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OPINION | JIM LYNCH: The might of military spending

by JIM LYNCH SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | August 30, 2020 at 9:13 a.m.

The covid-19 pandemic has rudely slammed all of us into a new and uncomfortable world. In the last few months our homes, families and workplaces now confront uncertainties we never imagined.

The public arena consequently also is unsettled. The share of the nation's budget allocated to defense, public health, education, and housing is a political choice reflecting the age-old "guns or butter" conundrum confronting lawmakers. Military spending (guns) and domestic spending (butter) deserve our attention now more than ever.

I urge readers to newly consider the issue of guns and butter. For me, it is clear that a strong national defense is needed and can only be provided by the federal government. At the same time I have family members who have contracted the covid-19 virus. Guns or butter?

When Congress and the president have lots of our tax money, these choices are easier; however, the rapid loss of 26 million jobs and shuttering of businesses should focus our minds. Hard times are here and likely to persist. The question still demands an answer: How much for guns and how much for butter?

President Trump consistently says the U.S. military needs more soldiers, sailors, ships, guns, and support (pay raises, new housing) while at the same time proclaiming he will "bring home the troops" from the battlefront of the war on terror. His plan would seem to result in a larger, more expensive military with less to do.

However, a closer reading of Trump's military plans explains his intentions: The president and the Pentagon have decided to downgrade the Fight Against Terror and instead return to a cold war type of competition to keep the U.S. at the pinnacle of the world's power hierarchy. This big power confrontation is aimed at China in the east and Russia in the west.

Assuming readers wish to know real facts before deciding their guns-or-butter choices, here's a summary of worldwide military spending in 2019. The first clear and insurmountable fact is that the U.S. armed forces already are the global top dog by a huge margin.

Among the 15 countries who spend the most on their military, the $684 billion spent by the U.S. is 48 percent of the total spent by all 15 nations. China's billions are a far distant second, Saudi Arabia is third, and Russia is fourth.

Recollecting the Trump/Pentagon obsession with engaging the big power rivals of the U.S., this data show the U.S. military already spends four times more than China and 11 times more than Russia.

It further must be noted that the $684 billion spent by the Pentagon is only the base budget for our Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the new Space Force. The Veterans Administration, Homeland Security, contingent overseas budgets to fight the Islamic State, and parts of the Energy Department (atomic arsenal), State Department and FBI add another $298 billion. Doing the math, $684 billion plus $298 billion equals $982 billion. This sum is within an eyelash of $1 trillion. Spent. Every. Year.

Real facts are stubborn, and here is another to consider. While the U.S. military's annual spending towers above that of all other nations, the U.S. is only 4.2 percent of world population (328 million people divided by 7.8 billion people).

In other words, the U.S., as only 4 percent of the world, already deploys an Army, Navy and Air Force that no other nation can conceivably ever match. China, in distant second place, would have to quadruple its military spending to do so.

Another real fact: The $684 billion U.S. military annual base budget is now larger than the annual net spending for Medicare ($644 billion). Moreover, Medicare is a mandatory federal spending item (all who qualify are entitled to Medicare benefits) whereas military spending is discretionary, subject to decisions by Congress.

The budgetary fact that Pentagon spending now exceeds the largest U.S. health program, Medicare, adds a clarifying element to the discussion of guns or butter. Guns are intended to give our nation security. However, we are now witnessing threats to humanity in the U.S. and the rest of the world. Perhaps we should reassess what security means. Existential threats are here, right now. This is the best time to unite instead of creating adversaries. We desperately need an army of covid-19 contact tracers instead of an army of soldiers and tanks.

We must separate the self-interest of the weapons industry from our human instincts to care for each other. The hottest item now in the Pentagon's weapons inventory is the F-35 supersonic stealth fighter jet. Lockheed makes the F-35 for $122 million each. But can the F-35 bomb the coronavirus?

Guns or butter?

Jim Lynch of Little Rock is retired from UALR where he worked from 1980 to 2010 as a Senior Research Specialist with a focus on state and local government.

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