Getting Out Of Our Pickle
Leap I lightly, with the grace of a gazelle, over such mundane news items as indictments at the White House and Supreme Court nominations. All the better to continue my crusade to focus attention not on what's wrong, but on how to fix it.
Forget, for a carefree and frivolous moment, the manifold failings of the only president we've got. Instead, let's see if we can figure out how to get out of this pickle. More than one pickle, I grant you -- this administration is a pickle factory. Thinking helmets on, team.
Before we even begin with some useful lists of, "Let's stop doing this and try doing that, instead," we should salute the Values Crowd with the sincerest form of flattery. I suppose we could have a giant Values Debate, with Bill Bennett on one side and Bill Moyers on the other, but even values have fallen into the partisan pit these days. We need to go at our problems in some way that doesn't immediately set hackles up so that the only point of the exercise becomes to beat the other side.
How about, instead of a Contract With America, we see if we can get some agreement on what kind of country we would like to see America become.
Here's a starter: I would like America to be a country where we spend more money on educating people than we do on the military.
On a panel in New Haven, Conn., the other night, Ray Suarez of PBS answered the "How do we fix it?" question with the proposal that we make K-12 our top priority. He suggests this would have so many unexpected side effects -- ranging from science to race relations -- it would effectively be a revolution.
I'm not asking you to endorse that idea, but do consider the astonishing magnitude of such a shift. It's difficult to get a compete grasp on how much we spend on the military, since not all of it is under the Department of Defense. The Department of Homeland Security, for example, pays for much of the "war on terror." But basically, the Pentagon is now getting about $500 billion a year, or 52 percent of the discretionary federal budget -- according to the Center for Budget Priorities.
("Discretionary" basically means what Congress and the president have any say over. The rest of the budget goes to stuff we have already committed to and can't get out of, like paying interest on the national debt.)
Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, whose purpose is to educate the public on how the federal government spends our money and what priorities are, suggests cutting 15 percent from the military budget and redirecting it. The Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation says we now spend more on our military than the rest of the world combined spends on theirs. There is no country that could conceivably defeat us militarily, though we certainly do manage to get ourselves stuck in some unpleasant places. Anyone who has watched the poor National Guard getting called back to Iraq again and again can figure out quite a bit of this money is not being well spent.
Just for starters, is there anyone -- anyone -- who thinks we need more than 1,000 nuclear warheads in order to have a credible nuclear deterrent at this time? By cutting back to 1,000, we can save $13 billion right there.
Another $26 billion would be saved by scaling back or stopping the research, development and construction of weapons that are useless to deal with modern threats. Many of the weapons involved, like the F/A-22 fighter jet and the Virginia Class submarine, were designed to fight the defunct Soviet Union. All of this is according to Lawrence Korb, whose credentials are endless -- senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, former vice president of Raytheon, etc. The $26 billion does not include the old Star Wars program, now called missile defense, which could be cut back to basic research for a savings of $7 billion.
I'm trying to give you some sense of scale here. According to Korb's research, we could take $60 billion out of the defense budget, 15 percent of the total, without remotely affecting military readiness. Any think tank, left or right, can come up with a similar scenario for cutting military spending without harm to security -- the details may differ, but you will find a surprising degree of overlap, as well.
OK, so we could shift $60 billion into education without even breathing hard. Then, how would we continue toward of a goal of putting more into education than on stuff to kill people? For starters, we could try having fewer enemies in the world. Then we wouldn't need so many ways to kill them, eh? And how do we get there?
Nothing simple about this effort -- anyone who thinks international relations and diplomacy are simple, straightforward subjects has not been paying attention. This how-do-we-fix-it series is a conversation, not a lecture, and all suggestions are welcome. You can e-mail your suggestions to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.