How Do You Justify A $750 Billion Budget?

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Missile Envy

W.J. Astore

I grew up on a steady diet of threat inflation.  Before I was born, bomber and missile “gaps” had been falsely touted as showing the Soviet Union was ahead of the U.S. in developing nuclear-capable weaponry (the reverse was true).  But those lies, which vastly exaggerated Soviet capabilities, perfectly served the needs of the military-industrial complex (hereafter, the Complex) in the USA.  Another example of threat inflation, common when I was a kid, was the Domino Theory, the idea that, if South Vietnam fell to communism, the entire region of Southeast Asia would fall as well, including Thailand and perhaps even countries like the Philippines.  Inflating the danger of communism was always a surefire method to promote U.S. defense spending and the interests of the Pentagon.

When I was in college, one book that opened my eyes was Andrew Cockburn’s “The Threat: Inside the Soviet Military Machine.”  James Fallows’s “National Defense” was another book I read in those days, together with Helen Caldicott’s “Missile Envy.”  Early in the Reagan years, I recall those old charts that displayed Soviet ICBMs as being bigger than American ICBMs, as if missile size was everything.  The message was clear: the Soviets have more missiles, and they’re bigger!  Yet what really mattered was the accuracy and reliability of those missiles, areas where the U.S. had a decisive edge.  U.S. nuclear forces were also far more survivable than their Soviet counterparts, but such details were lost on most Americans.

Throughout my life, the U.S. “defense” establishment has consistently inflated the dangers presented by foreign powers, which brings me to the current Pentagon budget for 2020, which may reach $750 billion.  How to justify such an immense sum?  A large dollop of threat inflation might help…

With the Islamic State allegedly defeated in Syria and other terrorist forces more nuisances than existential threats, with the Afghan War apparently winding down (only 14,000 U.S. troops are deployed there) and with Trump professing a “love” fest with Kim Jong-un, where are today’s (and tomorrow’s) big threats?  Iran isn’t enough.  The only threats that seem big enough to justify colossal military spending are Russia and China.  Hence the new “cold war” we keep hearing about, which drives a “requirement” for big spending on lucrative weapons systems like new aircraft carriers, new fighters and bombers, newer and better nuclear warheads and missiles, and so forth.

Which brings me to the alleged Russian collusion story involving Trump.  As we now know, the Mueller Report found no collusion, but was that really the main point of the investigation and all the media hysteria?  The latter succeeded in painting Vladimir Putin and the Russians as enemies in pursuit of the death of American democracy.  Meanwhile Trump, who’d campaigned with some idea of a rapprochement with Russia, was driven by the investigation to take harsher stances against Russia, if only to prove he wasn’t a “Putin puppet.”  The result: most Americans today see Russia as a serious threat, even though the Russians spend far less on wars and weaponry than the U.S. does.

Threat inflation is nothing new, of course.  Dwight D. Eisenhower recognized it and did his best to control it in the 1950s, but even Ike had only limited success.  Other presidents, lacking Ike’s military experience and gravitas, have most frequently surrendered to the Complex.  The last president who tried with some consistency to control the Complex was Jimmy Carter, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian hostage crisis, and his own political fortunes drove him to launch a major military buildup, which was then accelerated by Reagan until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the early 1990s, I briefly heard about a peace dividend and America returning to being a normal country (i.e. anti-imperial) in normal times, but ambition and greed reared their ugly heads, and U.S. leaders became enamored with military power.  Rather than receding, America’s global empire grew, with no peace dividends forthcoming.  The attacks on 9/11 led the Bush/Cheney administration to double down on military action in its “global war on terror,” leading to disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that further served to engorge the Complex with money and power.

Today, faced with a debilitating national debt of $22 trillion and infrastructure that’s aptly described as “crumbling,” you’d think U.S. leaders would finally seek a peace dividend to lower our debt and rebuild our roads, bridges, dams, and related infrastructure.  But the Complex (including Congress, of course) is addicted to war and weapons spending, aided as ever by threat inflation and its close cousin, fearmongering about invading aliens at the border.

And there you have it: a $750 billion military budget sucking up more than sixty percent of discretionary spending by the federal government.  As Ike said, this is no way to live humanely, but it is a way for humanity to hang from a cross of iron.

Dreaming Big About the U.S. Military

Ford
Let’s build two new faulty aircraft carriers at the same time.  Even before the bugs with the first one are worked out.  You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.

W.J. Astore

As the U.S. military enjoys enormous budgets ($718 billion this year, rising possibly to $750 billion for 2020), Americans are told not to dream big.  There might just be a connection here.

