The Common Good
May-June 1999

A Sign of Spiritual Distress

by Ben Cohen | May-June 1999

Our values are revealed in the national budget.

A democratic nation’s true priorities are revealed in its national budget. If you examine how a country spends tax dollars, you will understand its values and spiritual health.

Measured against this yardstick, our nation’s number one concern is not the education of our children or the plight of the poor, but the profits of defense contractors and their lobbyists. Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union, Pentagon spending is still America’s number one budget priority.

The total U.S. defense budget exceeds $275 billion this year—18 times as much as the combined spending of all the potential adversaries identified by the Pentagon itself, including Iraq, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Cuba. (Iraq’s total defense budget is about $1 billion.) If you add the entire military budgets of Russia and China, the United States still spends twice as much. And—as if the United States were somehow shortchanging the Pentagon—the Clinton administration is seeking a $12 billion military budget increase this year, as part of a five-year, $112 billion add-on, the largest Pentagon increase since the Cold War.

But the real national tragedy—and the top indicator of America’s spiritual distress—is revealed when Pentagon spending is compared to other programs funded by the federal government. For example in the current U.S. budget, while the Pentagon receives $276 billion, the country spends $31 billion on education, $30 billion on children’s health, $21 billion on affordable housing, $7 billion on the Environmental Protection Agency, and $5 billion on Head Start.

This year about half the $580 billion discretionary budget—or half the money Congress actually votes on—goes to the Pentagon. The rest is divided among nondefense programs—for example, housing and income security (10 percent); health (6 percent); education training and employment services (8 percent); and environment, science, agriculture, and energy (9 percent).

So, viewed through the lens of our federal budget priorities, a picture emerges of our country as sacrificing its core spirit and common humanity for militarism run amok.

OUR NATIONAL BUDGET tells us that we value high-tech Cold War weapons more than the education of our kids; that we are more eager to meet the demands of pork-barreling politicians than the needs of ailing seniors; and that we have infinitely more tolerance for Pentagon welfare queens than the urban poor. It’s a moral abomination to feed the Pentagon so much of our national resources while 11 million of our kids don’t have health insurance and 14 million attend schools that are crumbling.

However, we can align our national budget with the deep religious and spiritual values of our nation. Let’s begin by transferring 15 percent (about $40 billion) of Pentagon spending to human needs. Such a modest transfer—endorsed by military leaders including Lawrence Korb, former Reagan administration assistant secretary of defense—would skim away only a small amount of the money wasted at the Pentagon, but it would be enough to provide new hope and strength to millions of people in need. Here are some examples what a 15 percent transfer could buy:

---By choosing not to build just four F22s—originally justified to fight the Soviet Union—America could fund all 6,000 schools that applied for federal money for after-school programs.

---For the price of just four New Attack Submarines—designed to replace a submarine that is already the world’s most advanced—America could provide a year’s worth of Head Start to all 1.7 million eligible children who don’t have it.

---By reducing the nuclear arsenal to 1,000 nuclear warheads—which is still too many of these immoral weapons—America could provide health insurance to all kids who don’t have it and reduce K-3 class size down to 18 students.

America’s spirit is weakened when our kids go to school in run-down buildings. When they go home to a decrepit apartment, the soul of every American is taxed. But we can do something about this. By judiciously transferring wasteful Pentagon funding to human needs, we can strengthen the spirit of our nation. —Ben Cohen

BEN COHEN is co-founder of Ben and Jerry’s Homemade, Inc., and a founder of Move Our Money (MOM), a citizens campaign calling for reinvesting wasteful Pentagon spending in America’s schools, kids, and other domestic needs. Contact MOM at 1-888-MOVEIT-1 or www.moveourmoney.org.

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