TomDispatch

The Pentagon's new warning means World War III may arrive sooner than you think

When the Department of Defense released its annual report on Chinese military strength in early November, one claim generated headlines around the world. By 2030, it suggested, China would probably have 1,000 nuclear warheads — three times more than at present and enough to pose a substantial threat to the United States. As a Washington Post headline put it, typically enough: “China accelerates nuclear weapons expansion, seeks 1,000 warheads or more, Pentagon says.”

The media, however, largely ignored a far more significant claim in that same report: that China would be ready to conduct “intelligentized” warfare by 2027, enabling the Chinese to effectively resist any U.S. military response should it decide to invade the island of Taiwan, which they view as a renegade province. To the newsmakers of this moment, that might have seemed like far less of a headline-grabber than those future warheads, but the implications couldn’t be more consequential. Let me, then, offer you a basic translation of that finding: as the Pentagon sees things, be prepared for World War III to break out any time after January 1, 2027.

To appreciate just how terrifying that calculation is, four key questions have to be answered. What does the Pentagon mean by “intelligentized” warfare? Why would it be so significant if China achieved it? Why do U.S. military officials assume that a war over Taiwan could erupt the moment China masters such warfare? And why would such a war over Taiwan almost certainly turn into World War III, with every likelihood of going nuclear?

Why “Intelligentization” Matters

First, let’s consider “intelligentized” warfare. Pentagon officials routinely assert that China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), already outmatches the U.S. in sheer numbers — more troops, more tanks, more planes, and especially more ships. Certainly, numbers do matter, but in the sort of high-paced “multi-domain” warfare American strategists envision for the future, “information dominance” — in the form of superior intelligence, communications, and battlefield coordination — is expected to matter more. Only when the PLA is “intelligentized” in this fashion, so the thinking goes, will it be able to engage U.S. forces with any confidence of success.

The naval aspect of the military balance between the two global powers is considered especially critical since any conflict between them is expected to erupt either in the South China Sea or in the waters around Taiwan. Washington analysts regularly emphasize the PLA’s superiority in sheer numbers of combat naval “platforms.” A Congressional Research Service (CRS) report released in October, for instance, noted that “China’s navy is, by far, the largest of any country in East Asia, and within the past few years it has surpassed the U.S. Navy in numbers of battle force ships, making China’s navy the numerically largest in the world.” Statements like these are routinely cited by Congressional hawks to secure more naval funding to close the “gap” in strength between the two countries.

As it happens, though, a careful review of comparative naval analyses suggests that the U.S. still enjoys a commanding lead in critical areas like intelligence collection, target acquisition, anti-submarine warfare, and data-sharing among myriad combat platforms — sometimes called C4ISR (for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), or to use the Chinese terms, “informationized” and “intelligentized” warfare.

“Although China’s naval modernization effort has substantially improved China’s naval capabilities in recent years,” the CRS report noted, “China’s navy currently is assessed as having limitations or weaknesses in certain areas, including joint operations with other parts of China’s military, antisubmarine warfare, [and] long-range targeting.”

This means that, at the moment, the Chinese would be at a severe disadvantage in any significant encounter with American forces over Taiwan, where mastery of surveillance and targeting data would be essential for victory. Overcoming its C4ISR limitations has, therefore, become a major priority for the Chinese military, superseding the quest for superiority in numbers alone. According to the 2021 Pentagon report, this task was made a top-level priority in 2020 when the 5th Plenum of the 19th Central Committee established “a new milestone for modernization in 2027, to accelerate the integrated development of mechanization, informatization, and intelligentization of the PRC’s armed forces.” The achievement of such advances, the Pentagon added, “would provide Beijing with more credible military options in a Taiwan contingency.”

Five years is not a lot of time in which to acquire mastery over such diverse and technically challenging military capabilities, but American analysts nonetheless believe that the PLA is well on its way to achieving that 2027 milestone. To overcome its “capability gap” in C4ISR, the Pentagon report noted, “the PLA is investing in joint reconnaissance, surveillance, command, control, and communications systems at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.”

If, as predicted, China succeeds by 2027, it will then be able to engage the U.S. Navy in the seas around Taiwan and potentially defeat it. This, in turn, would allow Beijing to bully the Taiwanese without fear of intervention from Washington. As suggested by the Defense Department in its 2021 report, China’s leadership has “connected the PLA’s 2027 goals to developing the capabilities to counter the U.S. military in the Indo-Pacific region and compel Taiwan’s leadership to the negotiation table on Beijing’s terms.”

Beijing’s Taiwan Nightmare

Ever since Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his Chinese Nationalist Party (the Kuomintang, or KMT) fled to Taiwan after the Communist takeover of China in 1949, establishing the Republic of China (ROC) on that island, the Communist Party leadership in Beijing has sought Taiwan’s “reunification” with the mainland. Initially, Taiwanese leaders also dreamed of reconquering the mainland (with U.S. help, of course) and extending the ROC’s sway to all of China. But after Chiang died in 1975 and Taiwan transitioned to democratic rule, the KMT lost ground to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which eschews integration with the mainland, seeking instead to establish an independent Taiwanese state.

As talk of independence has gained favor there, Chinese officials have sought to coax the Taiwanese public into accepting peaceful reunification by promoting cross-Strait trade and tourism, among other measures. But the appeal of independence appears to be growing, especially among younger Taiwanese who have recoiled at Beijing’s clampdown on civil liberties and democratic rule in Hong Kong — a fate they fear awaits them, should Taiwan ever fall under mainland rule. This, in turn, has made the leadership in Beijing increasingly anxious, as any opportunity for the peaceful reunification of Taiwan appears to be slipping away, leaving military action as their only conceivable option.

President Xi Jinping expressed the conundrum Beijing faces well in his November 15th Zoom interchange with President Biden. “Achieving China’s complete reunification is an aspiration shared by all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation,” he stated. “We have patience and will strive for the prospect of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and efforts. That said, should the separatist forces for Taiwan independence provoke us, force our hands, or even cross the red line, we will be compelled to take resolute measures.”

In fact, what Xi calls the “separatist forces for Taiwan independence” have already gone far beyond provocation, affirming that Taiwan is indeed an independent state in all but name and that it will never voluntarily fall under mainland rule. This was evident, for example, in an October 10th address by Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen. The island, she declared, must “resist annexation or encroachment upon our sovereignty,” directly rejecting Beijing’s right to ever rule Taiwan.

But if China does use force — or is “compelled to take resolute measures,” as Xi put it — Beijing would likely have to contend with a U.S. counterstroke. Under existing legislation, notably the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the United States is under no obligation to aid Taiwan in such circumstances. However, that act also states that any use of force to alter Taiwan’s status will be viewed as a matter “of grave concern to the United States” — a stance known as “strategic ambiguity” as it neither commits this country to a military response, nor rules it out.

Recently, however, prominent figures in Washington have begun calling for “strategic clarity” instead, all but guaranteeing a military response to any Chinese strike against the island. “The United States needs to be clear that we will not allow China to invade Taiwan and subjugate it,” Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton typically said in a February 2021 address at the Ronald Reagan Institute. “I think the time has come to be clear: Replace strategic ambiguity with strategic clarity that the United States will come to the aid of Taiwan if China was to forcefully invade Taiwan or otherwise change the status quo across the [Taiwan] Strait.”

President Biden, too, seemed to embrace just such a position recently. When asked during an October CNN “town hall” whether the United States would protect Taiwan, he answered bluntly, “Yes, we have a commitment to do that.” The White House would later walk that statement back, insisting that Washington still adheres to the Taiwan Relations Act and a “One China” policy that identifies both Taiwan and mainland China as part of a single nation. Nonetheless, the administration has continued to conduct massive air and sea maneuvers in the waters off Taiwan, suggesting an inclination to defend Taiwan against any future invasion.

Clearly, then, Chinese policymakers must count on at least the possibility of U.S. military intervention should they order an invasion of Taiwan. And from their perspective, this means it won’t be safe to undertake such an invasion until the PLA has been fully intelligentized — a milestone it will achieve in 2027, if the Pentagon analysis is correct.

The Road to World War III

Nobody can be sure what the world will look like in 2027 or just how severe tensions over Taiwan could be by then. To take but one example, the DPP could lose to the KMT in that island’s 2024 presidential elections, reversing its march toward independence. Alternatively, China’s leadership could decide that a long-term accommodation with a quasi-independent Taiwan was the best possible recourse for maintaining its significant global economic status.

If, however, you stick with the Pentagon’s way of thinking, things look grim. You would have to assume that Taiwan will continue its present course and that Beijing’s urge to secure the island’s integration with the mainland will only intensify. Likewise, you would have to assume that the inclination of Washington policymakers to support an ever-more-independent Taiwan in the face of Chinese military action will only grow, as relations with Beijing continue to spiral downward.

From this circumscribed perspective, all that’s holding China’s leaders back from using force to take Taiwan right now is their concern over the PLA’s inferiority in intelligentized warfare. Once that’s overcome — in 2027, by the Pentagon’s reckoning — nothing will stand in the way of a Chinese invasion or possibly World War III.

Under such circumstances, it’s all too imaginable that Washington might move from a stance of “strategic stability” to one of “strategic clarity,” providing Taiwan’s leadership with an ironclad guarantee of military support in the face of any future attack. While this wouldn’t alter Chinese military planning significantly — PLA strategists undoubtedly assume that the U.S. would intervene, pledge or not — it could lead to complaisance in Washington, to a conviction that Beijing would automatically be deterred by such a guarantee (as Senator Cotton and many others seem to think). In the process, both sides could instead find themselves on the path to war.

And take my word for it, a conflict between them, however it began, could prove hard indeed to confine to the immediate neighborhood of Taiwan. In any such engagement, the principal job of Chinese forces would be to degrade American air and naval forces in the western Pacific. This could end up involving the widespread use of cruise and ballistic missiles to strike U.S. ships, as well as its bases in Japan, South Korea, and on various Pacific islands. Similarly, the principal job of the U.S. military would be to degrade Chinese air and naval forces, as well as its missile-launching facilities on the mainland. The result could be instant escalation, including relentless air and missile attacks, possibly even the use of the most advanced hypersonic missiles then in the U.S. and Chinese arsenals.

The result would undoubtedly be tens of thousands of combat casualties on both sides, as well as the loss of major assets like aircraft carriers and port facilities. Such a set of calamities might, of course, prompt one side or the other to cut its losses and pull back, if not surrender. The likelier possibility, however, would be a greater escalation in violence, including strikes ever farther afield with ever more powerful weaponry. Heavily populated cities could come under attack in China, Taiwan, Japan, or possibly elsewhere, producing hundreds of thousands of casualties.

Unless one side or the other surrendered — and which of these two proud nations is likely to do that? — such a conflict would continue to expand with each side calling for support from its allies. China would undoubtedly turn to Russia and Iran, the U.S. to Australia, India, and Japan. (Perhaps anticipating just such a future, the Biden administration only recently forged a new military alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom called AUKUS, while beefing up its “Quad” security arrangement with Australia, India, and Japan.)

In this way, however haltingly, a new “world war” could emerge and, worse yet, could easily escalate. Both the U.S. and China are already working hard to deploy hypersonic missiles and more conventional weaponry meant to target the other side’s vital defense nodes, including early-warning radars, missile batteries, and command-and-control centers, only increasing the risk that either side could misconstrue such a “conventional” attack as the prelude to a nuclear strike and, out of desperation, decide to strike first. Then we’re really talking about World War III.

Today, this must seem highly speculative to most of us, but to war planners in the Department of Defense and the Chinese Ministry of Defense, there’s nothing speculative about it. Pentagon officials are convinced that China is indeed determined to ensure Taiwan’s integration with the mainland, by force if necessary, and believe that there’s a good chance they’ll be called upon to help defend the island should that occur. As history suggests — think of the years leading up to World War I — planning of this sort can all too easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, however speculative all of this may seem, it should be taken seriously by any of us who dread the very idea of a major future outbreak of war, let alone a catastrophe on the scale of World Wars I and II, or with nuclear weapons on a scale as yet unknown. If such a fate is to be avoided, far more effort will have to go into solving the Taiwan dilemma and finding a peaceful resolution to the island’s status.

As a first step (though don’t count on it these days), Washington and Beijing could agree to curtail their military maneuvers in the waters and airspace around Taiwan and consult with each other, as well as Taiwan’s representatives, on tension-reducing measures of various sorts. Talks could also be held on steps to limit the deployment of especially destabilizing weapons of any kind, including hypersonic missiles.

If the Pentagon is right, however, the time for such action is already running out. After all, 2027, and the possible onset of World War III, is only five years away.

Copyright 2021 Michael T. Klare

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is the five-college professor emeritus of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and a senior visiting fellow at the Arms Control Association. He is the author of 15 books, the latest of which is All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change. He is a founder of the Committee for a Sane U.S.-China Policy.

Graveyard shift: The dark reality of the modern economy reveals itself under pandemic-era demands

In mid-October, President Biden announced that the Port of Los Angeles would begin operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, joining the nearby Port of Long Beach, which had been doing so since September. The move followed weeks of White House negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, as well as shippers like UPS and FedEx, and major retailers like Walmart and Target.

The purpose of expanding port hours, according to the New York Times, was “to relieve growing backlogs in the global supply chains that deliver critical goods to the United States.” Reading this, you might be forgiven for imagining that an array of crucial items like medicines or their ingredients or face masks and other personal protective equipment had been languishing in shipping containers anchored off the West Coast. You might also be forgiven for imagining that workers, too lazy for the moment at hand, had chosen a good night’s sleep over the vital business of unloading such goods from boats lined up in their dozens offshore onto trucks, and getting them into the hands of the Americans desperately in need of them. Reading further, however, you’d learn that those “critical goods” are actually things like “exercise bikes, laptops, toys, [and] patio furniture.”

Fair enough. After all, as my city, San Francisco, enters what’s likely to be yet another almost rainless winter on a planet in ever more trouble, I can imagine my desire for patio furniture rising to a critical level. So, I’m relieved to know that dock workers will now be laboring through the night at the command of the president of the United States to guarantee that my needs are met. To be sure, shortages of at least somewhat more important items are indeed rising, including disposable diapers and the aluminum necessary for packaging some pharmaceuticals. Still, a major focus in the media has been on the specter of “slim pickings this Christmas and Hanukkah.”