Due to budget deficits (aggravated by the Trump tax cut for the rich), Americans are warned against big projects.  Single-payer health care?  Forget about it!  (Even though it would lead to lower health care costs in the future.)  More government support for higher education?  Too expensive!  Infrastructure improvements?  Ditto.  Any ambitious government project to help improve the plight of working Americans is quickly dismissed as profligate and wasteful, unless, of course, you’re talking about national security.  Then no price is too high to pay.

In short, you can only dream big in America when you focus on the military, weaponry, and war.  For a democracy, however, is that not the very definition of insanity?

Consider the words of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic worker movement.  She wrote in the early 1950s about poverty as a form of grace, that she was “convinced” America needed such grace, especially at a time “when expenditures reach into the billions to defend ‘our American way of life.’  Maybe this defense will bring down upon us the poverty we are afraid to pray for,” she concluded.

Speaking of “defense,” the title of a recent article at The Guardian put it well: Trump wants to give 62 cents of every dollar to the military. That’s immoral.  As Joe Biden once said, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.  The U.S. government has made that plain: more weaponry and more wars.  By wildly overspending on the military and driving up deficits, we just may find the grace of poverty that Dorothy Day spoke of.  It will indeed come at a very high price, one that will be paid mainly by the already poor and vulnerable.

How to cut the colossal Pentagon budget?  It’s not hard.  The Air Force doesn’t need new bombers and fighters.  The Navy doesn’t need two new aircraft carriers.  The Army doesn’t need new tanks and similar “heavy” conventional weaponry.  Get rid of the “Space” force.  No service needs new “modernized” nuclear weapons.  America should have a much smaller military “footprint” overseas.  And, to state what should be obvious, America needs to withdraw military forces from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere while ending the bombing currently in progress in seven countries.

A sane national defense is probably achievable at roughly half of current spending levels.  Just think what the U.S. could do with an extra $350 billion or so each year.  A single-payer health care system that covers everyone.  Better education.  Improved infrastructure.  A transition to greener fuels.  Safe water and a cleaner environment.

But today, the only people lustily singing “Imagine” have changed the lyrics: they’re not dreaming of peace but of more nukes, more weapons, and more wars.  And they’re winning.

No Collusion, Says the Mueller Report

soccer

W.J. Astore

The Mueller Report has finally landed, not with a thud, but with a whisper.  No collusion.  No more indictments.  Inconclusive evidence of obstruction of justice.

Readers of Bracing Views won’t be surprised.  Back in February 2017, Mike Murry wrote an article for this site (Get Another Goat) in which he explained the inept methods and bizarre mentality of establishment Democrats in blaming Putin and the Russians rather than themselves for losing to a two-bit con man:

At any rate, it appears as if the defeated Democrats have chosen Russian President Putin as an attractive scapegoat simply due to (1) his “foreignness” and (2) the nature of transferred nationalism. This psychological transference, Orwell wrote, “has an important function. … It makes it possible for [the nationalist] to be much more nationalistic – more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest – than he [or she] could ever be on behalf of [their] native country, or any unit of which [they] had real knowledge” …

it seems like a monumental waste of time, energy, and limited American attention span for the Democrats to scapegoat President Putin for their own stupidity, arrogance, and insensitivity to their party’s traditional base.

Echoing Mike Murry, it has indeed been “a monumental waste of time, energy, and limited American attention span” to connect Trump’s victory in 2016 to an organized campaign of collusion with Russia.  Mainstream networks like MSNBC and high-profile reporters like Rachel Maddow have spent the last 2+ years pushing the narrative of collusion and even treason when they could have been attacking Trump and his administration for its specific policies and decisions that hurt ordinary Americans.  By pushing the collusion/treason narrative and coming up empty, they’ve only made Trump stronger as he prepares to run for reelection in 2020.

As I wrote here in July of 2018, it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Trump to accuse him of being a “puppet” because he’s incapable of serving anyone but himself:

Consider the accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.  Trump is never going to side with his intelligence agencies on this issue.  He thinks that, by doing so, he’d be admitting that maybe he didn’t win fair and square over “Crooked Hillary.”  He refuses to countenance Russian meddling, not because he’s a Putin stooge, but rather because he’s an egomaniac.  He’ll admit to nothing that diminishes, however slightly, his victory — and his ego.

