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January 30, 2009

The Big Stimulus


Get rid of the empire

by Justin Raimondo

The talk is all of stimuli and other matters economic – how do we re-inflate the balloon of American prosperity? Reality has taken a hat-pin to it, and trillions have gone up in the smoke of foreclosed mortgages and credit-default swaps.

Panaceas are not lacking. Paul Krugman says it doesn't matter what we spend our money on, as long as we throw it away rapidly and without forethought. I have no doubt that soon we'll be hearing the ghost of Huey Long promising "Every man a king!" I fully expect the Townsend Plan to come back at some point, along, perhaps, with a revival of interest in pre-Leninist forms of Marxism.

Along these lines, President Obama and his party have come up with a "stimulus package," and I must pause to remark how important language is to these people. It's a "package," you see, just like a Christmas gift, only better, because they, the politicians, get to play Santa Claus and shower their constituents with presents. This legislative larceny is predicated on the oddly counterintuitive notion that we can and should spend our way out of poverty – that the sins of our profligacy can be forgiven if only we indulge in yet more ravenous forms of gluttony.

To ordinary Americans, this kind of Washington-think is wholly alien: it is Bizarro economics. After all, when normal human beings are in financial trouble they cut back on their spending, as they are doing now. The American polity, in its younger days, would naturally apply the same logic to government, but, in our dotage, we impart magical powers to the organs of the state, which can produce wealth out of thin air, with only the aid of a printing press. Oh, yes, we understand – albeit vaguely – that this is debt for future generations to pay. Yet we recall – even more vaguely – old bromides like "We owe it to ourselves," which are embedded in our collective memory like flies in amber, and we are reassured.

Putting aside Bizarro economics, for now, and my wholesale rejection of same, there is one way we can stimulate the economy with a mighty injection of cash into the hands of one and all. No, not another government subsidy, but the cutting of the single largest federal expenditure down to a manageable size: the U.S. military budget.

Larger than all the other "defense" budgets in the world combined, this unimaginable sum is not even known, for sure, but of one thing we can be certain: the hidden costs are much more than anyone suspects. Covert "black operations" are run on an off-the-books budget that we peons are not entitled to see.

Consuming nearly half of all government spending, the military budget maintains an overseas empire unrivaled in the history of the world. The U.S. operates a network of bases in dozens of countries, on every continent. The Pentagon is the biggest landowner on earth. This is not only tremendously expensive, but also completely unnecessary and even harmful to our national interests.

Why, for example, do we need bases in Germany, of all places? They are there on account of a war fought a generation ago, and they stayed because of a perceived threat from the Soviets that vanished into history along with Stalin's ghost.

The hidden costs of empire are not limited to the CIA's secret slush funds – a much greater proportion of this sum amounts to invisible yet all too real opportunity costs, lost avenues of investment that were, instead, diverted to the military-industrial complex. Militarism distorts not only the economy, but also the progress of science, which is channeled in directions that are wholly destructive, rather than productive. Yes, it's true that military applications have often spun off useful byproducts, but if the original aim and intent of scientific research were directly applied to productive and pacific civilian projects, it 's reasonable to expect the results would have been far more fruitful.

The reason for the huge outlay in military expenditures has nothing to do with America's national security: after all, we don't even inspect all the cargo coming into our ports. How concerned with real security are we, anyway? Not very. What matters, in this game, is the financial security of certain economic interests, as well as the ideological agendas of pressure groups within U.S. society.

The Pentagon establishment wants to start building a new generation of nuclear weapons, over some opposition in the Obama administration. That these weapons only add to the danger of global annihilation, and therefore reduce our security, is irrelevant: what matters is that a powerful political constituency exists for the pattern of our military spending, with a very organized and well-funded lobby to continually push for bigger, better, and progressively more expensive weaponry.

In making a point about how a complete fraud like Mikheil Saakashvili, the despotic president of Georgia, managed to make such headway in Washington circles, Professor Stephen Walt trenchantly observes:

"The United States has a uniquely permeable political system. If a foreign diplomat can't persuade the State Department, Treasury, or Defense, there are 435 congressmen and 100 different senators for them to go to work on. As Ken Silverstein shows in his fascinating and funny book Turkmeniscam, there are also a host of lobbying and PR firms who are happy to help foreign governments sell their story here too."

This permeability is even more conducive to domestic lobbies, such as those deployed by the arms manufacturers and the ancillary industries that piggyback on America's overseas presence. A good example is Halliburton and its offshoots, which provide all the comforts of home to our centurions at the far frontiers of the empire. Add to this corporate factor the foreign lobbyists and their domestic fellow travelers, and you have the broad outlines of the War Party's political coalition, the means by which they retain their iron grip on policymaking.

Up against this colossus stands – what? Or, rather, whom?

Well, it's just you and me, folks, and a few other scattered, badly disorganized and under-funded peace groups. And that's it. There's no pro-peace lobbying organization with any heft, and certainly not with any funding. The anti-interventionist blogger Professor Juan Cole recently noted this vital lack, and he's absolutely right when he says:

"The reason AIPAC and its constituencies among the Evangelicals and American Likudniks has been so successful is that there is virtually no countervailing political force. Madison and other Founding Fathers set up the U.S., as Ian Lustick has argued, on the assumption that on most important issues there would be opposing factions who would check each other in the legislature. The drawback of their system is that when there is only one effective faction on an issue, it completely dominates politically. Madison's system worked to prolong the heyday of Big Tobacco far beyond what was reasonable. Anti-smoking campaigners who knew that smoking kills you dead could not make headway with Congress because the tobacco-growing and cigarette industries would counter-lobby.

"But on some issues there is no one on the other side of it to lobby and threaten congressmen. Thus, there was not much percentage until recently in pushing for an end to the boycott on Communist Cuba, since the Florida Cuba lobby would punish you politically and virtually no one would reward you."

Putting aside the choice of "Big Tobacco" – as a libertarian, and a smoker, I say leave them the heck alone – Professor Cole is quite correct: there is virtually no opposition to the War Party in the halls of government. The enemies of peace are organized, they coordinate their efforts, and they have plenty of money to throw around. The peacemakers, on the other hand, are disorganized, divided, and poor. This imbalance is what – more than any other single factor – has given the War Party so many victories in recent years. We will not defeat them until we out-organize them on the ground. The potential is there, but it is – so far – tragically unrecognized.

Such a Peace Lobby, if you will, would seize this moment in our history, when there really is a good chance that a mass movement to cut the "defense" budget could get off the ground. By arguing for a "peace stimulus," one that would allow bigger tax cuts for all and put more money in the hands of oppressed taxpayers, the organizers of such a campaign could make a larger point: that an empire is bad economics, as well as bad foreign policy.

You want a "stimulus"? Forget all those condoms and start cutting back the Pentagon. We could cut our military budget by 30 percent without even feeling it, although I would suggest a 50 percent reduction – to start.

Sound radical? Well, as Ron Paul remarked more than once, you'd be surprised how much of our military expenditures amount to maintaining our overseas empire and really have nothing to do with the defense of the continental United States. Get rid of the empire, and we can finance the rebuilding of the American economy – or, at the very least, our decayed infrastructure – several times over.

 

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  • Jorge Hirsch is a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego.

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