Providing “critical” yard furnishings is not the only reason the administration needs to unkink the supply chain. It’s also considered an anti-inflation measure (if an ineffective one). At the end of October, the Consumer Price Index had jumped 6.2% over the same period in 2020, the highest inflation rate in three decades. Such a rise is often described as the result of too much money chasing too few goods. One explanation for the current rise in prices is that, during the worst months of the pandemic, many Americans actually saved money, which they’re now eager to spend. When the things people want to buy are in short supply — perhaps even stuck on container ships off Long Beach and Los Angeles — the price of those that are available naturally rises.

Republicans have christened the current jump in the consumer price index as “Bidenflation,” although the administration actually bears little responsibility for the situation. But Joe Biden and the rest of the Democrats know one thing: if it looks like they’re doing nothing to bring prices down, there will be hell to pay at the polls in 2022, and so it’s the night shift for dock workers and others in Los Angeles, Long Beach, and possibly other American ports.

However, running West Coast ports 24/7 won’t solve the supply-chain problem, not when there aren’t enough truckers to carry that critical patio furniture to Home Depot. The shortage of such drivers arises because there’s more demand than ever before, and because many truckers have simply quit the industry. As the New York Times reports, “Long hours and uncomfortable working conditions are leading to a shortage of truck drivers, which has compounded shipping delays in the United States.”

Rethinking (Shift) Work

Truckers aren’t the only workers who have been rethinking their occupations since the coronavirus pandemic pressed the global pause button. The number of employees quitting their jobs hit 4.4 million this September, about 3% of the U.S. workforce. Resignations were highest in industries like hospitality and medicine, where employees are most at risk of Covid-19 exposure.

For the first time in many decades, workers are in the driver’s seat. They can command higher wages and demand better working conditions. And that’s exactly what they’re doing at workplaces ranging from agricultural equipment manufacturer John Deere to breakfast-cereal makers Kellogg and Nabisco. I’ve even been witnessing it in my personal labor niche, part-time university faculty members (of which I’m one). So allow me to pause here for a shout-out to the 6,500 part-time professors in the University of California system: Thank you! Your threat of a two-day strike won a new contract with a 30% pay raise over the next five years!

This brings me to Biden’s October announcement about those ports going 24/7. In addition to demanding higher pay, better conditions, and an end to two-tier compensation systems (in which laborers hired later don’t get the pay and benefits available to those already on the job), workers are now in a position to reexamine and, in many cases, reject the shift-work system itself. And they have good reason to do so.

So, what is shift work? It’s a system that allows a business to run continuously, ceaselessly turning out and/or transporting widgets year after year. Workers typically labor in eight-hour shifts: 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., 4:00 p.m. to midnight, and midnight to 8:00 a.m., or the like. In times of labor shortages, they can even be forced to work double shifts, 16 hours in total. Businesses love shift work because it reduces time (and money) lost to powering machinery up and down. And if time is money, then more time worked means more profit for corporations. In many industries, shift work is good for business. But for workers, it’s often another story.

The Graveyard Shift

Each shift in a 24-hour schedule has its own name. The day shift is the obvious one. The swing shift takes you from the day shift to the all-night, or graveyard, shift. According to folk etymology, that shift got its name because, once upon a time, cemetery workers were supposed to stay up all night listening for bells rung by unfortunates who awakened to discover they’d been buried alive. While it’s true that some coffins in England were once fitted with such bells, the term was more likely a reference to the eerie quiet of the world outside the workplace during the hours when most people are asleep.

I can personally attest to the strangeness of life on the graveyard shift. I once worked in an ice cream cone factory. Day and night, noisy, smoky machines resembling small Ferris wheels carried metal molds around and around, while jets of flame cooked the cones inside them. After a rotation, each mold would tip, releasing four cones onto a conveyor belt, rows of which would then approach my station relentlessly. I’d scoop up a stack of 25, twirl them around in a quick check for holes, and place them in a tall box.

Almost simultaneously, I’d make cardboard dividers, scoop up three more of those stacks and seal them, well-divided, in that box, which I then inserted in an even larger cardboard carton and rushed to a giant mechanical stapler. There, I pressed it against a switch, and — boom-ba-da-boom — six large staples would seal it shut, leaving me just enough time to put that carton atop a pallet of them before racing back to my machine, as new columns of just-baked cones piled up, threatening to overwhelm my worktable.

The only time you stopped scooping and boxing was when a relief worker arrived, so you could have a brief break or gobble down your lunch. You rarely talked to your fellow-workers, because there was only one “relief” packer, so only one person at a time could be on break. Health regulations made it illegal to drink water on the line and management was too cheap to buy screens for the windows, which remained shut, even when it was more than 100 degrees outside.

They didn’t like me very much at the Maryland Pacific Cone Company, maybe because I wanted to know why the high school boys who swept the floors made more than the women who, since the end of World War II, had been climbing three rickety flights of stairs to stand by those machines. In any case, management there started messing with my shifts, assigning me to all three in the same week. As you might imagine, I wasn’t sleeping a whole lot and would occasionally resort to those “little white pills” immortalized in the truckers’ song “Six Days on the Road.”

But I’ll never forget one graveyard shift when an angel named Rosie saved my job and my sanity. It was probably three in the morning. I’d been standing under fluorescent lights, scooping, twirling, and boxing for hours when the universe suddenly stood still. I realized at that moment that I’d never done anything else since the beginning of time but put ice cream cones in boxes and would never stop doing so until the end of time.

If time lost its meaning then, dimensions still turned out to matter a lot, because the cones I was working on that night were bigger than I was used to. Soon I was falling behind, while a huge mound of 40-ounce Eat-It-Alls covered my table and began to spill onto the floor. I stared at them, frozen, until I suddenly became aware that someone was standing at my elbow, gently pushing me out of the way.

Rosie, who had been in that plant since the end of World War II, said quietly, “Let me do this. You take my line.” In less than a minute, she had it all under control, while I spent the rest of the night at her machine, with cones of a size I could handle.

I have never been so glad to see the dawn.

The Deadly Reality of the Graveyard Shift

So, when the president of the United States negotiated to get dock workers in Los Angeles to work all night, I felt a twinge of horror. There’s another all-too-literal reason to call it the “graveyard” shift. It turns out that working when you should be in bed is dangerous. Not only do more accidents occur when the human body expects to be asleep, but the long-term effects of night work can be devastating. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports, the many adverse effects of night work include:

“type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, metabolic disorders, and sleep disorders. Night shift workers might also have an increased risk for reproductive issues, such as irregular menstrual cycles, miscarriage, and preterm birth. Digestive problems and some psychological issues, such as stress and depression, are more common among night shift workers. The fatigue associated with nightshift can lead to injuries, vehicle crashes, and industrial disasters.”

Some studies have shown that such shift work can also lead to decreased bone-mineral density and so to osteoporosis. There is, in fact, a catchall term for all these problems: shift-work disorder.

In addition, studies directly link the graveyard shift to an increased incidence of several kinds of cancer, including breast and prostate cancer. Why would disrupted sleep rhythms cause cancer? Because such disruptions affect the release of the hormone melatonin. Most of the body’s cells contain little “molecular clocks” that respond to daily alternations of light and darkness. When the light dims at night, the pineal gland releases melatonin, which promotes sleep. In fact, many people take it in pill form as a “natural” sleep aid. Under normal circumstances, such a melatonin release continues until the body encounters light again in the morning.

When this daily (circadian) rhythm is disrupted, however, so is the regular production of melatonin, which turns out to have another important biological function. According to NIOSH, it “can also stop tumor growth and protect against the spread of cancer cells.” Unfortunately, if your job requires you to stay up all night, it won’t do this as effectively.

There’s a section on the NIOSH website that asks, “What can night shift workers do to stay healthy?” The answers are not particularly satisfying. They include regular checkups and seeing your doctor if you have any of a variety of symptoms, including “severe fatigue or sleepiness when you need to be awake, trouble with sleep, stomach or intestinal disturbances, irritability or bad mood, poor performance (frequent mistakes, injuries, vehicle crashes, near misses, etc.), unexplained weight gain or loss.”

Unfortunately, even if you have access to healthcare, your doctor can’t write you a prescription to cure shift-work disorder. The cure is to stop working when your body should be asleep.

An End to Shift Work?

Your doctor can’t solve your shift work issue because, ultimately, it’s not an individual problem. It’s an economic and an ethical one.

There will always be some work that must be performed while most people are sleeping, including healthcare, security, and emergency services, among others. But most shift work gets done not because life depends upon it, but because we’ve been taught to expect our patio furniture on demand. As long as advertising and the grow-or-die logic of capitalism keep stoking the desire for objects we don’t really need, may not even really want, and will sooner or later toss on a garbage pile in this or some other country, truckers and warehouse workers will keep damaging their health.

Perhaps the pandemic, with its kinky supply chain, has given us an opportunity to rethink which goods are so “critical” that we’re willing to let other people risk their lives to provide them for us. Unfortunately, such a global rethink hasn’t yet touched Joe Biden and his administration as they confront an ongoing pandemic, supply-chain problems, a rise in inflation, and — oh yes! — an existential climate crisis that gets worse with every plastic widget produced, packed, and shipped.

It’s time for Biden — and the rest of us — to take a breath and think this through. There are good reasons that so many people are walking away from underpaid, life-threatening work. Many of them are reconsidering the nature of work itself and its place in their lives, no matter what the president or anyone else might wish.

And that’s a paradigm shift we all could learn to live with.

Copyright 2021 Rebecca Gordon

Featured image: Port of Los Angeles sunrise by pete is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer’s new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky’s novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt’s A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy’s In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower’s The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.

The dark Trumptopia we inhabit is the world science fiction warned us about

Who knew that Martians, inside monstrous tripodal machines taller than many buildings, actually ululated, that they made eerily haunting "ulla, ulla, ulla, ulla" sounds? Well, let me tell you that they do — or rather did when they were devastating London.

I know that because I recently reread H.G. Wells's 1898 novel War of the Worlds, while revisiting an early moment in my own life. Admittedly, I wasn't in London when those Martian machines, hooting away, stalked boldly into that city, hungry in the most literal fashion imaginable for human blood. No surprise there, since that was almost a century and a quarter ago. Still, at 77, thanks to that book, I was at least able to revisit a moment that had been mine long enough ago to seem almost like fiction.

Yes, all those years back I had been reading that very same novel for the very first time under the covers by flashlight. I still remember being gripped, thrilled, and scared, at a time when my parents thought I was asleep. And believe me, if you do that at perhaps age 12 or 13, you really do feel as if you've been plunged into a futuristic world from hell, ululations and all.

But of course, scary as it might have been, alone in the dark, to secretly live through the Martian desolation of parts of England and the slaughter of countless human beings at their hands (actually, more like the tentacles of octopi), as if they were no more than irritating bugs, I was always aware of another reality as well. After all, there was still the morning (guaranteed to come), my breakfast, my dog Jeff, my bus trip to school with my friend Jim, my anything-but-exciting ordinary life, and my sense, in the ascendant Cold War America of the 1950s, of a future extending to the distant horizon that looked boring as hell, without even a stray Martian in sight. (How wrong I would turn out to be from the Vietnam War years on!)

I felt that I needed some Martians then. I needed something, anything, to shake up that life of mine, but the sad truth is that I don't need them now, nor do the rest of us. Yet, in so many ways, in an America anything but ascendant, on a planet that looks like it's in a distinctly War-of-the-Worlds-style version of danger, the reality is that they're already here.

And sadly enough, we Americans and humanity in general seem little more effective against the various Martian stand-ins of today than the human beings Wells wrote about were then. Remember that his Martians finally went down, but not at the hands of humanity. They were taken out, "after all man's devices had failed," as the novelist expressed it then, "by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth." The conquerors of those otherwise triumphant Martians were, he reported, "the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared."

If only we were so lucky in our own Wellsian, or do I mean Trumptopian (as in dystopian, not utopian) world?

Living in a Science-Fiction (or Science-Fact) Novel?

In the 1950s, I went on to read, among other books, John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids (about giant killer plants taking humanity apart), Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, and Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy which sent me into distant galaxies. And that was before, in 1966, I boarded the USS Enterprise with Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock to head for deep space in person — at least via my TV screen in that pre-Meta era.

Today, space is evidently something left to billionaires, but in the 1950s and 1960s the terror of invading aliens or plants with a taste for human flesh (even if they had perhaps been bioengineered in the all-too-Earthbound Soviet Union) had a certain strange appeal for the bored boy I was then. The future, it seemed, needed a Martian or two or a Triffid or two. Had I known, it wouldn't have mattered in the least to me then that Wells had evidently created those Martians, in part, to give his British readers some sense of what it must have felt like for the Tasmanians, living on an island off the coast of Australia, to be conquered and essentially eradicated by British colonists early in the nineteenth century.

So, yes, I was indeed then fascinated by often horrific futures, by what was coming to be known as science fiction. But honestly, if you had told me that, as a grownup, I would find myself living in a science-fiction (or do I mean science-fact?) novel called perhaps Trumptopia, or The Day of the Heat Dome, or something similar, I would have laughed you out of the room. Truly, I never expected to find myself in such a world without either those covers or that flashlight as protection.

As president, Donald Trump would prove to be both a Martian and a Triffid. He would, in fact, be the self-appointed and elected stand-in for what turned out to be little short of madness personified. When a pandemic struck humanity, he would, as in that fictional England of 1898, take on the very role of a Martian, an alien ready to murder on a mass scale. Though few like to think of it that way, we spent almost two years after the Covid-19 pandemic began here being governed (to use a word that now sounds far too polite) by a man who, like his supporters and like various Republican governors today, was ready to slaughter Americans in staggering numbers.

As Trump's former White House Covid-19 response coordinator Deborah Birx recently testified, by rejecting everything from masking to social distancing in the early months of the pandemic (not to speak of personally hosting mass superspreader events at the White House and elsewhere), he would prove an all-too-literal murderer — though Birx was far too polite to use such a word. In the midst of a pandemic that has, by now, killed an estimated 17 million people globally and perhaps more than a million Americans, he would, she believed, be responsible for at least 130,000 of those early deaths. That's already slaughter on a monumental scale. (Keep in mind that, in the Trumpian tradition, from Florida's Ron DeSantis to Texas's Greg Abbott, Republican governors have continued in that distinctly murderous tradition to this very moment.)

