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How Our Trillion-Dollar Empire Is the Cause of Our 'Deficit Problem'

We could make the budget deficit disappear and fully fund Social Security and Medicare without raising taxes, if we only outspend our biggest military rival by threefold.

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According to some estimates, 91 percent of our long-term public debt -- and the hundreds of billions we pay in interest on that debt annually -- accrued as a result of foreign military adventures of the past. Now contrast that with Social Security, which not only hasn’t added a dime to the deficit but has run surpluses that have partially offset other spending -- in areas like “defense” --for almost 30 years.

Take a peek under the hood and check out what drives the engine of American empire. By no means are they all wasted dollars -- we live in a dangerous world and need a military. But ours remains fundamentally mismatched to the threats we face in the post-Cold War era, despite years of talk in the halls of the Pentagon about transforming the American military for the 21st century.

It still represents an enormous government agency whose big-ticket weapons systems suck up a fair amount of national treasure in order to be ready for a conventional war between great powers that will never materialize. It’s an agency that’s worked desperately hard to militarize efforts to combat drugs and terrorism in order to justify retaining, and since 9/11/01 increasing, its Cold War levels of funding.

Nobody talks about it, but our hugely bloated “defense” budget is laden with pork -- not only basing and construction dollars carried by members of Congress back to their districts, but big spending on things like protection for pipelines, shipping and other privately owned operations, and subsidized research and development given away for nothing. It includes billions in military assistance that subsidizes the conflicts of countries like Egypt, Israel, Pakistan and Colombia (or, in Egypt’s case, a payoff to stay on the sidelines) and useless spending on hundreds of bases around the world bristling with fancy weapons systems that are ill-suited for the irregular warfare that the Planet’s Only Superpower is likely to fight.

In large part, the status quo is maintained by the influence of the defense industry -- it  lavished $136 million on law-makers last year. It’s almost comical at times, like when money for a new jet engine was forced through Congress over the objections of the Pentagon, which insisted that the costly project was “unnecessary and a waste of money.”

And in part, it’s driven by what may be the greatest false dichotomy in our national discourse: that we must choose between cutting our military spending and “maintaining a strong defense.” The flaw in that is a matter of simple math: we not only spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined, we spend six times what second-place finisher China does on its military.That means we could cut our military spending in half -- making the budget deficit disappear in a few years, without raising taxes and while fully funding Social Security and Medicare -- and we’d still outspend our largest rival by threefold.

That’s more evidence that the federal deficit “problem” isn’t a problem at all.

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