A Modest Plea for a Sane Defense Budget

The Pentagon will never be forced to make choices if Congress keeps shoveling money its way

W.J. Astore

In the tradition of the U.S. Army, which talks about BLUF, or bottom line up front, here’s what I consider to be a sane defense budget for the United States: $333 billion.

I arrived at this figure by complex math. The U.S. population currently sits at just under 333 million. A reasonable figure to spend per person on national defense is $1000. Hence my figure for a sane defense budget.

How does this immense sum compare to other countries’ budgets? Russia’s defense budget (before its war with Ukraine) hovered around $70 billion a year. China’s defense budget hovered around $245 billion. So my “sane” defense budget easily surpasses the combined budgets of Russia and China, America’s main rivals, or so our military experts say.

Other countries that spend impressively on defense include Germany, France, and the U.K. But note that these are American allies; their spending should serve to lessen the need for our own.

Now, I wish to stress my budget is about defense, as in defending the U.S. against all enemies, foreign and domestic. My budget is not about projecting imperial power around the globe; it’s not about full-spectrum dominance; it’s not about spending more than a trillion dollars over the next thirty years on unneeded nuclear weapons, or more than a trillion to buy and maintain more underperforming F-35 jet fighters.

Again, my sane budget is not a war budget, an imperial budget, or a budget to enrich U.S. weapons makers. It’s a budget intended to DEFEND our country.

So, let’s now compare my sane budget to the actual “defense” budget planned for FY2023. It appears that budget will likely exceed $833 billion, more than half a trillion higher than mine!

What could America do with half a trillion dollars? Think of how many good-paying jobs we could create, how much better our country could be, with safer roads and bridges, more alternative sources of energy, improved schools and hospitals, a cleaner environment. How about drinking water without lead in it? The list is long because we have so many needs as a country.

It wasn’t that long ago that $300 billion was considered more than enough for national defense. But since 9/11 the budget has spiraled upwards as the U.S. government pursued forever wars like Iraq and Afghanistan that ended disastrously. Things are now so bad that the Pentagon can’t even begin to pass a basic audit. Send a small army of accountants to the Pentagon and the brass surrenders instantly.

$333 billion is still an enormous sum of money, yet there will be many who’ll suggest this figure isn’t close to being enough for the brass, all those wearing stars who call the shots. My response: try it. If it doesn’t work, you can always boost the budget. But if you really want the Pentagon to think creatively, cut the budget to $333 billion and watch the real wars begin within the five-sided puzzle palace on the Potomac.

Shouldn’t Anyone Who’s Sane Be a Peace Activist?

W.J. Astore

Shouldn’t anyone who’s sane be a peace activist? And shouldn’t we question the sanity — or at least the motives — of anyone who’s constantly advocating for more spending on weapons and war?

How do we change the narrative?  How do we return to Christ’s idea of “blessed are the peacemakers”?

The obstacles are many. The national security state is immensely large and incredibly powerful. The mainstream media is a big problem since it’s been captured by corporations. The few political candidates who advocate for a different path, such as Tulsi Gabbard or Dennis Kucinich, get smeared as useful idiots for the “enemy” or dismissed as impractical dreamers by that same corporate media.

Surely, we need many things to effect meaningful change. We need public funding of elections. We need better education focused on questioning and challenging authority. We need better and braver leaders — but will they simply be assassinated like JFK, MLK, and RFK?  Among others?

We need to speak up, and we are. We need to enlist religion when we can.  True Christianity — true religion — is our natural ally.

We need, as peace activist John Rachel reminded me, to connect cuts in military spending to helping people — that is, we need real peace dividends, “peace checks,” if you will. Rebates to the American people tied directly to much lower spending on wars and weapons.

We need to remember what Master Po said in “Kung Fu”: fear is the only darkness. And thus we need to come into the light.

We need to stop buying guns and start reading books. I once read: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” I don’t recall blessings being bestowed on weapons and the makers and owners of the same.

There are so many things we need to do.  Most of all, I think, is that we need to respect life and our planet, because if we don’t, the human experiment is going to come crashing down, and too many other forms of life on our planet will be driven to extinction by our own myopic selfishness and folly.

You’ve heard the saying, Power concedes nothing without a demand. We need to demand an end to fear, an end to folly (as with nuclear “modernization” at a cost of $1.7 trillion, never mind the unimaginable costs of a nuclear war).

We need to demand peace.