Russia doesn’t matter to Trump.  Indeed, America doesn’t matter to Trump.  With Trump, it’s really all about him… Trump lives in his own reality, a narcissistic swirl of fabrications, falsehoods, and lies.  He’s happiest when he’s commanding the scene, when people are kowtowing to him, when he can boast about himself and advertise his businesses…

In short, Trump is not treasonous.  He simply has no concept of public service.  He has no capacity to serve any cause other than himself.

Trump may be a blowhard, a bully, a braggart, a bigot, and a buffoon, but that doesn’t make him a “traitor” who “colluded” with Russia.  By pushing a false narrative for 2+ years, establishment Democrats and the mainstream media have yet again colluded in their usual inept way to strengthen Trump while discrediting themselves.

Ordinary Americans looking for a little more safety and equity in their lives are, of course, the biggest losers.

Democratic Candidates for President in 2020

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Tulsi Gabbard and Bernie Sanders: Change We Can Believe In

W.J. Astore

Yes, it’s much too early, but I count at least fourteen Democratic candidates for president in the 2020 election.  Here are a few impressionistic words on each of the candidates.

The True Progressives

1.  Bernie Sanders: Bernie is principled, sincere, honest, and dedicated to helping working people.  Yes, he’s a “Democratic socialist,” which is scary to the mainstream media.  The establishment of the Democratic Party is against him.  Advantage, Bernie.

2.  Elizabeth Warren: She identifies as a “capitalist,” but she’s proven she’s willing to take on Wall Street, the big banks, and other special interests.  She’s intelligent, sharp, and committed.  Her weakness: a lack of charisma and the whole “Pocahontas” angle, i.e. her identifying as Native American on past occasions.

3.  Tulsi Gabbard: A military veteran who’s strongly against regime-change wars, a vocal critic of the military-industrial complex, Tulsi has demonstrated poise, thoughtfulness, and coolness under pressure.  The DNC and media are against her because she’s independent-minded and refuses to bow down before special interests.  A dark horse candidate who may catch fire.  (I’m so excited I’m mixing metaphors.)

The Usual Suspects (Milquetoast Centrists)

1. Cory Booker: A water-bearer for Big Pharma, Booker has a pleasant demeanor but takes few chances.

2.  Kamala Harris: A former prosecutor, Harris seems to love prisons more than schools.

3.  Kirsten Gillibrand: Rumor has it she asked her friends on Wall Street whether it was OK for her to run.  They apparently said “yes,” so she announced her formal candidacy today.

4.  Amy Klobuchar: Already with a sad reputation for abusing her staff and making ill-judged jokes about it, Klobuchar is an uninspiring centrist.

5.  Beto O’Rourke: A millionaire who married a woman who will apparently inherit billions, Beto showed up in Iowa speaking in platitudes about the wonders of democracy in the USA.  His only firm principle is that he believes he deserves to be in the race, perhaps because he looks a little like a Kennedy if you squint really hard.

The Governors

1.  John Hickenlooper: A governor from Colorado, Hickenlooper made his money by opening a micro-brewery.  At a campaign appearance in Iowa, somebody broke a glass, and he helped to clean it up.  Though he was afraid to say he was a “capitalist” on TV, Hickenlooper may have some potential.

2.  Jay Inslee: Governor of Washington State, he’s made fighting climate change the central issue of his campaign.  He’s got one of the big issues right, so advantage to Inslee.

Wild Cards and Also-Rans

1.  Andrew Yang: A former venture capitalist and unconventional thinker, Yang has caught people’s attention by talking about a guaranteed income for all.  A possible anti-Trump in the sense he’s a successful financier with brains and heart.

2.  Pete Buttigieg: A gay mayor who’s also a veteran, Buttigieg got some air time recently by referring to Trump as a “porn president.”  Comes across like a young Mr. Rogers.

3.  Julian Castro: Formerly Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Obama.  And that’s all I know.

4.  John Delaney: I just saw his name today.  The end.

The Ultimate Centrist and Establishment Man

1. Joe Biden: Hasn’t yet announced, but it looks like he will.  The presumed front-runner based on name recognition and his loyal service as Obama’s VP for eight years.  Will have the full support of the mainstream media, the DNC, and the Washington establishment.  A decent-enough man, Biden is effectively a moderate Republican.

Bracing Views, in all its power, fully supports Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard, real progressives who want to effect real change.

Which candidates do you like, readers?  And which ones don’t you like?  Look forward to your comments!