Lights Off, Flashlights On?

And when it came to slaughter, the Trumpian/Republican response to Covid-19 will likely prove to be the milder kind of destruction they represented. As a climate denialist (it was a Chinese hoax!) and a major supporter of the fossil-fuel industry (no wonder the Saudis adored him!), The Donald would prove all too ready to all-too-literally boost the means to destroy this planet.

And wouldn't you say that the various Trump supporters who now make up what's still, for reasons unknown, called the Republican Party are ululating all too often these days, as they hover over dead and dying Americans, or at least those they would be perfectly willing to see wiped off this planet?

Sadly enough, however, you can't just blame Donald Trump and the Republicans for our increasingly endangered planet. After all, who needs giant Martians or monstrous human-destroying plants when carbon dioxide and methane will, in the long run, do the trick? Who needs aliens like Martians and Triffids, given the global fossil-fuel industry?

Keep in mind that more representatives of that crew were accredited as delegates at the recent Glasgow climate-change talks than of any country on the planet. That industry's CEOs have long been all too cognizant of climate change and how it could ravage this world of ours. They have also been all too willing to ignore it or even to put significant funds into climate-denial outfits. If, in 2200, there are still historians left to write about this world of ours, I have little doubt that they'll view those CEOs as the greatest criminals in what has been a sordid tale of human history.

Nor, sadly enough, when it comes to this country, can you leave the Democrats out of the picture of global destruction either. Consider this, for instance: after the recent talks in Glasgow, President Biden returned home reasonably triumphant, swearing he would "lead by example" when it came to climate-change innovation. He was, of course, leaving behind in Scotland visions of a future world where, according to recent calculations, the temperature later in this century could hit 2.4 to 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.32 to 4.86 degrees Fahrenheit) above that of the pre-industrial age. That, of course, would be a formula for destruction on a devastating scale.

Just to consider the first leading "example" around, four days after Glasgow ended, the Biden administration began auctioning off to oil and gas companies leases for drilling rights to 80 million acres of public waters in the Gulf of Mexico. And that, after all, is an administration headed by a president who actually seems committed to doing something about climate change, as in his ever-shrinking Build Back Better bill. But that bill is, of course, being Manchinized right now by a senator who made almost half a million dollars last year off a coal brokerage firm he founded (and that his son now runs). In fact, it may never pass the Senate with its climate-change elements faintly intact. Keep in mind as well that Manchin is hardly alone. One in four senators reportedly still have fossil-fuel investments and the households of at least 28 of them from both parties "hold a combined minimum of $3.7 million and as much as $12.6 million in fossil-fuel investments."

Take one small story, if you want to grasp where this country seems headed right now. As you may remember, the Trump administration worked assiduously to infringe upon national parks and indigenous lands to produce yet more fossil fuels. Recently, President Biden announced that his administration, having already approved a much-protested $9 billion pipeline to carry significant amounts of oil through tribal lands in Minnesota, would take one small but meaningful remedial step. As the New York Times described it, the administration would move "to block new federal oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, one of the nation's oldest and most culturally significant Native American sites."

I know you won't be shocked by what followed, sadly enough. The response was predictable. As the Times put it, that modest move "generated significant pushback from Republicans and from New Mexico's oil and gas industry." Natch! And that, of course, is but the smallest of stories at a time when we have a White House at least officially committed to dealing in some reasonable fashion with the overheating of this planet.

Now, imagine that the Republicans win the House and Senate in the 2022 elections and Donald Trump (or some younger version of the same) takes the 2024 presidential election in a country in which Republican state legislators have already rejiggered so many voting laws and gerrymandered so many voting districts that the results could be devastating. You would then, of course, have a party controlling the White House and Congress that's filled with climate-change denialists and fossil-fuel enthusiasts of the first order. (Who cares that this country is already being battered by fire, flood, and heat in a devastating fashion?) To grasp what that would mean, all you have to do is expand the ten-mile radius of that New Mexican story to the country as a whole — and then the planet.

And at that point, in all honesty, you could turn off the lights, flick on that old flashlight of mine, and be guaranteed that you, your children, and your grandchildren will experience something in your everyday lives that should have been left under the covers. As almost happened in The War of the Worlds, it's possible that we could, in essence, kiss this planet goodbye and if that's not science fiction transformed into fact of the first order, what is?

The Martians Have Arrived

You know, H.G. Wells wasn't such a dope when it came to the future. After all, his tripodal Martian machines had a "kind of arm [that] carried a complicated metallic case, about which green flashes scintillated, and out of the funnel of this there smoked the Heat-Ray." In 1898, he was already thinking about how heat of a certain sort could potentially destroy humanity. Today, the "Martians" stepping out of those space capsules happen to be human beings and they, too, are emerging with devastating heat rays.

Just ask my friend journalist Jane Braxton Little, whose town, Greenville, largely burned down in California's record-breaking Dixie Fire this fall, a climate-change-influenced inferno so vast and fierce that it proved capable of creating its own weather. Imagine that for our future.

Of course, in another sense, you could say that we've been living in a science-fiction novel since August 6, 1945, when that first American nuclear bomb devastated Hiroshima. Until then, we humans could do many terrible things, but of one thing we were incapable: the destruction of this world. In the nearly eight decades that followed, however, the Martians have indeed arrived and we human beings have taken over a role once left to the gods: the ability to create Armageddon.

Still, the truth is that we don't know how our own sci-fi tale will end. As in War of the Worlds, will some equivalent of those bacteria that took down the Martians arrive on the scene, perhaps some scientific discovery about how to deal so much better with the greenhouse gases eternally heading into our atmosphere? Will humanity, Greta Thunberg-style, come together in some new, more powerful way to stop this world from destroying itself? Will some brilliant invention, some remarkable development in alternative energy use, make all the difference in the world? Will the United States, China, and other key fossil-fuel burners finally come together in a way now hardly imaginable?

Or will we truly find ourselves living in Trumptopia?

Stay tuned.

Copyright 2021 Tom Engelhardt

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Tom Engelhardt created and runs the website TomDispatch.com. He is also a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. A fellow of the Type Media Center, his sixth and latest book is A Nation Unmade by War.

The Pentagon budget exposes Manchin and Sinema's hypocrisy

As a Navy spouse of 10 years and counting, my life offers an up-close view of our country's priorities when it comes to infrastructure and government spending.

Recently, my husband, a naval officer currently serving with the Department of Energy, spent a week with colleagues touring a former nuclear testing site about 65 miles north of Las Vegas. Between 1951 and 1957, the U.S. conducted more than 1,000 nuclear tests in those 680 square miles of desert and only stopped when scientists began urging that the tests be halted because of soaring cancer rates among the downwind residents of Arizona, Nevada, and Utah.

My spouse's trip was a kind of ritual Department of Energy personnel undertake to learn about nuclear weapons as they maintain our country's vast and still wildly expanding arsenal.

Meanwhile, unable to afford to take time off from my job as a therapist, I found myself once again working double shifts. After all, I was also watching our two young children (ages four and six), shuttling them to appointments and activities along the narrow roads of our rural town, handling a sudden school shutdown due to flooded roads that halted school buses, while working. And mine is really the usual story for so many of the partners of this country's 1.3 million active-duty military personnel when they are sent elsewhere on assignment.

My six-year-old typically woke me at night to ask whether his dad was shooting at people and started throwing the sort of tantrums that had become uncharacteristic since his father stopped serving months-long deployments on submarines. Once recently, he even conned his already overworked bus driver — our county, one of the richest in the country, has a deficit of such drivers, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic — into taking him home rather than to his after-school program. He let himself into our house and appeared at my office door to "make sure you haven't left, too."

It was hard to miss the irony of being overstretched at home by poor infrastructure and gaps in care (even as I went into debt to pay for the most affordable childcare center in the area) at a moment when the government was perfectly happy to fund my spouse to tour a mothballed nuclear testing site. His trip came on the heels of two 14-hour days he spent at the Capitol displaying a collection of model warheads to members of Congress. They then chatted with one another and him in a rare bipartisan moment that we as a couple witnessed.

At that time, members of the House of Representatives had yet to even vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to fund our country's roads, bridges, buses, and electric grid, which to our relief would pass two weeks later. And when it comes to President Biden's shrinking Build Back Better bill, who knows if it will ever be passed?

It's about time! was all I could think when I heard that the first bill was about to be signed into law. I couldn't help imagining how useful so much of what's packed into both of them would be for people like me — not least of all things in the Build Back Better plan like universal pre-K and some paid family leave, four weeks of which I could have used over the past two months of my husband's military travels and my own late nights. And mind you, as someone with a great job and a relatively high family income, I have it much better than the vast majority of Americans, military or not.

20 Years of War

Meanwhile, as I'm sure you know, Congress has been blindly supporting wars and counterterror operations in dozens of countries globally from Afghanistan and Iraq to Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and beyond for two decades now. Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema, and other congressional representatives in the House and Senate have been quibbling for months over whether to allow Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices or pay for dental and vision benefits on the premise that such expenditures might add to our high national debt.

Yet they've voted repeatedly and without quibble or question to fund a Pentagon that has run a failing $8 trillion (and counting!) war on terror financed on just such debt. In fact, both of our recent infrastructure bills could have been paid for at their original higher funding levels with money to spare, had we not decided to go to war after 9/11 in a big-time fashion or even stopped the fighting after killing Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Finally — can you hear my sigh of relief? — President Biden actually cited the more than $2 trillion cost of the Afghan War in his defense of his administration's decision to pull out of that country. That the cost of such a failed war wasn't common knowledge, even then, should be (but isn't) notable.

How could that be when "a trillion dollars" for infrastructure work here at home is a commonplace figure in debates everywhere, regardless of which side you're on? How can the cost of that bill be labeled as the "communist takeover of America" by Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and resisted tooth and nail by so many others like her when they say nothing about the costs of war?

The good news is that, whether you know those war figures or not, the difficult legwork of tracking down where those trillions of federal dollars have gone has actually been done and is available to anyone. In 2010, I was one of about two-dozen people — including social scientists, an Iraqi medical doctor, a journalist, and two human-rights lawyers — who started the Costs of War Project at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies. We were nearly a decade into the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, initiated in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks by President George W. Bush and being carried on at the time by President Barack Obama. Anthropologist Catherine Lutz, political scientist Neta Crawford, and I were then concerned that Americans weren't paying enough attention to what those wars were costing in lives and dollars.

Nor was the government helping. Costs of War economist Winslow Wheeler found that the Pentagon frequently failed to keep track of the money it spent, while its officials often entered made-up numbers in logs supposedly tracking supplies (like weaponry) to make budgets balance more comfortably and so influence future congressional funding. As we were soon to discover, the Department of Defense routinely failed even to keep track of whom it owed money to, no less how much.

What's more, congressional funding for additional expenses unrelated to overseas wars, while stuffed into the Pentagon base budget, was regularly justified by this thing called "terrorism" that was everywhere (and nowhere) at once. Those terror wars of ours increased that base budget by at least $884 billion from 2001 to 2022.

We relied on all kinds of sources from government watchdog agencies like the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to local doctors and journalists in the distant lands our country was disrupting to fill in our gaps in knowledge until we gained a clearer picture of just how much those wars of ours had cost.

Some 10 years after the Costs of War Project's initial launch, the project, now led by Stephanie Savell, Catherine Lutz, and Neta Crawford, is 50-people strong and has tracked so many things, including the more than 929,000 people killed in those wars of ours, almost half of them civilians, and the $8 trillion spent on them. That figure, however, doesn't even include future interest payments on war borrowing, which we have estimated may total $6.5 trillion by the 2050s.

Yep, you got it! The interest alone that this country will fork over for those wars would have undoubtedly been more than enough to fund both infrastructure bills in their original forms.

Spent on America?

But it's all for a good purpose, right? After all, in a Congress in which the two parties are now eternally at each other's throats, the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act managed to pass in January by an overwhelming margin of 377-48 in the House and 86-8 in the Senate. That act authorized $731.6 billion, including $635.5 billion for the Department of Defense, $26.6 billion for Department of Energy national security programs (which presumably includes pilgrimages to ancient nuclear testing sites), $69 billion for overseas military operations, and $494 million for other "defense-related" activities. Included in that bill, to be sure, were some modest increases in military health care for families, including a few hours of "respite care" for military family members supporting someone with a developmental disability. But essentially none of that money went to improving the American quality of life. Want to guess if Senators Manchin and Sinema supported it? No need to even ask, is there?

Under the circumstances, I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that the Pentagon's total assets, as measured by its ships, aircraft, buildings, vehicles, computers, and weapons, have risen steadily since 2000 even as government investment in non-military infrastructure continued at a paltry rate — unchanged since the 1970s. Of course, those hundreds of billions of dollars "invested" in military infrastructure during just the first decade of the war on terror would have led to strikingly greater capital improvements if invested in education, health care, and green energy at home.

If you take a closer look at how our money has been spent on infrastructure in these years, everything just gets uglier and uglier. For example, more than half of the money the U.S. government spent on what were called "reconstruction efforts" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan actually went to funding and arming local security forces. In Afghanistan, we recently saw just how well that turned out.

Beyond that, examples abound of so-called development money poorly spent or not accounted for. As a 2011 SIGAR report made all too clear, for example, one federally funded project in Afghanistan, the Commander's Emergency Response Program, was tasked with building roads in that country. The investigation found that of 11 road projects surveyed, nine lacked plans or resources for future maintenance.

Similarly, according to a paper by Costs of War Project co-director Lutz and grassroots organizer Sujaya Desai, a 2012 SIGAR report revealed that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could not account for 95% of the materials it purchased that year to construct roads and other infrastructure in Iraq, including, for example, $1.3 billion in fuel that it had theoretically paid for. In 2011, the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan estimated that $31 billion to $60 billion were squandered in both war zones in incidents of waste, fraud, and abuse. Even the lower estimate would have covered about a year of paid family leave for working Americans.

Nor has all of this war spending made us safer. Stephanie Savell, for instance, did a case study of the U.S. war on terror security assistance to the African country of Burkina Faso. What she showed was how our ongoing security operations in the name of counterterrorism actually tend to do just the opposite of keeping us or anyone else safe. According to Savell, security assistance to foreign governments in just 36 of the 79 countries where we've recently conducted such operations cost the U.S. a total of $125 billion between 2002 and 2016. Yet the effect of such assistance, as she made all-too-vividly clear in one country, has been to bolster an authoritarian government, repress minority groups through violence, and facilitate war profiteering, while failing to provide needed humanitarian aid of any sort in the contested areas.