I think the planet’s oligarchs know the danger.  So they work to keep us divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  (As I’ve written about here.) If we’re kept divided by partisan BS and rumors of war, distracted by infotainment and the like, and downtrodden by medical and other forms of debt, menial work at starvation wages, and so forth, it’s difficult for people to unite.

We need to unite anyway. Unite to save our planet from ourselves and our destructive impulses. From our greed and selfishness.

There was a time when we humans congratulated ourselves as being made in the image of God. When we saw the earth as God’s creation that we should revere. How do we regain reverence for each other and for this wonder-filled planet of ours, a planet that keeps surprising us with its glories?

We need a collective awakening. A mass movement. One that recognizes that peace is normal and that war is insane, one dedicated to exploration of the world around us rather than its exploitation. One that demands the best from our minds even as it touches our souls. Perhaps that’s overly mystical or utopian or just plain fuzzy, but we need something like it or things are going to get far worse for ourselves and our planet.

Joe Says No

Joe Says No

W.J. Astore

Clearly, the unofficial motto of the Democratic Party in 2021-22 is “Joe says no.” And it doesn’t really matter whether it’s President Joe Biden or Senator Joe Manchin.

Joe, as in Biden, says no to ending the Senate filibuster. He says no to Medicare for all. He says no to a single-payer option for health care. He says no to a $15 an hour minimum wage. (I know — it was allegedly the Senate Parliamentarian who said no here, except this person is both unelected and easily fired.) President Joe says no a lot, even though his campaign promises and pledges included a $15 federal minimum wage, a single-payer option, and so on.

Joe, as in Manchin, says no to the Build Back Better program. He says no to more affordable prices for prescription drugs. He says no to extending child tax credits. He says no to paid family leave. (Joe said family members on leave might go hunting instead of caring for their kids.) Like President Joe, Senator Joe says no to reforming the Senate filibuster.

Joe and Joe say no a lot, especially to policies that would help working Americans.

What do they say yes to? They say yes to massive spending on weapons and wars. They say yes to fossil fuels, including offshore oil drilling, fracking, and coal. They say yes to corporate agendas and corporate lobbyists and corporate cash. They say yes to higher drug prices. They say yes quite often, actually, but not to us.

When the Democrats lose the presidency in 2024, Joe Says No should be their epitaph. No to the workers, no to the middle class, no to helping the less fortunate — and no to a fairer, more just, America.

(With thanks to my wife for coming up with the pithy, Joe says no, slogan.)

When Is the Moon Not the Moon?

W.J. Astore

Last night, I got outside with my camera and took this shot of the moon.

It reminded me of one of my “genius” moments as a kid. In the playground, I recall looking up at the moon in the daytime. What is that thing, I asked myself. See, I associated the moon with the nighttime sky; I didn’t know it came out in the daytime as well. So what was that strange object in the daytime sky? Tapping into my little kid brain, I guessed I was seeing a reflection of the earth.

I don’t know when I got sorted out on this. Maybe my older brother, the amateur astronomer with the Tasco telescope, straightened me out. Still, given the way things are going on this earth of ours, we could use a smaller earth close by to escape to. I had one as a kid, if only in my imagination.

I’m still amazed that we went to the moon in 1969, more than a half century ago, and we haven’t gone further into space since. Sure, our probes have, and remarkably so, but I’m astonished that humans haven’t yet been to Mars, a difficult but achievable mission. In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” humanity was already visiting Jupiter and witnessing the birth of the star-child twenty years ago! Obviously, 2001 should have been 2101. Maybe in 80 years we’ll visit the outer planets, assuming we haven’t nuked ourselves back to the Stone Age.

For some reason, I was thinking of the movie “Planet of the Apes” yesterday and its jaw-dropping ending. In the U.S., we seem far more intent on building new nukes than exploring space. We have a mania for destruction, a mania for weapons and wars, thus the ending words of Charlton Heston in that movie were and remain all too appropriate and haunting.

I wish we had a shadow earth, an unspoiled one sitting in the sky, shining down on kids in playgrounds across the world. But we don’t, so we had better wise up and take better care of this one. Unless you want Charlton Heston cursing you out.

America Is a Sinking Warship on a Melting Iceberg

W.J. Astore

More sweltering heat, wildfires, and other extreme weather and weather-related events remind us that global warming and climate change are here to stay. When I taught about global warming a decade ago, most scientists were predicting harsh events in 2030 or 2040. Yet here it is, the year 2021, and we’re already seeing the implacable face of Mother Nature, shaking her head at our naughtiness and thoughtlessness vis-a-vis her planet. She won’t be appeased by our excuse-making or our lying or our attempts to pass the buck. As we bicker, she acts.

