This story originally appeared in Jacobin on April 19th, 2023. It is shared here with permission.
Washington, we are incessantly told, is paralyzed by a climate of brinkmanship and polarization. That has indeed been the case in many areas over the past few years, as was frustratingly clear throughout the Biden administration’s attempts to pass a major domestic spending package after taking office. When it comes to defense spending, however, none of the usual rules of politics seem to apply.
Though unable to find common ground elsewhere, Democratic and Republican lawmakers invariably forget their differences whenever the Pentagon is involved. Despite preaching fiscal restraint on social expenditure, the economic conservatives who dominate both parties have never met a military budget they consider too large or demanded that cruise missiles be subject to a work requirement before they vote Yea. As Stephen Semler of the Security Policy Reform Institute put it back in 2021: “Roll call votes on military spending reveal that there are considerably fewer ‘deficit hawks’ or ‘fiscal conservatives’ in Congress than reported by mainstream media outlets, if any at all.”
The Pentagon’s bloated and ever-expanding budget undermines American democracy, not only because it never receives the same scrutiny as other government spending, but because it ultimately funnels so much money away from essential social and public goods — as a new report released by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) makes vividly clear. Published annually on Tax Day in collaboration with the National Priorities Project, the institute’s analysis examines Americans’ incomes taxes in relation to military and security spending to show just how much of the average person’s tax bill is going to the likes of cluster bombs rather than hospitals or schools. Its findings are staggering.
This year, the average American taxpayer paid $1,087 just for Pentagon contractors alone — a sum representing twenty-one days of work for the average person and four times what they contributed to K-12 education ($270). They also paid approximately $74 for the maintenance of nuclear weapons, while just $43 went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An average taxpayer gave $298 to the five largest military contractors, while only $19 went to programs concerned with mental health and substance abuse. Lockheed Martin, incidentally a major air polluter, received $106 from the average person’s income tax contribution, while a mere $6 went to renewable energy.
The institute has long tracked the wider growth of spending related to domestic policing and securitization. Here the numbers are no less striking: $20 per taxpayer for federal prisons and just $11 for anti-homelessness programs; $70 for deportations and border control versus just $19 for refugee assistance, and on and on it goes.
As part of the study, the IPS also offers an interactive tool showing how money currently going to the military might otherwise be spent. These results are also staggering. For just 10 percent of what America spent on militarization in 2021, it could have funded 660,631 registered nurses, 8.8 million units of public housing, or 1.69 million jobs paying $15 per hour with benefits for an entire year. A mere 1 percent could have funded four-year scholarships for nearly 200,000 students, powered 18.7 million homes with wind or 21 million with solar energy, or salaried approximately 81,000 elementary school teachers over the next twelve months.
Faced with numbers like these, it’s hard to not think about the more generous and humane society that might exist if the institutions of America’s government were less captured by the military-industrial complex. The United States currently spends more on its military than the next nine countries combined (the majority of which are allies), and even a 10 percent cut to its military budget would leave it far ahead of all other countries in total military expenditure.
Since the late 1970s, American politics have been dominated by a strand of fiscal conservatism that views taxes as evil and the state as a quasi-illegitimate body that skims from the wealth ordinary citizens earn. There are many problems with this argument, but it’s especially difficult to take seriously given that its proponents always seem to exclude military spending from the equation. Considering how little scrutiny such spending receives, and considering that it continues to increase regardless of who’s in power, ordinary Americans are effectively being forced to subsidize a bloated military bureaucracy to the tune of hundreds of billions every year — all while having zero say in the matter.