$8 Trillion (And Counting)

Our problem in this country, folks, isn't lack of funds, no matter what the Republicans, Manchin, and Sinema may claim. Our problem is that we're not paying attention to where our money actually goes or truly thinking about how it might be better spent.

As Pentagon experts William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger explained recently, even an exceedingly modest reduction in Pentagon spending of $1 trillion, or 15% of total current expenditures over the next decade (as recommended recently by the Congressional Budget Office), would still leave the Pentagon with a staggering $6.3 trillion to spend in those same years. Unfortunately, everything's moving in the other direction. As those two authors remind us, only recently the Biden administration requested $750 billion for the next Pentagon budget and for nuclear weapons development at the Department of Energy. The Democratic-controlled House promptly responded (with, of course, strong support from the Republicans there) by voting to add $25 billion to that already stunning sum, even as the arguments only continued about how little to spend on us here at home.

If there's one thing that's reminiscent of overseas adversaries like Russia from which we theoretically seek to defend ourselves, it's a tendency to spend increasing amounts of money on military assets at the expense of the general population, while demonizing those who would dare challenge that way of cutting up the national pie.

Every American should check out the Costs of War Project website to see how much money we're still spending on military operations and decide for themselves whether it might not be better spent domestically. And if you think it might, Hartung and Smithberger's article on cutting fat from the Pentagon budget is an excellent place to start. Send it to your elected representatives and ask them why we've spent $8 trillion on these endlessly failing wars of ours when we could have been building a social safety net here at home instead.

In the meantime, let me tiptoe into my son's bedroom and make sure he's truly sound asleep and then catch a few winks myself.

Copyright 2021 Andrea Mazzarino

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrea Mazzarino, a TomDispatch regular, co-founded Brown University's Costs of War Project. She has held various clinical, research, and advocacy positions, including at a Veterans Affairs PTSD Outpatient Clinic, with Human Rights Watch, and at a community mental health agency. She is the co-editor of War and Health: The Medical Consequences of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

How bipartisan mistakes fueled America's decline — as the liberal world order falters

When the leaders of more than 100 nations gathered in Glasgow for the U.N. climate conference last week, there was much discussion about the disastrous effect of climate change on the global environment. There was, however, little awareness of its likely political impact on the current world order that made such an international gathering possible.

World orders are deeply rooted global systems that structure relations among nations and the conditions of life for their peoples. For the past 600 years, as I've argued in my new book To Govern the Globe, it's taken catastrophic events like war or plague to overturn such entrenched ways of life. But within a decade, climate change will already be wreaking a kind of cumulative devastation likely to surpass previous catastrophes, creating the perfect conditions for the eclipse of Washington's liberal world order and the rise of Beijing's decidedly illiberal one. In this sweeping imperial transition, global warming will undoubtedly be the catalyst for a witch's brew of change guaranteed to erode both America's world system and its once unchallenged hegemony (along with the military force that's been behind it all these years).

By charting the course of climate change, it's possible to draw a political road map for the rest of this tempestuous century — from the end of American global hegemony around 2030, through Beijing's brief role as world leader (until perhaps 2050), all the way to this century's closing decades of unparalleled environmental crisis. Those decades, in turn, may yet produce a new kind of world order focused, however late, on mitigating a global disaster of almost unimaginable power.

The Bipartisan Nature of U.S. Decline

America's decline started at home as a distinctly bipartisan affair. After all, Washington wasted two decades in an extravagant fashion fighting costly conflicts in distant lands, in part to secure the Middle East's oil at a time when that fuel was already destined to join cordwood and coal in the dustbin of history (though not faintly soon enough). Beijing, in contrast, used those same years to build industries that would make it the world's workshop.

In 2001, in a major miscalculation, Washington admitted Beijing to the World Trade Organization, bizarrely confident that a compliant China would somehow join the world economy without challenging American global power. "Across the ideological spectrum, we in the U.S. foreign policy community," wrote two former members of the Obama administration, "shared the underlying belief that U.S. power and hegemony could readily mold China to the United States' liking… All sides of the policy debate erred."

A bit more bluntly, foreign policy expert John Mearsheimer recently concluded that "both Democratic and Republican administrations… promoted investment in China and welcomed the country into the global trading system, thinking it would become a peace-loving democracy and a responsible stakeholder in a U.S.-led international order."

In the 15 years since then, Beijing's exports to the U.S. grew nearly fivefold to $462 billion annually. By 2014, its foreign currency reserves had surged from just $200 billion to an unprecedented $4 trillion — a vast hoard of cash it used to build a modern military and win allies across Eurasia and Africa. Meanwhile, Washington was wasting more than $8 trillion on profitless wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa in lieu of spending such funds domestically on infrastructure, innovation, or education — a time-tested formula for imperial decline.

When a Pentagon team assessing the war in Afghanistan interviewed Jeffrey Eggers, a former White House staffer and Navy SEAL veteran, he asked rhetorically: "What did we get for this $1 trillion effort? Was it worth a trillion? After the killing of Osama bin Laden, I said that Osama was probably laughing in his watery grave considering how much we have spent on Afghanistan." (And keep in mind that the best estimate now is that the true cost to America of that lost war alone was $2.3 trillion.) Consider it an imperial lesson of the first order that the most extravagantly funded military on Earth has not won a war since the start of the twenty-first century.

Donald Trump's presidency brought a growing realization, at home and abroad, that Washington's world leadership was ending far sooner than anyone had imagined. For four years, Trump attacked long-standing U.S. alliances, while making an obvious effort to dismiss or demolish the international organizations that had been the hallmark of Washington's world system. To top that off, he denounced a fair American election as "fraudulent" and sparked a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, functionally making a mockery of America's long history of promoting the idea of democracy to legitimate its global leadership (even as it overthrew unfriendly democratic governments in distant lands via covert interventions).

In that riot's aftermath, most of the Republican Party has embraced Trump's demagoguery about electoral fraud as an article of faith. As it happens, no nation can exercise global leadership if one of its ruling parties descends into persistent irrationality, something Britain's Conservative Party demonstrated all too clearly during that country's imperial decline in the 1950s.

After his inauguration last January, Joe Biden proclaimed that "America is back" and promised to revive its version of liberal international leadership. Mindful of Trump's battering of NATO (and that he, or someone like him, could take the White House in 2024), European leaders, however, continued to make plans for their own common defense without the U.S. "We aren't in the old status quo," commented one French diplomat, "where we can pretend that the Donald Trump presidency never existed and the world was the same as four years ago." Add in Biden's humiliating retreat from Afghanistan as Taliban guerrillas, wearing tennis sneakers and equipped with aging Soviet rifles, crushed an Afghan military armed with billions of dollars in U.S. gear, entering Kabul without a fight. After that dismal defeat, it was clear America's decline had become a bipartisan affair.

Global leadership lost is not readily recovered, particularly when a rival power is prepared to fill the void. As Washington's strategic position weakens, China has been pressing to dominate Eurasia, home to 70% of the world's population and productivity, and so build a new Beijing-centric global order. Should China's relentless advance continue, there will be serious consequences for the world as we know it.

Of course, the current order is, to say the least, imperfect. While using its unprecedented power to promote a liberal international system based on human rights and inviolable sovereignty, Washington simultaneously violated those same principles all too often in pursuit of its national self-interest — a disconcerting duality between power and principle that has afflicted every global order since the sixteenth century.

As the first hegemon that didn't participate in any way in the fitful, painful process of forging just such a liberal world order through six centuries of slavery, slaughter, and colonial conquest, China's rise could ultimately threaten the current system's better half — its core principles of universal human rights and secure state sovereignty.

The Coming of Climate Change

Beyond Washington's strategic failings, there was another far more fundamental force already at work eroding its global power. After seven decades of the profligate kind of fossil-fuel consumption that became synonymous with the U.S. world system, climate change is now profoundly disrupting the whole human community.

As of 2019, following years of bipartisan evasions and compromises (along with partisan Republican denials of the very reality of climate change), the U.S. still relied on fossil fuels for 80% of its total energy; renewables, only 20%. The situation was even worse in China, which depended on fossil fuels for 86% of its power and renewable sources for only about 14%. As energy expert Vaclav Smil explained, the underlying global problem was 150 years of embedded inertia that made the "production, delivery, and consumption of fossil fuels… the world's most extensive, and the most expensive, web of energy-intensive infrastructures."

If there is ever to be a true transition beyond fossil fuels, the world's two largest economies will have to play a determinative role in it. In the meantime, the picture is anything but cheery. Global carbon dioxide emissions rose by a staggering 50% from 22.2 gigatons in 1997 to a peak of 33.3 gigatons in 2019 and, despite a brief drop at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, are still rising. Significantly, China accounted for 30% of the world's total in that year, and the U.S. nearly 14% — for a combined 44% share of all global greenhouse gasses.

At the 2019 Madrid climate conference, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that, if current emissions continue, global warming will reach as high as 3.9° Celsius by century's end, with "catastrophic" consequences for all life on the planet. And at Glasgow two weeks ago, he renewed this warning, saying: "We are digging our own graves… Sea-level rise is double the rate it was 30 years ago. Oceans are hotter than ever — and getting warmer faster. Parts of the Amazon rainforest now emit more carbon than they absorb… We are still careening towards climate catastrophe."

In the 600 years since the age of exploration first brought the continents into close contact, 90 empires have come and gone. But there have been just three new world orders, each of which survived until it suffered some version of cataclysmic mass death. After the bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, wiped out an estimated 60% of medieval Europe's population, the Portuguese and then Spanish empires expanded to form the first of those world orders, which continued for three centuries until 1805.

The devastation of the Napoleonic wars then launched the succeeding British imperial system, which survived a full century until 1914. Similarly, Washington's hegemony, along with its current world order, arose from the devastating destruction of World War II. Now, climate change is unleashing cataclysmic environmental changes that could soon enough overshadow such past catastrophes, while damaging or destroying the global order that has pervaded the planet for the past 70 years.

As wildfires worsen, ocean storms intensify, megadroughts spread, flooding increases drastically, and the seas rise precipitously, many millions of the world's poor will be uprooted from their precarious perches along seashores, flood plains, and desert fringes. Recall for a moment that the arrival between 2016 and 2018 of just two million refugees at the borders of the United States and the European Union unleashed a surge of populist demagoguery, which led to Britain's Brexit, Europe's increasing ultranationalism, and Donald Trump's election. Now, try to imagine what kind of a world of political upheaval lies in a future in which climate change generates anywhere from 200 million to 1.2 billion refugees by mid-century.

As at least a million refugees start to crowd America's southern border every year, while storms, fires, and floods batter coasts and countryside, the U.S. is almost certain to retreat from the world to cope with growing domestic crises. Include in that the inability of its two political parties to agree on just about anything (other than spending yet more money on the Pentagon). Similar and simultaneous pressures worldwide will certainly cripple the international cooperation that has long been at the core of Washington's world order.

China's Short Reign as Global Hegemon

So, when might shifting geopolitics and climate cataclysm converge to fully cripple Washington's current world order? Beijing plans to complete the technological transformation of its own economy and much of its massive trans-Eurasian infrastructure, the Belt and Road Project, by 2027. That projected date complements a prediction by the U.S. National Intelligence Council that "China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030."

By then, according to projections from the accounting firm PwC, China's gross domestic product will have grown to $38 trillion — more than 50% larger than a projected $24 trillion for the American one. Similarly, China's military, already the world's second largest, should by then be dominant in Asia. Already, as the New York Times reported in 2019, "in 18 of the last 18 Pentagon war games involving China in the Taiwan Strait, the U.S. lost." As China pushes its maritime frontier farther into the Pacific, Washington may well be faced with a difficult choice — either abandon its old ally Taiwan or fight a war it could well lose.

Weighing Beijing's global future, it seems safe to assume that, minimally, China will gain enough strength to weaken Washington's global grip and is likely to become the preeminent world power around 2030. Count on one thing, though: the accelerating pace of climate change will almost certainly curtail China's hegemony within two or three decades.

As early as 2017, scientists at the nonprofit Climate Central reported that, by 2060 or 2070, rising seas and storm surges could flood areas inhabited by 275 million people worldwide and, suggests corroborating research, Shanghai is "the most vulnerable major city in the world to serious flooding." According to that group's scientists, 17.5 million people are likely to be displaced there as most of the city "could eventually be submerged in water, including much of the downtown area."

Advancing the date of this disaster by at least a decade, a report in the journal Nature Communications found that 150 million people worldwide are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by 2050 and that rising waters will "threaten to consume the heart" of Shanghai by then, crippling one of China's main economic engines. Dredged from sea and swamp in the fifteenth century, much of that city is likely to return to the waters from whence it came, possibly as early as three decades from now.

Meanwhile, increasing temperatures are expected to devastate the North China Plain, a prime agricultural region between Beijing and Shanghai currently inhabited by 400 million people. "This spot is going to be the hottest spot for deadly heat waves in the future," according to Professor Elfatih Eltahir, a specialist on hydrology and climate at MIT. Between 2070 and 2100, he estimates, the region could face hundreds of periods of "extreme danger" when a combination of heat and humidity will reach a "wet bulb temperature" (WBT) of 31° Celsius, and perhaps five lethal periods of 35° WBT — where a combination of heat and high humidity prevents the evaporation of the very sweat that cools the human body. After just six hours living in such a wet bulb temperature of 35° Celsius, a healthy person at rest will die.

If the "Chinese century" does indeed start around 2030, barring remarkable advances in the reduction of the use of fossil fuels on this planet, it's likely to end sometime around 2050 when its main financial center is flooded out and its agricultural heartland begins to swelter in insufferable heat.

A New World Order?

Given that Washington's world system and Beijing's emerging alternative show every sign of failing to limit carbon emissions in significant enough ways, by mid-century the international community will likely need a new form of global governance to contain the damage.

After 2050, the world community will quite possibly face a growing contradiction, even a head-on collision, between the foundational principles of the current global order: national sovereignty and human rights. As long as nations have the sovereign right to seal their borders, the world will have no way of protecting the human rights of the hundreds of millions of future climate-change refugees.