Mother Nature: Implacable (Josh Addessi at Blogspot.com)

Climate change is here to stay with a take no prisoners vibe, notes Tom Engelhardt in his latest post at TomDispatch.com. Tom’s message is clear: we’re reaping or about to reap what our “leaders” and corporate elites have sown for us, a much hotter, much less hospitable, planet. As Tom puts it, we’re about to witness, and indeed are already witnessing, a climate Armageddon in slow motion. Check out his article for all the grim details.

Here’s the thing. A half-century ago, America’s wonderful fossil-fuel companies knew all about this threat. More than 40 years ago, President Jimmy Carter tried to persuade America to conserve fuel and live thriftier, more meaningful, lives. But America rejected Carter’s hard facts for Reagan’s sunny optimism (or, put bluntly, his lies) and so here we are.

After Carter, the Democrats swiftly moved to the right and embraced those same fossil-fuel companies. Democrats may have made fun of Sarah Palin and her “drill, baby, drill” message, but that is exactly what Presidents Obama and Biden decided to do: drill, baby, drill. A recent article puts it well from The Guardian: Joe Biden has approved two thousand (!) drilling and fracking permits. Not exactly a green new deal, is it?

President Obama was even worse, notes David Sirota at The Guardian. He loved to boast of how he made America the world’s number one oil producer. He even asked Americans to thank him for it! Remind me again how the Democrats are so much different on this issue than the big bad Republicans?

Here’s the kicker. Even as America’s leaders acted to accelerate fossil fuel production, despite all the warnings about climate change, they squandered $6 trillion on the Iraq and Afghan wars, money that would have made a dramatic difference in preparing America for climate change while also facilitating alternative energy sources, which also would have created millions of “green” jobs in America.

I think a key inflection point for America came in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union three decades ago. If America had invested its peace dividend into creating a cleaner, safer, better world, perhaps by leading the way, as Carter had suggested, in solar energy and in efforts at conservation, we truly could have been a shining city on a hill, a beacon of sanity. But we chose more weapons and more war. We chose more fossil fuel consumption. Indeed, we chose more consumption (and more guns) in general.

And thus we are where we are today, caught on a sinking warship on a rapidly melting iceberg. OK, perhaps it’s not the most clever metaphor, but you try coming up with a better one when you’re typing in a room at 87 degrees with 73% humidity. Must keep that image of an iceberg in my head …

Must keep cool …

When Mother Earth Dies, We All Die

W.J. Astore

Back in March, Tom Engelhardt had a stimulating article at TomDispatch.com on the wounding of planet Earth. He also made mention of the Covid-19 pandemic. And as I read his piece, I thought of Mother Earth suffering from a human-made pandemic. A virus of humans. A human-made flu of fevers (heat waves and fires), chills (freezes in the South), coughs (turbulent weather), thirst (droughts out West), and pain (nearly everywhere).

But, sadly, there’s no vaccine for Mother Earth. All we humans can do is relieve the symptoms by changing our behavior.  Mother Earth is already infected with us; now we need to leave her alone, let her rest, allow her to recover. But we don’t.  We keep stressing her with our actions (and inaction on climate change) and making her symptoms worse.

The only problem: When Mother Earth dies, we all die.

We’re on the fast track to dystopia, which puts me to mind of a recent Splinterlands trilogy written by John Feffer. His latest and last volume is called Songlands, which he writes about here at TomDispatch.com. For a dystopic trilogy, I found it strangely uplifting, for Feffer still sees hope in humans who are willing to sacrifice to save our planet. I urge you to check it out.

It’s amazing to me that ultra-rich billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are saluted for their “investment” in space exploration, as if we humans are going to save ourselves by building stations on the moon or Mars. If Bezos and Musk truly wanted to give back to humanity, they’d be focusing on reducing consumption here on Earth while fighting for preservation and conservation. But their space trips are really ego trips, and their fuel has always been money.

Here’s hoping humanity rejects the “final frontier” nonsense of Bezos and Musk and turns its attention to what really matters: the health and welfare of this wonderful yet fragile world of ours.

For if we refuse to honor Mother Earth, it may be the last sin we humans commit.

Make-Believe America

A flight of fancy

W.J. Astore

We lose a lot of imagination as we become adults. We become limited. I remember playing make-believe as a kid, when the only limits were those of my imagination. As adults, we’re supposed to be hardheaded and realistic, perhaps even cold-hearted. The world’s tough; don’t be a dreamy fool. But what if we used a bit more imagination in America? What if we returned to the days of make-believe?