Update (3/19/19): Apparently two more candidates are waiting in the wings: Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum.  Both are candidates of color who recently ran close but unsuccessful races in Georgia and Florida.  Perhaps not presidential material (due to lack of experience on the national stage), they may emerge as strong candidates for a VP slot.

abramsgillum

Big Walls, Fruitless Wars, and Fortress America

W.J. Astore

At one time, not too long ago, a great symbol of America was the Statue of Liberty.  She lit her torch to guide immigrants yearning to breathe free.  America saw itself as the land of liberty, the land of opportunity, open to (nearly) all, even to the most humble and most desperate.

And there was, I think, some truth to these symbols and myths.  My father’s parents, immigrants from Italy, came to America prior to World War I.  My mother’s ancestors came earlier, of English and Swedish ancestry, also seeking the promise of America.  Sure, the streets weren’t paved with gold; sure, my parents ended up working in a factory for low wages, but that’s also where they met, and eventually my dad did earn a civil service job as a firefighter that lifted my family into the lower end of the middle class.

Unless you’re Native American, we’re all recent immigrants to America, some of us forcefully brought here against our will, most notably African slaves.  Despite all the harsh realities of U.S. history, such as periodic bouts of anti-immigrant fervor, the inhumanity of slavery, murderous labor strife, and so forth, America nevertheless had an ideal, however imperfectly realized, of openness.  Of newness, freshness, inclusiveness.

But that ideal, in decline, I believe, since the 1950s and the creation of the permanent war state, is now dead.  America today is the land of walls and wars, a land of “Keep Out” signs.  A fortress mindset prevails today, a lockdown mentality, justified in the name of safety and security, to keep “them” out.  You know: the undesirables of the moment.  Mexicans.  Muslims.  “Foreigners.”  Maybe, in the future, you.

All this is on my mind as I’m reading Greg Grandin’s insightful new book, “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America.”  Grandin traces the idea of frontiers in America and more generally the idea of limits.  I was struck again while reading his book of Ronald Reagan’s sunny optimism: his talk of there being no limits in America, his rejection of border walls, even his encouragement of immigrant labor and visas, calculated though such positions were (i.e. winning more of the Hispanic vote in key states like Texas).

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Forget about “It’s morning again in America,” a slogan under Reagan.  Under Trump, it’s crime, it’s gangs, it’s drugs, it’s bad hombres pouring over the border, bringing death and mayhem to America.  Only walls and weapons can stop them.  I was struck by a reference Grandin makes at the end of his book to Trump saying that barbed wire “can be a beautiful sight” when it’s used on America’s southern border to keep out asylum seekers from Central America.  I remember spacious skies, amber waves of grain, and purple mountain majesties being sung about as beautiful in my youth, but not barbed wire or Trump’s big “beautiful” wall.

When did it all go wrong?  Grandin provocatively connects America’s failing wars and fading empire to its fortress- and prison-favoring mentality today.  You might call it the real closing of the American mind.  And perhaps the shuttering of our hearts as well as our minds.  Grandin doesn’t mince words about America today: “But it’s hard to think of a period in the nation’s history,” he writes, “when venality and disillusionment have been so sovereign, when so many of the country’s haves have nothing to offer but disdain for the have-nots.”

I’ve just begun to plumb the meanings of Grandin’s book, which is another way of saying its lessons run deep.  In this America that I live in today, a land in which big walls are celebrated to keep the huddled masses out, a land constantly and needlessly at war around the globe, a land defined more and more by a fortress mentality rather than one that favors liberty, I find myself increasingly estranged, even lost.

An Anti-War Democrat Can Win the Presidency in 2020

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Isn’t it time to get behind the peace flag?

W.J. Astore

How can Democrats win the presidency in 2020?  The answer is simple: field a candidate who’s genuinely anti-war.  A candidate focused on America and the domestic health of our country rather than on global empire.  A candidate like Tulsi Gabbard, for example, who’s both a military veteran and who’s anti-war.  (Gabbard does say, however, that she’s a hawk against terrorism.)  Another possibility is Bernie Sanders, who’s beginning to hone his anti-war bona fides, and who’s always been focused on domestic issues that help ordinary Americans, e.g. a higher minimum wage, single-payer health care for all, and free college education at public institutions.

Many Democrats still don’t recognize that Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 in part because she was more hawkish than Trump on foreign policy and wars.  (As an aside, the burdens of war are most likely to fall on those people Hillary dismissed as “deplorables.”)  Most Americans are tired of endless wars in faraway places like Afghanistan and Syria as well as endless global commitments that drive a “defense” budget that stands at $716 billion this year, increasing to $750 billion next year.  Throwing more money at the Pentagon, to put it mildly, isn’t the wisest approach if your goal is to end wasteful wars and restore greatness here at home.