By then, facing a spectacle of mass global suffering now almost unimaginable, the community of nations might well agree on the need for a new form of global governance. Such a supranational body or bodies would need sovereign authority over three critical areas — emissions controls, refugee resettlement, and environmental reconstruction. If the transition to renewable energy sources is still not complete by 2050, then this international body might well compel nations to curb emissions and adopt renewable energy. Whether under the auspices of the U.N. or a successor organization, a high commissioner for global refugees would need the authority to supersede state sovereignty in order to require nations to help resettle such tidal flows of humanity. The future equivalents of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank could transfer resources from wealthy temperate countries to feed tropical communities decimated by climate change.

Massive programs like these would change the very idea of what constitutes a world order from the diffuse, almost amorphous ethos of the past six centuries into a concrete form of global governance. At present, no one can predict whether such reforms will come soon enough to slow climate change or arrive too late to do anything but manage the escalating damage of uncontrollable feedback loops.

One thing is becoming quite clear, however. The environmental destruction in our future will be so profound that anything less than the emergence of a new form of global governance — one capable of protecting the planet and the human rights of all its inhabitants — will mean that wars over water, land, and people are likely to erupt across the planet amid climate chaos. Absent some truly fundamental change in our global governance and in energy use, by mid-century humanity will begin to face disasters of an almost unimaginable kind that will make imperial orders of any sort something for the history books.

Copyright 2021 Alfred W. McCoy

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His new book, just published, is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.

America's true god is a deity of wrath

Who is America's god? The Christian god of the beatitudes, the one who healed the sick, helped the poor, and preached love of neighbor? Not in these (dis)United States. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we speak proudly of One Nation under God, but in the aggregate, this country doesn't serve or worship Jesus Christ, or Allah, or any other god of justice and mercy. In truth, the deity America believes in is the five-sided one headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.

In God We Trust is on all our coins. But, again, which god? The one of "turn the other cheek"? The one who found his disciples among society's outcasts? The one who wanted nothing to do with moneychangers or swords? As Joe Biden might say, give me a break.

America's true god is a deity of wrath, whose keenest followers profit mightily from war and see such gains as virtuous, while its most militant disciples, a crew of losing generals and failed Washington officials, routinely employ murderous violence across the globe. It contains multitudes, its name is legion, but if this deity must have one name, citing a need for some restraint, let it be known as the Pentagod.

Yes, the Pentagon is America's true god. Consider that the Biden administration requested a whopping $753 billion for military spending in fiscal year 2022 even as the Afghan War was cratering. Consider that the House Armed Services Committee then boosted that blockbuster budget to $778 billion in September. Twenty-five billion dollars extra for "defense," hardly debated, easily passed, with strong bipartisan support in Congress. How else, if not religious belief, to explain this, despite the Pentagod's prodigal $8 trillion wars over the last two decades that ended so disastrously? How else to account for future budget projections showing that all-American deity getting another $8 trillion or so over the next decade, even as the political parties fight like rabid dogs over roughly 15% of that figure for much-needed domestic improvements?

Paraphrasing Joe Biden, show me your budget and I'll tell you what you worship. In that context, there can't be the slightest doubt: America worships its Pentagod and the weapons and wars that feed it.

Prefabricated War, Made in the U.S.A.

I confess that I'm floored by this simple fact: for two decades in which "forever war" has served as an apt descriptor of America's true state of the union, the Pentagod has failed to deliver on any of its promises. Iraq and Afghanistan? Just the most obvious of a series of war-on-terror quagmires and failures galore.

That ultimate deity can't even pass a simple financial audit to account for what it does with those endless funds shoved its way, yet our representatives in Washington keep doing so by the trillions. Spectacular failure after spectacular failure and yet that all-American god just rolls on, seemingly unstoppable, unquenchable, rarely questioned, never penalized, always on top.

Talk about blind faith!

The Pentagod advances a peculiar form of war, one that would puzzle most classic military strategists. In fact, its version of war is beyond strategy of the Clausewitzian sort. I think of it as prefabricated war, borrowing a term from the inestimable Ann Jones's recent piece for TomDispatch on our Afghan disaster. It's a term pregnant with meaning.

Prefabricated war is how the Pentagod has ruled for so endlessly long. There is, as a start, the fabrication of false causes for war. In Vietnam, it was the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, the "attacks" on U.S. Navy ships that never happened. In Afghanistan, it was vengeance for the 9/11 attacks against a people who neither planned nor committed them. In Iraq, it was the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein didn't have. Real causes don't matter much to America's war god since false ones can always be fabricated, after which enough true believers — especially in Congress — will embrace them fervently and faithfully.

But prefabricated war doesn't just start with or consist of manufactured causes. It's fabricated far ahead of time in a colossal cathedral of violence — President Eisenhower's military-industrial-congressional complex — that sends its missionaries and minions around the planet on a mission of global reach, global power, and full-spectrum dominance. War is prefabricated on 750 military bases scattered across the globe on every continent except Antarctica, in America's giant arms corporations like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, and by Special Operations forces that act much like the Jesuits of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, spreading the one true faith to 150 countries.

Since America's war god is also a jealous deity, it insists on dominating all domains — not just land, sea, and air but space as well. Even more ethereal realms like cyberspace and virtual/augmented realities must be captured and controlled. It seeks omnipotence and omniscience in the name of your safety and, if you let it, will also know everything about you, while having the power to smite you, should you stop blindly worshipping it and feeding it more money.

Yet, as strong as it may be, its urge to fabricate threats and exaggerate vulnerabilities never ends. China and Russia are allegedly the biggest threats of the moment, two "near-peer" rivals supposedly driving a new cold war. China, for example, now reportedly has a navy of 355 ships, an ostensibly alarming development (even if those vessels are nowhere near as powerful as their American equivalents). That naturally requires yet more shipbuilding by the U.S. Navy.

Russia may have an economy that's smaller than California's, but it's allegedly leading in hypersonic missile development (and China, too, has now entered the fray with, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs put it recently, something "very close" to a "Sputnik moment"). As a result, the Pentagod demands yet more money to bridge this alleged missile gap. Like earlier bomber and missile gaps from the previous Cold War, such vulnerabilities exist mostly in the minds of its proselytizers.

And in that context, here's an article of faith rarely questioned by true believers: while America prides itself on having the world's best and most powerful military, it perennially declares itself in danger of being overmatched. As a result, from aircraft carriers to stealth bombers to nuclear missiles, ever more weaponry must be fabricated. Who cares that it takes the next 11 nations combined to come close to matching the American "defense" budget. Beware the cry, "O ye of little faith!" should you dare to question any of the Pentagod's fabricated "needs."

The notion of prefab war goes deeper still, notes Ann Jones. As she wrote me recently:

"I would also carry the implications of prefabricated war to its source in the industrial world that does the material fabrication that dictates the strategy and style of war and pockets the profits.

"In Afghanistan prefabrication meant forcing Afghan soldiers to drop their trusty Kalashnikovs and retrain endlessly on new U.S. rifles (I forget the model) so heavy and temperamental as to be close to useless; they were particularly sensitive to dust, which in Afghanistan is the principal constituent of the air. The U.S. also trained Afghan soldiers how to enter houses, to search inside and kill every occupant; it erected on the training ground some prefabricated wooden houses for the practice of home invasions. (I witnessed this stuff myself.)"

To her point, I'd add the notion of a prefab "government in a box," a bizarre aspect of the Afghan surge early in President Barack Obama's first term in office. The idea was to drop ready-made mini-democracies into less-than-stable regions of Afghanistan that had been conditionally secured by U.S. troops. Those prefab governments would then supposedly provide a democratic toehold, freeing American troops to do what they did best: apply "kinetic" force elsewhere through massive firepower.

But the Pentagod didn't deliver democracy in a box to Afghanistan. Instead, it brought prefab war, made in the U.S.A., exported globally. Or, as Ann Jones put it to me, "The Afghan war was pulled from a box to be used to pave the way for the Big Box war already planned for Iraq by the Bush/Cheney administration." That such a "Big Box" war then failed so dismally led, of course, to no diminution in the Pentagod's power or authority, blind devotion being what it is.

Judging by the Vietnam, Afghan, and Iraq wars, a shoddy yet destructive form of prefab war has been the ultimate American export of these years.

Losing My Religion

I was once an acolyte of the Pentagod. I served for 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, working in Cheyenne Mountain near the end of the original Cold War. I hunkered down there waiting for the nuclear Armageddon that fortunately never came (though the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was certainly a near miss). A cathedral of power, Cheyenne Mountain could have served as the ultimate temple of doom, but America ultimately "won" the Cold War when the Soviet Union imploded after a disastrous conflict in Afghanistan. That proved a setback indeed for a deity that feared the very thought of a "peace dividend" in the wind. Fortunately, that singular moment of victory proved only temporary, as America's incessant conflicts since Desert Storm in 1991 have shown.

In 1992, the year after the Soviet collapse, I found myself walking around the Trinity test site in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where the first atomic blast rumbled and roared in July 1945. You might say that, before using two atomic bombs on the Japanese, this country used the first one on ourselves, or at least on all the creatures living near ground zero at that desert site.

"I have become death, the destroyer of worlds," mused J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, after his "gadget" exploded, irradiating the surrounding desert in a historically unprecedented way. Oppenheimer himself emerged a changed man. He tried unsuccessfully to block the development of the far more powerful hydrogen bomb, an act of clarity and conscience for which, he would be accused of communist sympathies in 1953 and stripped of his security clearance. He and others who followed learned how unwise it is to resist America's god of war and its drive for yet more power.

During that same trip in 1992, I visited Los Alamos National Laboratory, the site where those atomic "gadgets" were first assembled. Fifty years earlier, during World War II, America began to bring together its best and brightest to create a device more destructive than any ever built. They succeeded, in a sense, in tapping into the power of the gods, even if in a remarkably one-sided fashion, gaining an astonishing ability to destroy, but none whatsoever to create. Armageddon, not genesis, became and remains the Pentagod's ultimate power.

Back in 1992, the mood at Los Alamos was glum. A national laboratory to create ever newer, more powerful nuclear warheads and weapons didn't seem to have a promising future with the demise of the Soviet Union. Where, then, did the future lie? Perhaps the best and brightest could turn their thoughts from bombs to consumer goods, or computers, or even what we today call green-energy technologies?

But no such luck. So here I sit, 30 years later, a bit heavier, my hair and beard greying, having lost whatever faith I had. Why? Because the god I served always wanted more. Even now, it wants to spend up to $2 trillion in the coming decades to build "modernized" versions of the nuclear weaponry that I knew, even then, could only create a darker future.

Consider the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, or GBSD. It's an innocuous acronym for what someday will be hundreds of land-based nuclear missiles, one leg of this country's nuclear "triad" (the others being the Navy's Trident submarine force and the Air Force's strategic bombers). Deploying the GBSD, the Air Force plans to replace its "aging" ICBMs with "youthful" ones, even though such missiles, old or new, were rendered redundant decades ago by equally accurate ones that could be launched from stealthy submarines.

No matter. Northrop Grumman won the contract at a potential lifecycle cost of $264 billion. Think of those future missiles and the silos where the present ones sit in flyover states like Wyoming and North Dakota as so many subterranean chapels of utter destructive power, serviced by dedicated Air Force crews who believe that deterrence is best achieved by a policy that once was all-too-accurately known as MAD, or mutual assured destruction.

Yet, before I bled Air Force blue, before I was stationed in a cathedral of military power under who knows how many tons of solid granite, I was raised a Roman Catholic. Recently, I caught the words of Pope Francis, God's representative on earth for Catholic believers. Among other entreaties, he asked "in the name of God" for "arms manufacturers and dealers to completely stop their activity, because it foments violence and war, it contributes to those awful geopolitical games which cost millions of lives displaced and millions dead."

Which country has the most arms manufacturers? Which routinely and proudly leads the world in weapons exports? And which spends more on wars and weaponry than any other, with hardly a challenge from Congress or a demurral from the mainstream media?

And as I stared into the abyss created by those questions, who stared back at me but, of course, the Pentagod.

Copyright 2021 William J. Astore

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

William Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF) and professor of history, is a TomDispatch regular and a senior fellow at the Eisenhower Media Network (EMN), an organization of critical veteran military and national security professionals. His personal blog is Bracing Views.

Joe Biden and illusions of 'normalcy': Does the US risk entering a terminal tailspin?

In a provocative recent essay in the New York Times, the political historian Jon Grinspan places the distemper currently afflicting American politics in a broader context. In essence, he contends that we've been here before.

Grinspan describes the period from the 1860s to 1900 as an "age of acrimony," with the nation as a whole "embroiled in a generation-long, culturewide war over democracy." Today, we find ourselves well into round two of that very war. But Grinspan urges his fellow citizens not to give up hope. A return to normalcy — boring perhaps, but tolerable — might well be right around the corner.

Mark me down as skeptical.

Party politics during the decades following the Civil War were notably raucous and contentious, Grinspan writes, with Election Day turnout "higher than in any other period in American history." Yet, despite all the commotion, not a lot got done. "The more demands Americans put on their democracy, the less they got."

Then sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, "Americans decided to simmer down." Popular interest in national politics declined. So, too, did voter turnout. Rather than a participatory sport, politics became something like an insiders' game. Yet "American lives improved more in this period than in any other," he contends. What many today remember, fondly or not, as "normal politics," dominated by once prominent but now forgotten white male pols, prevailed. Making this possible, according to Grinspan, was "the unusually calmed twentieth century."

By what standard does the twentieth century qualify as unusually calm? Grinspan doesn't say. Given that it encompassed two horrific world wars, the Great Depression, a Cold War, at least one brush with Armageddon, multiple genocides, the collapse of several empires, and the rise and fall of various revolutionary ideologies, calm hardly seems an appropriate description.

Even so, Grinspan finds in that century reason for optimism. "We're not the first generation to worry about the death of our democracy," he observes.

"Our deep history shows that reform is possible, that previous generations identified flaws in their politics and made deliberate changes to correct them. We're not just helplessly hurtling toward inevitable civil war; we can be actors in this story… To move forward, we should look backward and see that we're struggling not with a collapse but with a relapse."

So, fretting about the possible death of democracy turns out to be a recurring phenomenon. Our impoverished political imagination misleads us into thinking that our own version of those worries is particularly daunting. If we were to peer a bit further into our own past, we'd recognize that lowering the political temperature might once more enable us to get things done.

So Grinspan would have us believe.