Here’s a few aspects of my make-believe America:

* All workers make a living wage with raises pegged to the rate of inflation and cost of living.

* Everyone has “free” health care as a human right.

* Everyone has a home of some sort, i.e. there are no homeless or “unhoused” people living in the streets.

* Prison populations are small, with only the most violent offenders locked away for long terms.

* Climate change, recognized as a problem in the 1980s, is being controlled with massive investments in renewable energy sources.

* Nuclear disarmament, begun with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, will be complete in 2021 after thirty years of dedicated effort.

* No one leaves school with massive amounts of student debt.

* Corporations are not citizens, money is not speech, and all political campaigns are publicly funded.

* Wars are universally reviled and are only fought for defensive purposes via a Congressional declaration. Thus America hasn’t fought a shooting war since 1945.

* The U.S. political scene has a range of “major” parties and a wealth of choices, including a socialist or people’s party and a Green party, along with Libertarians and Populists and Progressives.

* The top priority for most Americans is sustainability and the environment: preserving the planet for future generations.

* There is no such thing as a billionaire, since a progressive tax code ensures an equitable distribution of resources.

* People are respected for who they are and what they do, meaning that racism, sexism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination are largely unknown.

* “Hero” is a term used to describe peacemakers and helpers, the most compassionate and giving among us, the ones fighting hardest for equal rights, fairness, and justice.

* Government is completely transparent to the people. Meanwhile, people have privacy and autonomy.

* Most drugs are legal, and essential medicines like insulin are affordable for all.

Well, I did say this was the land of make-believe. What do you say, readers? What’s in your land of make-believe?

America, Land of Discontent

W.J. Astore

Binary logic is common in America. Us versus them. Republican versus Democrat. BLM versus BLM (that’s Black lives versus blue lives). Love it or leave it.

I remember as a teenager reading a coda to that saying: Or change it. If you don’t “love” America, you shouldn’t have to leave it. Indeed, if you truly “love” America, you’d want to change it to make it even better.

This idea was on my mind as a I watched a couple of videos on YouTube by Americans who’ve been living overseas for many years, only to return recently and reflect on how life in America seemed to them after being away for so long. Here are a few notes I jotted down:

Features of America: Consumerism. Materialism. Advertising everywhere, especially for prescription drugs. Fast pace of life and a stress on competition. A mainstream media that’s propagandistic — and that pushes fear and outrage. Only two major political parties that stifle debate and change. Constant divisiveness.

Features of Americans: Stress on individualism and ethnocentrism. Empathy and our common humanity is downplayed. Sense of entitlement. Lack of curiosity about the wider world. A lack of purpose in the sense of living a life of meaning. Lack of integrity, especially at the higher levels of government and the corporate world.

These observations reminded me of Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next” (2015). Moore goes to various countries (Germany, France, Italy, and so on), looking for ideas Americans can steal as they “invade.” I recall German workers who only had to work one job to make ends meet (roughly 37 hours a week, if memory serves), and also German workers who served by law on the board of major companies like Mercedes; I recall school lunches made for French kids by chefs using local ingredients (the contrast with American school lunches was stomach-turning); I recall Italian workers with six weeks of paid vacation per year, as opposed to American workers who are lucky to get two weeks. Why can’t America change to be more worker- and kid-and family-friendly?

The female leaders of Iceland, if memory serves, put it well near the end of Moore’s excursions. They said America is a me-me-me society, whereas Iceland prefers “we” to “me.”

I’ve written before about how Americans are kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden as a way of preventing meaningful, organized, societal change. Another “d” word related to this is discontent. Americans are often discontented in ways that inhibit change. It’s something Tana French touched on in her novel, “The Likeness,” from 2008. Here’s an excerpt:

Our entire society’s based on discontent: people wanting more and more and more, being constantly dissatisfied with their homes, their bodies, their décor, their clothes, everything.  Taking it for granted that that’s the whole point of life, never to be satisfied.  If you’re perfectly happy with what you’ve got—specially if what you’ve got isn’t even all that spectacular—then you’re dangerous.  You’re breaking all the rules, you’re undermining the sacred economy, you’re challenging every assumption that society’s built on. By being content, you become a subversive.  A traitor.

To which another character replies: “I think you’ve got something there.  Not jealousy, after all: fear… Throughout history—even a hundred years ago, even fifty—it was discontent that was considered the threat to society, the defiance of natural law, the danger that had to be exterminated at all costs.  Now it’s contentment.”

