard members have been activated for civil unrest.
“I agree, we need to dominate the battle space,” Esper said after Trump’s initial remarks. “We have deep resources in the Guard. I stand ready, the chairman stands ready, the head of the National Guard stands ready to fully support you in terms of helping mobilize the Guard and doing what they need to do.”
The militarization of the federal budget
The same squeeze of social spending and support for militarization is being played out at the federal level. As the National Priorities Project highlights in the following figure, the United States has a military budget greater than the next ten countries combined.
Yet, this dominance has done little to slow the military’s growing hold over federal discretionary spending. At $730 billion, military spending accounts for more than 53 percent of the federal discretionary budget. A slightly broader notion, what the National Priorities Project calls the militarized budget, actually accounts for almost two-thirds of the discretionary budget. The militarized budget:
includes discretionary spending on the traditional military budget, as well as veterans’ affairs, homeland security, and law enforcement and incarceration. In 2019, the militarized budget totaled $887.8 billion – amounting to 64.5 percent of discretionary spending. . . . This count does not include forms of militarized spending allocated outside the discretionary budget, include mandatory spending related to veterans’ benefits, intelligence agencies, and interest on militarized spending.
The militarized budget has been larger than the non-militarized budget every year since 1976. But the gap between the two has grown dramatically over the last two decades.
In sum, the critical ongoing struggle to slash police budgets and reimagine policing needs to be joined to a larger movement against militarism more generally if we are to make meaningful improvements in majority living and working conditions.