Kissing Normalcy Goodbye

A century ago, in 1920, Americans did indeed elect a president who vowed to lower the political temperature. Warren G. Harding promised a "return to normalcy." Alas, the congenial Harding didn't manage to live out his term and his promise, along with his presidency, was soon forgotten.

Precisely 100 years later, Americans terrified at the prospect of Donald Trump remaining in the White House for another four years turned to a Harding-like professional pol in hopes that he might simmer things down. As the New York Times recently put it, voters vaguely expected that electing Joe Biden and removing "former President Donald J. Trump from their television screens" would "make American life ordinary again."

In fact, that was never going to happen. Like Harding, Joe Biden appears to be a most amiable fellow. Thus far, however, he's demonstrated negligible aptitude for restoring even an approximation of ordinariness to American life.

Hysterical rightwing critics denounce the president as a socialist or even a Marxist. He is neither, of course. No evidence exists to suggest that the White House intends to collectivize American agriculture, nationalize the means of production, or convert the FBI into a homegrown version of the KGB or the Stasi.

Instead, Biden has merely offered anodyne promises to "Build Back Better." A more accurate slogan might be "Spend More and Hope for the Best."

Ten months into Biden's term, his achievements remain few in number, even given the recent passage of a long-awaited infrastructure bill. To say that his administration is still finding its feet is no longer persuasive. An obituary of his presidency written today would highlight supply-chain problems, rising gas prices, a spike in inflation, a fumbling response to the southern border crisis, and a humiliating conclusion to the Afghanistan War. Meanwhile, Covid-19 continues to claim a disturbingly large number of American lives.

On the global stage, despite various highly publicized overseas trips, the president has yet to score a notable success. As a party leader, his struggles to impose discipline on the fractious rank-and-file of the Democrats elicit from the chattering classes continuous chatter. And while Biden obviously relishes the opportunity to preach from behind the White House bully pulpit, he has failed to rally the nation, as the never-ending controversies over vaccinations and vaccine mandates amply demonstrate.

What are we to make of this disappointing record? Biden cut his eyeteeth on the conviction that government activism can solve fundamental problems affecting the lives of ordinary Americans. In that regard, he is indeed the heir to the progressive tradition pioneered by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson.

Yet Joe Biden may well be fated to bring down the curtain on progressivism as a force in national politics. With American conservatism substantively defunct, Donald Trump having drained it of any lingering pretense of principle, the stage behind that curtain will then be left bare. That a mediocre Democratic senator from West Virginia and an even more obscure one from Arizona will have collaborated in sucking the last vestiges of substance from our political system should rank as one of the larger ironies of our age.

Progressivism Runs Out of Gas

The dizzying pace of contemporary history finds many Americans out of breath, angry, disgusted, or verging on despair. The magnitude of the catastrophe that befell the United States in Afghanistan and the staggering toll Americans have endured throughout the Covid pandemic await an honest examination. So, too, does last January's assault on the Capitol, which exposed the fragility of the Constitutional order in a new way. Meanwhile, with the Lord of Mar-a-Lago and his lieutenants continuing to conspire, the possibility of the United States falling into a potentially terminal tailspin can hardly be excluded. So what is to be done?

Don't look to the Biden White House for answers to that question. Depending on what news network you choose to watch, you'll hear partisans describing the progressive tradition as either imperiling the Republic or offering the prospect of salvation. Neither judgment is correct. It's more accurate to say that progressivism is now increasingly beside the point.

So, if Professor Grinspan counts on Americans to follow Biden's lead and simmer down, he's headed for a disappointment. The likelihood of the president easing our present distress, embodied by Trumpism but including a panoply of complaints, appears remote. The normalcy to which he hopefully alludes lurks nowhere over the horizon. If anything, the opposite is true: for the foreseeable future, normalcy will be defined mainly by its absence.

And that just might turn out to be a good thing.

To understand why this might be the case, you have to begin by acknowledging the exhaustion of the reformist heritage to which Biden adheres. That tradition emerged from an identifiable historical context, simultaneously deriving from and expressing an identifiable cultural consensus. True, in the heyday of progressivism, the voices heard tended to be mostly white and mostly male. Yet the narrow basis of American democratic practice in that era made agreement on certain fundamentals possible. However flawed and subject to recurring challenge, the resulting consensus persisted through the twentieth century, imparting not only a measure of predictability but also a modicum of cohesion to American politics.

Even today, progressives tout the altruistic component of their tradition, with its emphasis on equality, justice, and sympathy for the downtrodden. Yet high ideals rarely suffice to win elections. In practice, the progressive agenda has centered less on admirable intangibles than on concrete deliverables. On that score, progressives have sought to satisfy an all but insatiable American appetite for consumption, convenience, and mobility.

Here we come to the beating heart of contemporary American politics. As that system evolved toward its mature state — a mammoth enterprise that annually burns through trillions of dollars — uninhibited consumption and convenience, along with unbridled mobility came to define what citizens expected it to deliver. Hence, the outrage when store shelves are even momentarily empty and gas prices temporarily shoot up.

At root, the ultimate purpose of American politics in the modern era, seldom acknowledged but universally understood, has been to provide for more and better, quicker and easier, and faster and further. The very pursuit proved endless — the American political lexicon in those years did not include the word enough — and therefore, in the end, proved inherently disruptive.

Properly understood, in other words, the progressive project was never especially high-minded. Yet it was never anything other than deadly realistic.

Two cherished but spurious claims have helped camouflage its essential tawdriness. According to the first, what the American people really care about is not getting and going but a conception of freedom worth fighting for. As my neighbors in nearby New Hampshire like to put it, "Live Free or Die."

According to the second, along with this love of freedom, what distinguishes Americans is their pronounced religiosity. "In God," Americans insist, "We Trust." A profound love of freedom and a conviction that the American experiment expresses the workings of divine (implicitly Christian) providence have ostensibly elevated the United States above other nations. Together, they imbued American crassness with a visible sheen of idealism.

Of course, in the century of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden, neither of these claims withstand even casual scrutiny. In the present United States, freedom has become indistinguishable from the casting off of constraints. If advancing the cause of freedom entails sacrifice, citizens spare themselves the slightest inconvenience by hiring out fighting to specialists known collectively as "the troops."

As for God, an increasingly secular society consigns him to the margins of public life. To an extent that a century ago would have been unfathomable, religion has become more or less a matter of personal taste, of no more significance than one's preferences for movies or cuisine. In the New York Times and the Washington Post, race, gender, and sexuality command continuous attention. For the latest in theological insights, however, the curious should look elsewhere.

As a believer, a conservative, and a long-ago soldier, I may not personally endorse such trends, but it makes no sense to deny their existence. So, however much I might want to agree with Grinspan's contention that "reform is possible" — full-out despondency being the sole alternative — more-is-better American progressivism is unlikely to provide a meaningful template for change.

Sharpening the Contradictions

The imperative of the present moment requires not reverting to some mythic normalcy, but facing the actual contradictions afflicting the American way of life. Any such reckoning will necessarily entail political risk. For proof, recall the price that President Jimmy Carter paid when he called for just such a reckoning in his famously derided "Malaise" speech of 1979. Americans responded the following year by revoking his lease on the White House.

Even so, what Carter proposed then may well be what we need now. With the nation mired in what he termed a "crisis of confidence," Carter declared that "we are at a turning point in our history," obliged to choose between one of "two paths." One path, he said, pointed toward "a mistaken idea of freedom" centered on "constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility." The other, based on "common purpose and the restoration of American values," pointed toward what he called "true freedom."

No one has ever accused the Georgia peanut-farmer-turned-politician of being a deep thinker, so Carter was vague on what actually constituted true freedom. But his instincts were sound and his analysis prescient. Indeed, others since have rounded out his critique, even if with little more success than Carter had in persuading Americans to contemplate the true meaning of freedom more than four decades ago.

Perhaps our innate ability to "see further into the future," as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright so unforgettably put it in 1998, renders any such second thoughts unnecessary. Of course, when Albright made her own stab at deep thinking, the future seemed all too clear. The end of the Cold War had left the United States in a position of political, economic, technological, cultural, and above all, military primacy. What could possibly go wrong?

By now, we know the answer: just about everything. To allow the promises contained within Biden-esque progressivism to conceal the extent of the debacle we have suffered would, in my view, be a profound mistake.

President Biden contends that as a nation and a species we have today arrived at an "inflection point" — a favorite phrase of his. Yet even if fully implemented (a doubtful prospect), the Biden program has no chance of curing our present disorders. A warmed over, if pricier, version of FDR's New Deal and LBJ's Great Society, it's too timid and too derivative. Progressivism once looked to the future; today, it's stuck in the past.

So, the Biden version of progressivism may ameliorate, but it will never resolve a multi-dimensional crisis fed by soulless materialism, a deepening climate emergency, a perverse addiction to dehumanizing technology, and a bizarre conviction that military power, amassed and endlessly employed, holds the key to stemming the tide of national decline.

With the passage of time, Carter's challenge to define true freedom has become more urgent. Time is short and global disaster looming. Yet arriving at a clearer understanding of what true freedom should entail will require more than simmering. To repurpose a phrase from an earlier era, "burn, baby, burn" may be the order of the day. At least metaphorically, identifying an antidote to our own malaise might begin not with reducing the heat, but turning it up.

Copyright 2021 Andrew Bacevich

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Andrew Bacevich, a TomDispatch regular, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book, After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, has just been published.

The seedy politics of our drinking water

Think of it this way: what we don't know will hurt us. And water — yes, water — is an example of just that. Even at a time of such angry political disputes, you might imagine that, in a wealthy country like the United States, it would still be possible to agree that clean water should be not just a right, but a given. Well, welcome to America 2021.

When it comes to basic water supplies, that's hardly an outlandish thought. After all, back in 2015, our government, along with other members of the United Nations, embraced the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals, the sixth of which is universal access to safe drinking water. Despite modest progress globally — 71% of the world's population lacked that simple necessity then, "only" 61% today — nearly 900 million people still don't have it. Of course, the overwhelming majority of them live in the poorest countries on this planet.

The United States, however, has the world's largest economy, the fifth-highest per-capita income, and is a technological powerhouse. How, then, could the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) have given our water infrastructure (pipes, pumping stations, reservoirs, and purification and recycling facilities) a shocking C- grade in their 2021 "report card"? How to explain why Yale University's Environmental Performance Index ranked the U.S. only 26th globally when it comes to the quality of its drinking water and sanitation?

Worse yet, two million Americans still have no running water and indoor plumbing. Native Americans are 19 times more likely to lack this rudimentary amenity than Whites; Latinos and African Americans, twice as likely. On average, Americans use 82 gallons of water daily; Navajos, seven — or the equivalent of about five flushes of a toilet. Moreover, many Native Americans must drive miles to fetch fresh water, making regular handwashing, a basic precaution during the Covid-19 pandemic, just one more hardship.

"Safe" Water

Washington and Philadelphia are just two of the many American cities whose water-distribution systems, some of them wooden, contain pipes that predate the Civil War. Naturally, time has taken its toll. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that water mains, especially such old ones, rupture 240,000 times annually, while "trillions of gallons" of potable water worth $2.6 billion seep from leaky pipes, and "billions of gallons of raw sewage" pollute the surface water that provides 61% of our supply. Fixing busted pipes, which break at the rate of one every two minutes nationally, has cost nearly $70 billion since 2000.

The U.S. has 2.2 million miles of waterpipes, which are, on average, 45 years old. The EPA's 2015 estimate for overhauling such an aging system of piping was $473 billion, or $23.7 billion annually over 20 years — in other words, anything but chump change. Still, compared to the way Congress allots money to the U.S. military for its endless losing wars and eternal build-ups of weaponry, it couldn't be more modest. After all, the Pentagon's latest budget request was for $715 billion, to which the House Armed Services Committee added $25.5 billion, unsolicited, as did its Senate counterpart. Self-styled congressional budget hawks never complain about our military spending, even though it exceeds that of the next 11 countries combined. So, $23.7 billion annually to renovate an antediluvian water system? That shouldn't be a problem, right?

It turns out, though, that it is. The federal government's share of total investment in updating water infrastructure plunged from nearly-two-thirds in 1977 to less than a tenth of that by 2019. With state and local governments under increasing financial pressure, the funding shortfall for modernizing the water infrastructure could reach a staggering $434 billion by 2029.

Considering where the American water system already falls utterly short, a contrarian could counter that it's not a big deal for a mere two million people in a country of 333 million not to have water directly piped into their homes. But in the wealthiest country on earth? Really? And a lack of easy access to water is hardly the only problem. A substantial number of Americans are drinking (and cooking with) contaminated supplies of it. A 2017 investigation found that 63 million of them had done so at least once during the previous 10 years, or nearly a fifth of the population.

This finding wasn't an outlier. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) discovered that, "in 2015 alone, there were more than 80,000 reported violations of the Safe Water Drinking Act by community water systems" that served nearly 77 million people. And of the total number of violations, 12,000, traced to water providers serving 27 million people, were health-related (rather than monitoring and reporting infractions). There's more. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that 21 million consumers received water that didn't meet federal standards; and Time reported that 30 million did in 2019.

The Flint Saga and Beyond

Occasionally, stories about unsafe drinking water do make the headlines, as happened with Flint, Michigan. Once a prosperous city, Flint was slammed by a post-1970s wave of de-industrialization in the Midwest and now has a poverty rate of nearly 39% (and 54% of its population is Black). By 2013, facing its massive budget deficit, a commission appointed by the governor devised a cost-saving measure. The city's water supply would be switched to the Flint River, pending construction of new supply lines from Lake Huron. That river, however, had long been contaminated by waste from factories, paper mills, and meatpacking plants along its shore, as well as untreated sewage.

Residents began complaining that their water smelled and tasted bad, but were regularly reassured that it was safe. Testing, however, revealed lead levels that far exceeded the EPA-stipulated maximum because the water hadn't been treated with anti-corrosion additives to counter contamination. (There is, in fact, no "safe" level for lead, a toxic metal, but the EPA requires remedial action if 10% of water samples show concentrations exceeding 15 ppb, or parts per billion.) Flint's water also contained trihalomethane, a carcinogen, as well as dangerous E. coli and legionella bacteria. A scandal ensued.