There’s a potential paradox here. Won’t the discontented favor positive change, whereas the contented will favor the status quo?

But French’s insight suggests otherwise. The discontented are so busy trying to become contented, most often through a me-first consumerism and materialism, that they can’t come together and mobilize for change. Fear drives them to pursue what their “betters” have, and to admire those people as well. It’s the contented who are dangerous, the ones who’ve left consumerism and materialism behind, the ones with the confidence, time, and independence of thought to contemplate a changed world, a better world. Perhaps even a better America.

Four Big Reasons Not to Vote for Trump

Trump, keeping his promise about American carnage

W.J. Astore

Back in May of 2016, I wrote an article on two big reasons not to vote for Donald Trump. Those reasons, his denial of climate change and his cavalier approach to nuclear weapons, remain valid. But I’d like to add two more that we were unaware of in 2016: his total inability to bring people together, i.e. his divide and rule approach to everything; and his murderously incompetent response to Covid-19.

If there are any lukewarm Trump supporters reading this, I hope you join me in voting your conscience, which in my case meant rejecting both Trump and Biden for candidates I believe in (in my case, Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders).

Don’t vote for a man-child, Donald Trump, who’s golfing and tweeting while the planet burns; who has no idea what nuclear weapons can do, but who threatens to use them while bragging about the size of his nuclear button; who dismisses Covid-19 as just another virus that will magically disappear; and who is so eager to divide us in the cause of enriching himself and his family.

Here’s what I wrote in May of 2016:

Nuclear proliferation and global warming are two big issues that Donald Trump is wrong about.  They’re also the two biggest threats to our planet. Nuclear war followed by nuclear winter could end most life on earth within a matter of weeks or months.  Global warming/climate change, though not as immediate a threat as nuclear war and its fallout, is inexorably leading to a more dangerous and less hospitable planet for our children and their children.

What does “The Donald” believe?  On nuclear proliferation, which only makes nuclear war more likely, Trump is essentially agnostic and even in favor of other nations joining the nuclear club, nations like Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia.  When all countries should be earnestly working to reduce and then eliminate nuclear stockpiles, Trump is advocating their expansion.  (An aside: recall in a previous debate that Trump had no idea what America’s nuclear triad is; add intellectual sloth to his many sins.)

On global warming, Trump is essentially a skeptic on whether it exists (“hoax” and “con job” are expressions of choice), even as he seeks to protect his resorts from its effects. Along with this rank hypocrisy, Trump is advocating an energy plan that is vintage 1980, calling for more burning of fossil fuels, more drilling and digging, more pipelines, as if fossil fuel consumption was totally benign to the environment and to human health.

Along with his tyrannical and fascist tendencies, Trump is wrong on two of the biggest issues facing our planet today.  His ignorance and recklessness render him totally unfit to be president.

Made in China

donald

W.J. Astore

Is it a good idea to get in a trade war with China when they make all our stuff?

I thought of that again this morning as I looked at the outfit I’m wearing.  LL Bean shorts?  Made in China.  Frye boat shoes?  Made in China.  Polo shirt made from organic cotton?  Made in China.  Brooks running shoes that I put on for my stretching routine?  Made in China.  My underwear?  Made in Thailand.  Aha!  So not everything comes from China.  I also note my Citizen Eco-Drive watch has a Japanese movement, but it’s unclear where final assembly took place.  Any chance it might also be in China?

I just want to state the obvious here: I’m a thoroughgoing Asian man, representing China, Thailand, and Japan.  Even when I don my most American-sounding brands like “True Grit,” they are most often made in China.

So, while it’s nice to hear that President Trump is calling a temporary trade and tariff truce with China, I have to say the Chinese already own us, and in more ways than one, since they also own trillions of our national debt.  Meanwhile, Trump’s “tough” tactic of raising tariffs to “punish” the Chinese just passes higher costs to American consumers, so who’s really being punished?

Sadly, as I’ve said before, the only American products I routinely hear about in the news as major money-making exports are weapons of war.  Bombs, missiles, guns, warplanes, and the like.  America used to be the world’s merchant for all kinds of products; now we’re better known as the world’s leading merchant of death.  We’re not the “arsenal of democracy,” as we were in World War II.  Now we’re just an arsenal.

Isn’t it time we converted our forever war economy into one that produces products that we can wear and enjoy in everyday life?

Or am I forever fated to be a statement of Asian sartorial excellence?