A Topsy-turvy World

14 02 2011

     In a 1970 visit to John’s Hopkins University to debate the notion of civil disobedience with philosopher Charles Frankel, Howard Zinn began by claiming, “I start from the supposition that the world is topsy-turvy, that things are all wrong…”  I believe it necessary to reclaim this simple fact and to take a look at the world in which we live today upon the arrival of 2011. 

     News from the Pentagon provides us with a perfect starting point.  On December 22, 2010 Congress was able to pass a bill that provided the Pentagon with the largest budget for military spending initiatives since the end of World War II.  The bill, The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011, allowed for the spending of $725 billion in the Defense Department’s budget in the next year alone.  This number includes the base sum of dollars needed to maintain our massive military machine, but also includes another $158.7 billion for endeavors within the presently occupied nations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Adjusted for inflation, this is nearly $280 billion more than the largest budget approved during the Reagan administration, a presidency with a lasting reputation for increased and almost obsessive spending with regard to the military, and the military alone.  All this, as Rick Rozoff states in his article entitled Pentagon’s Christmas Present: Largest Military Budget Since World War II, without any “meaningful dissent in either house of Congress.” 

     All this in the middle of a presidency whose leader received the Nobel Peace Prize, as he entered office in 2009, for his efforts to reduce the global nuclear weapons arsenal.  The 2011 budget also shows a somewhat inverse relationship between President Obama’s commitments to nuclear non-proliferation and the commitment of more money to the development of nuclear technology for military purposes.  As a breakdown of the budget by the War Resister’s League shows, the budget includes “steady increases in nuclear weapons spending over the next 10 years, including a new plutonium facility for the Los Alamos National Laboratory (NM) and a uranium manufacturing plant at Oak Ridge (TN),” (www.warresisters.org).  Although significant and progressive in its own right for the moment, it is not simply the ratification of the New START Treaty that is going to mend this ugly conflict between spoken promises and actual commitments.

     The 2011 budget data now begs the question of whether or not such spending measures are necessary, helpful, or even feasible in today’s broken economic system.  Data compiled by the National Priorities Project (www.nationalpriorities.org) serves to clarify the realities of our government’s budgetary priorities.  For each dollar collected from the taxpayer in 2009, 26.5 cents was allotted for military expenditures.  When it came to directing money towards other aspects of the federal budget, the picture was not so bright.  1.3 cents went to transportation, 2 cents went to education, 2.5 to environmental energy and science, and 3.7 cents went to food.  In New Jersey, the median income family paid roughly $7,500 in federal income taxes in the same year.  Of that amount, $1,987 went to the military and $187 went to our schools. 

     Of course, there is much of the Federal budget that is deemed “mandatory” or “non-discretionary,” which is untouchable by Congress in the process of constructing a budget each year.  However, it is the “discretionary” portion of which we are speaking.  Of that, military expenditures comprise over 50% of the total.  So, in reality, military spending represents over half of the portion of the federal budget which Congress has direct control over.  

     Does Zinn’s simple exclamation hold as true today as it did in 1970?  Considering these figures against the backdrop of our nation’s current economic, social and political depression, I would argue that indeed it does.  Things certainly seem to be quite topsy-turvy.

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