California's Great Recession and the Costs of War

Critical to California's long-term economic health is ending the War in Afghanistan and bringing the troops and the billions in military funding home.

California is on life support. Families are reeling from the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression. The state’s social safety net - and the life sustaining services it provides - is needed now more than ever. But due to massive and ongoing budget deficits, rather than strengthening programs that are in such high demand – from health care to education to assistance to the poor – we are dismantling them. 

To adequately and humanely address the economic pain felt by too many Californians and prevent the recession from deepening, new revenues are desperately needed. One proposal that hasn’t received deserved attention, but critical to our long-term economic health, is ending the War in Afghanistan and bringing the troops, and the billions in military funding, home (Click here to read my complete “White Paper” and watch the accompanyingshort film by Brave New Films at the bottom of this article).

An Economy on Life Support 

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The depth of the crisis faced by California screams out from the cold hard data. Over one in five Californians are unemployed, underemployed, or have simply given up searching for work. Nearly another one in five lives in poverty. Low-income workers fortunate to have a job have seen their wages decline since 2006 – with middle income worker salaries remaining stagnant. 8.2 million Californians - up from 6.4 million in 2007 - lack health coverage.

Doors will slam shut this year on as many as 35,000 applicants to the California State University system. Both university systems approved 20% tuition and fee hikes since the start of 2009 – and UC Regents has just approved an additional 30% hike this year - ending too many students dreams of a higher education, and burdening too many more with high interest debt.

The news for educators is no better. More than 23,000 teachers recently received “pink slips”, unlikely to return to the classroom next fall.

Over three-quarters of a million California families were ousted from their homes in 2008 and 2009. The Center for Responsible Lending projects another 2 million foreclosures through 2012 - with nearby homes losing an average of over $50,000 in value. 2.4 million California borrowers - 35 percent of all properties with a mortgage - are currently under water (e.g. owe more on their home than it’s currently worth). By 2011, that number will increase to nearly 70 percent of homeowners.

Slashing Services When They’re Needed Most

As Californians depend on core public programs in increasing numbers and need – from the state’s welfare-to-work program (CalWORKS) to In-Home State Services to the Healthy Families Program - the state’s ongoing budget shortfalls have lead to draconian cuts in the very services that have functioned as a lifeline for millions and prevented a more pronounced economic collapse.

And the worst is still to come. Because California is the only state in the country that requires a two-thirds vote in the legislature to pass a budget and raise revenues, the current $19.9 billion deficit will be almost entirely closed by even deeper program cuts. Targeted proposals to raise new revenues will receive typical short thrift (i.e. extraction tax on Big Oil, repealing recent corporate tax breaks, reforming Prop 13, etc.) from the legislature due to the state’s anti-democratic budget rules.

While no final agreement has been reached, the human devastation wrought by the Governor’s proposed budget would be grim and sobering. Schools would be shuttered, disabled Californians denied care, senior and local government services decimated, and children stripped of their health coverage. If budgets are truly a reflection of our shared values, then there’s got to be another way.

The Costs of War

For eight long years – twice the time it took the US to defeat the Axis Powers in World War II – the war in Afghanistan has drained our nation’s resources at a time we have none to spare. America has spent over $250 billion on this war since 2001 – with California taxpayers picking up $37.9 billion of that tab.

The National Priorities Project (NPP) - a nonpartisan non-profit that analyzes how our tax dollars are spent - estimates that once the additional 30,000 troops are included America will spend over $100 billion on the war this year alone. Meanwhile, California has gone from contributing an annual low of $1.8 billion in 2004, to $7 billion last year, to an estimated $9.2 billion in 2010.

Alternatives to War Spending 

Consider these stark examples of misplaced priorities: The cost of 1 soldier for 1 year in Afghanistan is $1 million; while the cost of college tuition at a California State University is $9,285. The cost of a single anti-tank missile in Afghanistan is $85,000; while the cost of providing 1 year of college books and supplies is $1,608 (average fees). And the cost of 1 predator drone in Afghanistan is $4.5 million; while 1 full Pell Grant for a college student in California is $5,350.

Or imagine if the $37.9 billion California contributed to the war had been spent on expanding health care, improving education, or increasing our energy independence? According to NPP - for one year – we could have provided funding for any one of the following:

•    15.6 million people with health care;
•    5.7 million scholarships and 7 million Pell Grants for university students;
•    4.5 million Head Start placements for children;
•    500,000 new elementary school teachers;
•    676,649 public safety officers;
•    535,058 music and arts teachers;
•    113,373 affordable housing units;
•    And 67.4 million homes with renewable electricity.

Every California city tells its own story of misused taxpayer dollars. San Francisco has contributed $1 billion to the war in Afghanistan – enough to provide 3,023 affordable housing units and 8,042 public safety officers. Los Angeles contributed $3.2 billion - enough to provide 1.2 million children with health care. 

But instead of embracing fiscal sanity, we are doubling down on fiscal madness. According to a Congressional Budget Office estimate, over the next ten years the cost of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars could total $2.4 trillion, or nearly $8,000 per American man, woman and child.

Financial considerations aren’t the only reason to support bringing the troops home. Namely, this war doesn’t make us safer. For every bomb we drop and every innocent civilian killed insurgent forces and terrorist networks gain new recruits weary of an American occupation.

According to government estimates, less than 100 Al Qaeda members even reside in Afghanistan. If the purpose of the war was to avenge 9/11 and root out “the terrorists” – as advertised - then our mission has been accomplished.

And what of the tragic loss of life and unimaginable human tragedy that inevitably accompanies war? American casualties doubled in 2009, with the total killed in Afghanistan approaching 1000. 541 Californians have been wounded or killed there - the next closest state is Texas at 462.

Thousands more Americans have been physically maimed, dismembered, and disabled, with even more suffering permanent psychological and emotional scars, only to return home to a country with a weakened and underfunded social safety net facing annual budget assaults.

According to the United Nations, the number of civilians killed surpassed 2,400, the most lethal year yet. Untold more Afghans continue to suffer physical and emotional torment matched only by the severity of the perpetual economic hardship and warfare that has become a daily nightmare.

But if there is a single, compelling argument for ending the war that all Californians should be able to rally around it’s that we simply can’t afford it. It’s time to spend what little resources we have on alleviating human suffering here at home, rather than perpetuating it in Afghanistan.

It’s time to change our priorities. It’s time to choose life.

Choosing Life: End the War and Invest in California

Warnings from past American icons are worth reconsidering. The late Five-Star General, and Republican President, Dwight D. Eisenhower forewarned, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children..."

Just a few years later, a young minister and Nobel Peace Prize winning human rights champion, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., implored, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” 

We would do well to heed their words today. Foreclosing on our future to fund an endless occupation on the other side of the world shouldn’t be confused with “national defense”. It’s time to end the war, bring the troops home, and invest those resources on the health and well being of the citizens of California.



Watch Brave New Films' short documentary:

Zack Kaldveer is the Communications Director of the Consumer Federation of California, a non-profit advocacy organization. CFC campaigns for state and federal laws that place consumer protection ahead of corporate profit. Each year, CFC testifies before the California legislature on dozens of bills that affect millions of our state's consumers. CFC also appears before state agencies in support of consumer regulations. Recent CFC legislative issues include: protecting consumer financial privacy, advocating for single payer health care, supporting public financing of elections, cracking down on predatory mortgage and payday lenders, implementing an extraction tax on Big Oil, prohibiting manufacturers from keeping secret vital safety information about defective products, repealing California's anti-democratic two-thirds budget and tax rule, enacting cell phone users rights, and strengthening food safety laws. Zack also authors the blog Privacy Revolt..