In the preface to his 1974 classic, The Permanent War Economy, Seymour Melman decried America’s choice of guns over butter. He wrote:
“Traditional economic competence of every sort is being eroded by the state capitalist directorate that elevates inefficiency to a national purpose, that disables the market system, that destroys the value of the currency, and that diminishes the decision power of all institutions other than its own. Industrial productivity, the foundation of every nation’s economic growth, is being eroded by the relentlessly predatory effects of military economy.”
The time couldn’t have looked riper for beating swords into plowshares. After more than 10 years, U.S. combat in Vietnam had ended and President Nixon had recently begun normalizing relations with China, that Communist behemoth. And yet, in 1986, more than a decade later, Melman surveyed the governmental landscape and saw the same forces at play in the same ways. By then, however, deindustrialization had obliterated whole American industries — especially in what came to be called the Rust Belt — that had once produced durable goods and offered well-paying jobs that had once been the pride of the planet. “Instead of enjoying guns and butter, we are suffering a national blight of street begging, homelessness, and hunger, unseen since the Great Depression,” he wrote then.
In the years since, the primary Communist behemoth on the planet, the Soviet Union, went belly up and its satellite states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia spun out of its orbit. Still, even with no real enemies on the horizon, talk of a “peace dividend” in Washington came and went in the blink of an eye. A smoldering war with Iraq, combat in the former Yugoslavia, an abortive intervention in Somalia, and attacks in Sudan and Afghanistan followed. Not long after, the permanent war economy, still thriving, found itself profitably joined to the idea of permanent war, aka the Global War on Terror. A decade of disaster followed, in which successful invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan devolved into ruinous, wheel-spinning occupations, and interventions in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and elsewhere produced at best dubious, at worst disastrous, results. Meanwhile, the military-industrial complex and the national security state continued to engorge themselves on taxpayer dollars.
In 2004, Melman died without ever seeing his dream of converting any significant part of the American war economy into a peace economy get the slightest traction. Today, however, Washington has recently quit one major war and is winding down another. For the first time in memory, a bipartisan coalition in Congress has also pushed back against a presidential rush to war. In addition, and to the amazement of Washington watchers of every stripe, a bipartisan agreement in Congress will, albeit modestly, ratchet down runaway Pentagon spending. Were Melman still alive, he would no doubt be writing with increased vigor about converting the military economy to a civilian one. In his stead, TomDispatch regular Mattea Kramer of the National Priorities Project and Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies pick up the banner and suggest how America’s overabundance of swords might, in the foreseeable future, be beaten into wind turbines. –Nick Turse
A trillion dollars. It’s a lot of money. In a year it could send 127 million college students to school, provide health insurance for 206 million people, or pay the salaries of seven million schoolteachers and seven million police officers. A trillion dollars could do a lot of good. It could transform or save a lot of lives. Now, imagine doubling the money; no, tripling it. How about quadrupling it, maybe quintupling it, or even sextupling it? Unfortunately, you really will have to imagine that, because the money to do it isn’t there. It was (or will be) spent on Washington’s disastrous post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
War, the military-industrial complex, and the national security state that go with it cost in every sense an arm and a leg. And that, in the twenty-first century, has been where so many American tax dollars have gone. [cont’d.]