Many of Trump’s supporters get this.  I was reading Ben Bradlee Jr.’s book, The Forgotten, which examines the roots of Trump’s victory by focusing on Pennsylvania.  Bradlee interviews a Vietnam veteran, Ed Harry, who had this to say about war and supporting Trump:

“We’re tired.  Since I’ve been born, we’ve been in a state of war almost all the time.  When does it stop?  We’re pissing away all our money building bombs that kill people, and we don’t take care of veterans at home that need the help.”

Harry says he voted for Trump “because he was a nonpolitician” rather than a liberal or conservative.  Trump, the “nonpolitician,” dared to talk about America’s wasteful wars and the need to end them, whereas Hillary Clinton made the usual vague yet tough-sounding noises about staying the course and supporting the military.

Again, Democrats need to listen to and embrace veterans like Ed Harry when he says: “All the money pissed away on wars could be used here to take care of the needs of the people.”

I’d like to cite one more Vietnam veteran, Richard Brummett, who was interviewed in 2018 by Nick Turse at The Nation.  Brummett, I think, would identify more as a liberal and Harry more as a conservative, but these labels really mean little because these veterans arrive at the same place: arguing against America’s endless wars.

Here’s what Brummett had to say about these wars: “I feel intense sadness that we’ve gotten the country into this.  All these naive 20-year-olds, 18-year-olds, are getting chewed up by these wars–and then there’s what we’re doing to the people of all these countries.  The list gets longer all the time: Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Syria.  Who is benefiting from all this agony?  I had the naive hope, in the years after Vietnam, that when I died–as a really old guy–the obituary would read: ‘America’s last combat veteran of any war died today.'”

If Democrats want to lose again, they’ll run a “centrist” (i.e. a pseudo-Republican) like Joe Biden or Kamala Harris who’ll make the usual noises about having a strong military and keeping the world safe by bombing everywhere.  But if they want to win, they’ll run a candidate who’s willing to tell the truth about endless wars and their incredibly high and debilitating costs.  This candidate will promise an end to the madness, and as a result he or she will ignite a fire under a large and diverse group of voters, because there are a lot of people out there like Harry and Brummett who are fed up with forever war.

Jared Kushner’s Top Secret Clearance

Jared
On his majesty’s secret service

W.J. Astore

Word is that President Trump intervened to grant his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a “top secret” security clearance.  So what?  That’s the president’s prerogative, and Kushner needs this clearance to perform all the magic he’s apparently capable of, such as reinventing government, negotiating with Mexico, solving the opioid epidemic, and bringing peace to the Middle East.

Top Secret security clearances are quite common in America: more than one million people have them, and at least another three million have secret/confidential ones.  Of course, not all TS clearances are created equal.  They all require background investigations, but some are “special,” and some are SCI, which stands for compartmentalized information.  In other words, just because you have a TS clearance doesn’t mean you can access all TS information.  You have to have “a need to know.”  You have to be “read in” to certain programs.  And some programs are so secret that only a few people have access to them.

One would assume Kushner needs access to top secret intelligence in his job as a “peace envoy” for the Middle East.  Lacking such a clearance, Kushner would have to be fired, but as Trump’s son-in-law and as a special friend to the Israelis and Saudis, Jared is not about to be fired.  Trump apparently lied about intervening to approve Jared’s clearance (“The president was equally forthright a month ago when he unequivocally denied that he intervened in any way to get a permanent security clearance for his son-in-law,” notes The Guardian), but Trump lies a lot.  It’s a little like breathing for him.

What’s the real issue here?  For me, as I wrote about back in 2015, it’s how the government uses classification schemes to keep secrets from us, the American people.  Apparently, either we or they can’t handle the truth.  To cite myself:

Our government uses security classification not so much to keep us safe, but to keep the national security state safe — safe from the eyes of the American people.

As The Guardian reported in 2013:

“A committee established by Congress, the Public Interest Declassification Board, warned in December that rampant over-classification is ‘imped[ing] informed government decisions and an informed public’ and, worse, ‘enabl[ing] corruption and malfeasance’. In one instance it documented, a government agency was found to be classifying one petabyte of new data every 18 months, the equivalent of 20m filing cabinets filled with text.”

Nowadays, seemingly everything is classified.  And if it’s classified, if it’s secret, we can’t know about it. Because we can’t be trusted with it.  That’s a fine idea for an autocracy or dictatorship, but not so fine for a democracy.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people?  Impossible when nearly everything of any importance is classified.

America, Trump or Jared’s loose lips aren’t the problem.  The problem is a government shrouded in secrecy.