Flint, as it turned out, wasn't alone. The NRDC reported this year that "dozens of cities have been found to have dangerous levels of elevated lead" in their water. Another of its studies concluded that the drinking water of 186 million people (56% of Americans) had more than one part per billion of lead, the maximum recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and that 61 million Americans used bottled water from sources that exceeded the Food and Drug Administration's five ppb maximum, while lead levels in the water of seven million others exceeded the 15-ppb EPA threshold for mandatory corrective measures.

In 1986, Congress banned the future use of pipes that weren't "lead free," but didn't require the replacement of existing ones. Even today, as many as 12 million lead pipes still serve households in this country and scientists generally regard the EPA's lead limit as far too lax and its testing requirements and reporting standards as too permissive. Perhaps you won't be surprised to learn that local governments and utility companies have regularly opposed tougher regulations for lead-pipe replacement.

Eliminating lead water pipes entirely in this country would cost up to $50 billion. Though that's a lot of money, it's hardly unaffordable. In fact, the American Jobs Plan proposed $45 billion for that task, though the separate bipartisan infrastructure bill cut it to $15 billion — again illustrating that penny pinching applies to threats to Americans' day-to-day well-being, but not to our militarized conception of national security.

Other Contaminants

Lead isn't the sole contaminant in our drinking water.

  • In farming communities in California's Central Valley and in the San Joaquin Valley, increasing amounts of uranium — associated with kidney damage and a greater risk of cancer — have turned up in the local drinking water, including private wells, which aren't regulated by the EPA, but are used by migrant workers. A 2015 Associated Press investigation found that a quarter of San Joaquin Valley households were then using drinking water from private wells containing "dangerous amounts of uranium." Moreover, one in 10 of the Valley's community water systems contained uranium levels that exceeded federal and state limits — and there's no reason to believe that has changed in the last six years.
  • The rise in fertilizer use — fivefold since the 1950s — to boost crop yields and its runoff has increased the nitrate levels in drinking water. High levels of nitrates, which have been linked to various forms of cancer, birth defects, and thyroid disease, have been found in 4,000 public water systems in 10 states supplying 45 million people, especially in the West and Midwest. In more than half of these places, the contamination seems only to be increasing. The EPA's maximum concentration level for nitrates is 10 milligrams per liter, but studies reveal that the risk of birth defects and cancer increase even when people consume water containing half that amount.
  • Arsenic, a known carcinogen, is another hazard. A 2020 Columbia University study found that, though the average concentration of arsenic in the water supply, nationwide, fell by 10% between 2006 and 2011, concentrations exceeding the EPA's maximum of 0.01 milligrams per liter were far more likely in smaller communities that use groundwater and are disproportionately Hispanic. A U.S. Geological Survey report, which focused on wells providing drinking water, noted that there were "dangerously high levels of arsenic, potentially exposing 2.1 million people" to health risks in more than half of all states.
  • Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used in numerous products, including non-stick cookware, pizza boxes, firefighting foam, and waterproof apparel. However, they remain unregulated by the EPA despite being associated with a range of health risks. Worse yet, these "forever chemicals" take thousands of years to break down. Scientists estimate that the tap water of 200 million Americans contains PFAS concentrations that put them at risk.

The Bad News for 2021

Since the early nineteenth century, enormous progress has been made toward providing Americans with abundant, clean water. And water-borne diseases like cholera, which still kills close to 100,000 people worldwide every year, and typhoid, which claims as many as 161,000, have essentially been eliminated in this country (though there are still 16 million annual cases of acute gastroenteritis traceable to contaminated water). So, yes, water in the U.S. is generally fit to drink, but given this country's economic and technological resources, it's scandalous that the problems that remain haven't at least been substantially mitigated.

To understand such a failure, just consider our politics, which, in the wake of recent elections, only seem to be growing worse by the day.

Since the 1980s, the public sphere has been dominated by a narrative that portrays just about anything the government does, other than profligate spending on the U.S. military, as financially reckless, intrusive, and counterproductive. Instead of creating a compelling message to persuade Americans that many valued public benefits, ranging from land grant colleges, the Internet, Social Security, and Medicare to the national highway system and medical research breakthroughs, owe much to government policies, too many Democrats continue to run scared, fearful of being labeled "big-government-tax-and-spend liberals."

Add to this the outsized political influence that big money exercises through copious campaign contributions — all but limitless thanks to recent Supreme Court decisions — and pricey lobbyists. (Yes, unions and public interest groups lobby, too, but for each dollar they spend, corporations spend $34.)

Companies that, for instance, produce perchlorate, a chemical found in U.S. water supplies that's used in rocket fuel and munitions and is harmful to iodine-deficient pregnant women and fetuses, have paid lobbyists to fight stricter regulations for years. Not coincidentally, the EPA, which has been monitoring perchlorate since 2001, has yet to set mandatory limits on it for drinking water, though it continues to consider a "roadmap" for doing so. Similarly, the seven largest producers of PFAS spent $61 million in 2019 and 2020 on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts. In 2018, there were only two firms lobbying against tougher PFAS regulations; a year later that number had increased to 14.

The EPA sets maximum drinking water levels for 90 substances, but hasn't (except in a few instances where Congress mandated that it do so) added more since 1996 even though its "Drinking Water Contaminant Candidate List" now contains nearly 100 additional substances. This shouldn't be a surprise. Companies that oppose tougher regulations have political access and clout. Political appointees to important EPA posts often hail from those very industries or the lobbying groups they bankroll. Scientists paid by industries have weighed in, lending an aura of legitimacy to special-interest pleading.

Water policy is rife with scientific complexity, but the legislation and regulations that shape it are hashed out in the political arena. There, the deck is increasingly stacked — and not in favor of the average consumer. If the Republicans take back Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024, my small suggestion: have a nice cool glass of ice water and relax. What could possibly go wrong?

Copyright 2021 Rajan Menon

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University's Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, and a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is the author, most recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.


The Pentagon budget is spiraling beyond any rational limits

Even as Congress moves to increase the Pentagon budget well beyond the astronomical levels proposed by the Biden administration, a new report from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has outlined three different ways to cut $1 trillion in Department of Defense spending over the next decade. A rational defense policy could yield far more in the way of reductions, but resistance from the Pentagon, weapons contractors, and their many allies in Congress would be fierce.

After all, in its consideration of the bill that authorizes such budget levels for next year, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives recently voted to add $25 billion to the already staggering $750 billion the Biden administration requested for the Pentagon and related work on nuclear weapons at the Department of Energy. By any measure, that's an astonishing figure, given that the request itself was already far higher than spending at the peaks of the Korean and Vietnam Wars or President Ronald Reagan's military buildup of the 1980s.

In any reasonable world, such a military budget should be considered both unaffordable and deeply unsuitable when it comes to addressing the true threats to this country's "defense," including cyberattacks, pandemics, and the devastation already being wrought by climate change. Worst of all, providing a blank check to the military-industrial-congressional complex ensures the continued production of troubled weapon systems like Lockheed Martin's exorbitantly expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is typically behind schedule, far above projected costs, and still not considered effective in combat.

Changing course would mean real reform and genuine accountability, starting with serious cuts to a budget for which "bloated" is far too kind an adjective.

Three Options for Reductions

At the request of Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the CBO devised three different approaches to cutting approximately $1 trillion (a decrease of a mere 14%) from the Pentagon budget over the next decade. Historically, it could hardly be a more modest proposal. After all, without any such plan, the Pentagon budget actually did decrease by 30% between 1988 and 1997.

Such a CBO-style reduction would still leave the department with about $6.3 trillion to spend over that 10-year period, 80% more than the cost of President Biden's original $3.5 trillion Build Back Better proposal for domestic investments. Of course, that figure, unlike the Pentagon budget, has already been dramatically whittled down to half its original size, thanks to laughable claims by "moderate" Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) that it would break the bank in Washington. Yet such critics of expanded social and economic programs rarely offer similar thoughts when it comes to the Pentagon's far larger bite of the budgetary pie.

The options in the budget watchdog's new report are anything but radical:

Option one would preserve the "current post-Cold War strategy of deterring aggression through [the] threat of immediate U.S. military response with the objectives of denying an adversary's gains and recapturing lost territory." The proposed cuts would hit each military service equally, with some new weapons programs slowed down and a few, as in the case of the B-21 bomber, cancelled.

Option two "adopts a Cold War-like strategy for large nuclear powers of making aggression very costly and recognizing that the size of conventional conflict would be limited by the threat of a nuclear response." That leaves nearly $2 trillion for the Pentagon's planned "modernization" of the U.S. nuclear arsenal untouched, while relying more heavily on working with allies in conventional war situations than current strategy allows for. It would mean that the military might take longer to deploy in large numbers to a conflict.

Option three "de-emphasizes use of U.S. military force in regional conflicts in favor of preserving U.S. control of the global commons (sea, air, space, and the Arctic), ensuring open access to the commons for allies and unimpeded global commerce." In other words, Afghan- or Iraq-style boots-on-the-ground U.S. interventions would largely be avoided in favor of the use of long-range and "over-the-horizon" weapons like drones, naval blockades, the enforcement of no-fly zones, and the further arming and training of allies.

But looking more broadly at the question of what will make the world a safer place in an era of pandemics, climate change, racial injustice, and economic inequality, reductions well beyond the $1 trillion figure embedded in the CBO's recommendations would be both necessary and possible in a more reasonable American world. The CBO's scenarios remain focused on military methods for solving security problems, assuring an all-too-narrow view of what might be saved by a new approach to security.

Nuclear Excess

The CBO, for instance, chose not to look at possible savings from simply scaling back (not even ending) the Pentagon's $2-trillion, three-decades-long plan to build a new generation of nuclear-armed missiles, bombers, and submarines, complete with accompanying new warheads. Scaling back such a buildup, which will only further imperil this planet, could easily save in excess of $100 billion over the next decade.

One significant step toward nuclear sanity would be to adopt the alternative nuclear posture proposed by the organization Global Zero. That would involve the elimination of all land-based nuclear missiles and rely instead on a smaller force of ballistic missile submarines and bombers as part of a "deterrence-only" strategy.

Land-based, intercontinental ballistic missiles were accurately described by former Secretary of Defense William Perry as "some of the most dangerous weapons in the world." The reason: a president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them upon being warned of an oncoming nuclear attack by an enemy power. That would, of course, greatly increase the risk of an accidental nuclear war and the potential destruction of the planet prompted by a false alarm (of which there have been several in the past). Eliminating such missiles would make the world a far safer place, while saving tens of billions of dollars in the process.

Capping Contractors

While most people think about the Pentagon budget in terms of what it spends on new guns, ships, planes, and missiles, services are about half of what it buys every year. These are the contracts that go to various corporate "Beltway bandits" to consult with the military or perform jobs that could often be done more cheaply by federal employees. Both the Defense Business Board and the Pentagon's own cost estimating office have identified service contracting as an area where there are significant opportunities for large-scale savings.

Last year, the Pentagon spent nearly $204 billion on various service contracts. That's more than the budgets for the Departments of Health and Human Services, State, or Homeland Security. Reducing spending on contractors by even 15% would instantly save tens of billions of dollars annually.

In the past, Congress and the Pentagon have shown that just such savings could easily be realized. For example, a provision in a 2011 defense law simply capped such spending at 2010 levels. Government spending data shows that, in the end, it was reduced by $42 billion over four years.

Closing Unneeded Bases

While the Biden administration seeks to expand domestic infrastructure spending, the Pentagon has been desperate to shed costly and unnecessary military facilities. Both the Obama and Trump administrations asked Congress to authorize another round of what's called base realignment and closure to help the Defense Department get rid of its excess capacity. The Pentagon estimates that it could save $2 billion annually that way.

The CBO report cited above explicitly excludes any consideration of such cost savings as politically unfeasible, given the present Congress. But considering the ways in which climate change is going to threaten current military basing arrangements domestically and globally, that would be an obvious way to go.

Another CBO report warns that the future effects of climate change — from rising sea levels (and flooding coastlines) to ever more powerful storms — will both reduce the government's revenue and increase its mandatory spending, if its base situation remains as it is now. After all, ever fiercer tropical storms and hurricanes, as well as rising levels of flooding, are already resulting in billions of dollars in damage to military bases. Meanwhile, it's estimated that, in the decades to come, more than 1,700 U.S. military installations worldwide may be impacted by sea-level rise. Future rounds of base closings, both domestic and global, should be planned now with the impact of climate change in mind.

Turning Around Congress, Fighting Off Lobbyists

So far, boosting Pentagon spending has been one of the only things a bipartisan majority of this Congress can agree on, as indicated by that House decision to add $25 billion to the Pentagon budget request for Fiscal Year 2022. A similar measure is included in the Senate version, which it will debate soon. There are, however, glimmers of hope on the horizon as the number of members of Congress willing to oppose the longstanding practice of shoveling ever more funds at the Pentagon, no questions asked, is indeed growing.

For example, a majority of Democrats and members of the leadership in the House of Representatives supported an ultimately unsuccessful provision to strip some excess funds from the Pentagon this year. A smaller group voted to cut the department's budget across the board by 10%. Still, it was a number that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. That core group is only likely to grow in the years to come as the costs of non-military challenges like pandemics, climate change, and the financial impact of racial and economic injustice supplant traditional military risks as the most urgent threats to American lives and livelihoods.

Opposition to increased Pentagon spending is growing outside of Washington as well. An ever-wider range of not just progressive but conservative organizations now support substantial reductions in the Pentagon budget. The challenge, however, is to translate such sentiments into a concerted, multifaceted campaign of public pressure that will move a majority of the members of Congress to stop giving the Pentagon a yearly blank check. A new poll from the Eurasia Group Foundation found that twice as many Americans now support cutting the Pentagon budget as support increasing it.

Any attempt to curb Pentagon spending will run up against a strikingly powerful arms industry that deploys campaign contributions, lobbyists, and promises of defense-related employment to keep budgets high. In this century alone, the Pentagon has spent more than $14 trillion, up to one-half of which has gone to contractors. During those same years, the arms industry has spent $285 million on campaign contributions and $2.5 billion on lobbying, most of it focused on members of the armed services and defense appropriations committees that take the lead in deciding how much the country spends for military purposes.

The arms industry's lobbying efforts are especially insidious. In an average year, it employs around 700 lobbyists, more than one for every member of Congress. The top five corporate weapons makers got a return of $1,909 in taxpayer funds for every dollar they spent on lobbying. Most of their lobbyists once worked in the Pentagon or Congress and arrived in the world of arms contractors via the infamous "revolving door." Of course, they then used their relationships with their former colleagues in government to curry favor for their corporate employers. A 2018 investigation by the Project On Government Oversight found that, in the prior decade, 380 high-ranking Pentagon officials and military officers had become lobbyists, board members, executives, or consultants for weapons contractors within two years of leaving their government jobs.

A September 2021 study by the Government Accountability Office found that, as of 2019, the top 14 arms contractors employed more than 1,700 former military or Pentagon civilian employees, including many who had previously been involved in making or enforcing the rules for buying major weapons systems.

The revolving door spins both ways, with executives and board members of the major weapons makers moving into powerful senior positions in government where they're well situated to help their former (and, more than likely, future) employers. The process starts at the top. Four of the past five secretaries of defense have also been executives, lobbyists, or board members of Raytheon, Boeing, or General Dynamics, three of the top five weapons makers that split tens of billions of dollars in Pentagon contracts annually. Both the House and Senate versions of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act extend the periods of time in which those entering the government from such industries have to recuse themselves from decisions involving their former companies. Still, as long as the Pentagon continues to pluck officials from the very outfits driving those exploding budgets, we should all know more or less what to expect.

So far, the system is working — if you happen to be an arms contractor. The top five weapons companies alone split $166 billion in Pentagon contracts in Fiscal Year 2020, well over one-third of those issued by the Department of Defense that year. To give you some sense of the scale of all this — and our government's twisted priorities — Lockheed Martin alone received $75 billion in Pentagon contracts in Fiscal Year 2020, nearly one and one-half times the $52.5 billion allocated for the State Department and the Agency for International Development combined.

Which Way Forward?

The Congressional Budget Office's new report charts a path toward a more rational approach to Pentagon spending, but the $1 trillion in savings it proposes should only be a starting point. Hundreds of billions more could be saved over the next decade by reassessing our national security strategy, cutting back the Pentagon's nuclear buildup, capping its use of private contractors, and scaling back the colossal sums of waste, fraud, and abuse baked into its budget. All of this could be done while making this country and the world a significantly safer place by shifting such funds to addressing the non-military risks that threaten the future of humanity.

Whether our leaders meet the challenges of today or continue to succumb to the power of the arms lobby is an open question.

Copyright 2021 William D. Hartung and Mandy Smithberger

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Mandy Smithberger, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Center for Defense Information at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

See All Articles

William D. Hartung, a TomDispatch regular, is the director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy and the author of "Profits of War: Corporate Beneficiaries of the Post-9/11 Surge in Pentagon Spending" (Brown University's the Costs of War Project and the Center for International Policy, September 2021).

See All ArticlesEmail address

A sleeping giant is stirring — and it could transform the political calculus of elections to come

When President Biden first unveiled the Build Back Better agenda, it appeared that this country was on the path to a new war on poverty. In April, he told Congress that "trickle-down economics have never worked" and that it was time to build the economy "from the bottom-up." This came after the first reconciliation bill of the pandemic included the child tax credit that — combined with an expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and unemployment benefits, stimulus checks, and other emergency programs — reduced the poverty rate from 13.9% in 2018 to 7.7% in 2021. (Without such actions, it was estimated that the poverty rate might have risen to 23.1%.) All eyes are now on the future of this Build Back Better plan, whether it will pass and whether it will include paid sick leave, reduced prescription drug prices, expanded child tax credits, expanded earned income tax credits for those without children, universal pre-K, climate resilience and green jobs, and other important domestic policy investments.

For months, the nation has witnessed a debate taking place in Congress over how much to invest in this plan. What hasn't been discussed, however, is the cost of not investing (or not investing sufficiently) in health-care expansion, early childhood education, the care economy, paid sick leave, living-wage jobs, and the like. Similarly missing have been the voices of those affected, especially the 140 million poor and low-income people who have the most to lose if a bold bill is not passed. By now, the originally proposed 10-year, $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill, which a majority of Americans support, has been slowly chiseled down to half that size. For that you can largely thank two Democratic senators, West Virginia's Joe Manchin and Arizona's Kyrsten Sinema, unanimously backed by Donald Trump's Republican Party, which would, of course, cut everything.

Because of them, the "reconciliation" process to pass such a bill has become so crucial and politically charged, given that the same obstructionist Democrats have continued to uphold the Senate filibuster. All year, Manchin, Sinema, and the Republicans have blocked action on urgent issues ranging from climate change and immigration reform to living wages and voting rights. For example, after months of resistance to the For the People Act, a bill that protects and expands voting rights, Manchin forced the Democrats to put forward a watered-down Freedom To Vote Act with the promise that he would get it passed. In late October, though, he failed to win a single Republican vote for the bill and so the largest assault on voting rights since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era continues, state by state, unabated.

President Biden's original Build Back Better plan was successfully caricatured as too big and expensive, even though it represented just 1.2% of gross domestic product over the next decade and Congress had just passed a bipartisan single-year Pentagon budget nearly double the annual cost of BBB. In reality, $3.5 trillion over a decade would be no more than a start on what's actually needed to rescue the economy, genuinely alleviating poverty and human suffering, while making real strides toward addressing the climate crisis. Instead, cuts to, and omissions from, the reconciliation bill will mean nearly two million fewer jobs per year and 37 million children prevented from getting needed aid, while leaving trillions of dollars raked in by the super rich in the pandemic moment untaxed. Perhaps it will also fall disastrously short when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to the level necessary on the timetable called for by the world's scientific community.

Much of the recent coverage of these dynamics has focused on what all of this could mean for the Democrats in the 2022 elections (especially given Virginia Democrat Terry McAuliffe's loss in a state that President Biden won by 10 points). With low approval ratings, striking numbers of retiring members of Congress and increasingly gerrymandered voting maps, as well as outright voter-suppression laws, the Democratic faithful have reason to be worried. Still, what's missing from such discussions is how bad things already are for tens of millions of Americans and just how much worse they could get without far bolder government action. It's true that the 2022 elections could resemble the 2010 midterm elections when Republicans broke President Obama's grip on Congress, winning control of the House of Representatives, but too few observers are grappling with the possibility that 2022 could also reproduce conditions of a sort not experienced since the Great Recession.

As our second pandemic-winter approaches, there are many signs of an economy entering crisis. Economists are warning that despite an employment bump thanks to direct government intervention, we may already be entering a recession that could, sooner or later, prove at least as severe as the Great Recession of 2008. The expectations of everyday Americans certainly seem to reflect this simmering possibility. Consumer confidence has dropped to the second lowest level since 2011 and holiday spending among low-income Americans is expected to fall 22% from last year. (The 11.5% of all shoppers who say they won't spend anything at all on gifts or services this holiday is the highest in a decade.)

As has been true throughout the pandemic, millions of people abandoned by the government will do whatever they can to provide for themselves and their communities. They will try to care for one another, share what they have, and come together through mutual-aid networks. Their resources alone, however, are anything but adequate. Instead, as conditions potentially worsen, such survival struggles should be seen as beachheads when it comes to organizing a largely untapped base of people who need to be awakened politically if any kind of lasting change is to be realized. These millions of poor and low-income Americans will be critical in creating the kind of broad movement able to make, as Martin Luther King once put it, "the power structure say yes when they really may be desirous of saying no."

The Greatest Threat or Our Best Hope?

Keep in mind that the survival struggles of the poor and dispossessed have long been both a spark and a cornerstone for social, political, and economic change in ways seldom grasped in this country. This was true in pre-Civil War America, when hundreds of thousands of enslaved people smuggled themselves to freedom on the Underground Railroad, forcing the nation to confront the horrors of slavery in person and igniting a movement to end it. It was no less true in the 1930s, when the hungry and out-of-work began organizing unemployment councils and tenant-farmer unions before President Franklin Roosevelt even launched the New Deal. The same could be said of the decades before the Civil Rights Movement, when Black communities began organizing themselves against lynch mobs and other forms of state-sanctioned (or state-complicit) violence.

Another example was the transformative work of the Black Panther Party, whose legacy still impacts our political life, even if the image of the party remains distorted by myths, misrepresentations, and racist fearmongering. This October marked the 55th anniversary of its founding. For many Americans, its enduring image is still of ominous looking men in black berets and leather jackets carrying guns. But most of their time was spent meeting the needs of their community and building a movement that could transform life for poor Black people.

In a recent interview, Fredericka Jones, a Black Panther herself and the widow of the party's co-founder, Huey Newton, explained that among their projects,

"the most famous and most notable would be the free breakfast the Panthers offered to thousands of children in Oakland and other cities, providing basic nutrition for kids from poor families, long before the government took on this responsibility. We knew that children could not learn if they were hungry, but we also had free clinics. We had free clothing. We had a service called SAFE (Seniors Against a Fearful Environment) where we would escort seniors to the bank, or, you know, to do their grocery shopping. We had a free ambulance program in North Carolina. Black people were dying because the ambulance wouldn't even come and pick them up."

Before his murder in 1989, Newton himself characterized their work this way:

"The Black Panther Party was doing what the government should've done. We were providing these basic survival programs, as we called them, for the Black community and oppressed communities, when the government wasn't doing it. The government refused to, so the community loved the Party. And that was not what you saw in the media. You didn't see brothers feeding kids. You saw a picture of a brother who was looking menacing with a gun."

As Newton pointed out, the Panthers bravely stepped into the void left by the government to feed, educate, and care for communities. But they were also clear that their survival programs were not just about meeting immediate needs. For one thing, they purposefully used those programs to highlight the failures of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty and the contradictions between America's staggering wealth and its staggering poverty and racism, which existed side by side and yet in separate universes. In those years, the Panthers quite consciously tried to shine a light on the grim paradox of a nation that claimed there was never enough money to fight poverty at home, even as it spent endless billions of dollars fighting a war on the poor in Southeast Asia.

Their programs also gave them a base of operations from which to organize new people into a human-rights movement, which meant that all of their community work would be interwoven with political education, highly visible protest, cultural organizing, and a commitment to sustaining leaders for the long haul. While deeply rooted in poor black urban communities, the Panthers both inspired and linked up to similar efforts by Latino and poor-white organizations.

These were, of course, the most treacherous of waters. At the time, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI listed the Black Panthers and their breakfast program as "the greatest threat to internal security in the country." Government officials recognized that such organizing could potentially catch fire across far wider groups of poor Americans at a moment when the War on Poverty was being dismantled and the age of neoliberal economics was already on the rise. In such a context, the ability of the Panthers to put the abandonment of poor Black people under a spotlight, unite leaders within their community, and develop relationships with other poor people across racial lines seemed like a weapon potentially more powerful than the guns they carried.

I wrote recently about the often-overlooked successes of the National Union of the Homeless, which organized tens of thousands of homeless people across the country in the 1980s and 1990s. Its success came, in part, through lessons its leaders drew from the experiences of the Panthers, something they acknowledged at the time. In fact, they called the key strategic ingredients for their work the "Six Panther Ps" (program, protest, projects of survival, publicity work, political education, and "plans, not personalities"), organizing building blocks that they considered inseparable from one other.

At the time, the Homeless Union opened its own shelters and led takeovers of vacant houses in the possession of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. These were their "projects of survival." Through them, they secured housing and other resources for their leaders, loudly called into question why there were more empty houses nationally than homeless people, and forged unlikely alliances and political relationships.

More than 20 years later, homeless leaders have revived the National Union and are now making preparations for a winter organizing offensive on the streets and in encampments, shelters, and vacant homes across the country. As life-saving eviction moratoriums continue to expire nationwide, such projects of survival become shining examples of how poor and low-income people can begin to build a movement to end poverty.

Waking the Sleeping Giant

Last month, the Poor People's Campaign (which I co-chair with Reverand William Barber) released a new report on the unheralded impact of poor and low-income Americans in the 2020 elections. Contrary to the popular belief that poor people don't participate in elections and are apathetic about politics, it shows that poor and low-income voters made up at least 20% of the total electorate in 45 states, and up to 40% of them in nearly all of the battleground states. Although we don't know who those voters cast their ballots for, based on the state numbers it's highly likely that Joe Biden and down-ballot Democrats won a significant percentage of them.

The report also examines the racial composition of those voters in key battleground states, revealing that poor folks turned out across race, including a large percentage of poor-white voters. This is significant, since their overall vote share throws into question the knee-jerk idea that poor white voters are a key part of Donald Trump's base. The data also suggests that it's possible to form multiracial coalitions of poor and low-income voters, if brought together around a political agenda that speaks to their shared needs and concerns.

The most important takeaway from the report: poor and low-income voters are a sleeping giant whose late-night stirrings are already impacting elections and who, if fully awakened, could transform the political calculus of elections to come. The question, then, is how to awaken those millions of suffering, struggling Americans in a way that galvanizes them around a vision of lifting the country from the bottom up, so that everyone — billionaires aside — can rise.

The first part of the answer, I'd suggest, is beginning within poor communities themselves, especially places where people are already taking life-saving action. The other part of the answer is finding new and creative ways to connect the survival strategies and projects of the poor to a wider movement that can move people beyond survival and toward building and wielding political power.

On this topic of power-building, Martin Luther King's words again ring true today. In "Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community," he wrote:

"Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organize our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands. We must develop, from strength, a situation in which the government finds it wise and prudent to collaborate with us."

Yes, it's once again time for poor and low-income people to come together across issues and lines of division, challenging the tired, yet still hegemonic narrative that blames them for their poverty, pits groups of them against each other, and feeds the lie of scarcity. Perhaps the Mass Poor People's and Low-Wage Workers Assembly and Moral March on Washington planned for the nation's capital on June 18, 2022, will signal the building of just such a new political powerhouse before the midterm elections.

Indeed, the response of those elected to serve all the people in a historic hour of need suggests that there is much work still to be done. But if in the months to come, you stop for a moment and feel the earth beneath your feet, you might just sense the rumblings of a giant electorate of poor and low-income agents of social change waking from its slumber.

Copyright 2021 Liz Theoharis

Featured image: Poor People's Campaign by cool revolution is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / Flickr

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Liz Theoharis, a TomDispatch regular, is a theologian, ordained minister, and anti-poverty activist. Co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, she is the author of Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor and the just-published We Cry Justice: Reading the Bible with the Poor People's Campaign. Follow her on Twitter at @liztheo.

BRAND NEW STORIES

Happy Holidays!