YEAR AFTER YEAR, more than 50 percent of the federal discretionary budget goes to the Pentagon, while only one-third of the non-defense discretionary budget is invested in struggling states and communities—a contrast at the heart of this year’s congressional budget battles. And yet for decades the Pentagon budget has remained sacrosanct while local communities suffer.
From the ground up, activists around the country are fighting back. They are striving to save their communities by calling for cuts in what they perceive as a bloated Pentagon budget—starting in some of the most unlikely places: local city councils.
My organization—the Minnesota Arms Spending Alternatives Project (MN ASAP)—is just one of many groups around the country seeking to shift federal spending priorities from preparing for and waging war to meeting local needs. Through a simple resolution, we build political support by asking churches, organizations, city councils, and state legislators to endorse our initiative to cut Pentagon spending and invest in communities.
In 2011, the Minnesota state government shut down over disputes as to how to address a two-year, $5 billion budget shortfall. Yet Minnesota taxpayers spent nearly $3.5 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2011 alone, bringing total Minnesota taxpayer spending for these wars to $40 billion, according to the National Priorities Project. As in other states, many cities and communities in Minnesota are managing austerity budgets, tightening their belts and laying off police, firefighters, and teachers—all while the Pentagon budget remains unchecked.
Many have felt for years that military spending is weakening the country and remains disconnected from actual security needs. Adm. Michael Mullen, then-chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told CNN in 2010 that “The most significant threat to our national security is our debt.” Investments in education, infrastructure, and jobs are what we need to make our nation secure, not excessive spending on Pentagon programs fraught with graft and waste.
Why can’t the Pentagon budget be reduced? The usual reason given is the jobs created by Pentagon spending. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, founder of MN ASAP, explains that money spent on the military is actually a poor investment. “Military spending is bad for the economy,” Nelson-Pallmeyer said. “[It] creates relatively few jobs per billion dollars spent, and military cuts have fewer negative economic social impacts than equal cuts in non-defense programs.” According to a study several years ago by economists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, $1 billion spent on education generates about 27,000 jobs, whereas that same $1 billion only generates about 11,000 military jobs.
Several other places in the country are taking grassroots action against military spending. According to Mike Prokosch of the New Priorities Network, Peace Action created a 50-organization coalition in Maryland—including unions and immigrant rights organizations—to challenge Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s leading defense contractors. In Des Moines, Iowa, Mayor Frank Cownie—a member of Mayors for Peace—and the city council passed a resolution in December that urged Congress and the president to fund priorities at home rather than the war in Afghanistan and other “non-essential Pentagon budget appropriations.” In Maine, a grassroots campaign called Bring Our War Dollars Home has created a groundswell of support in their fight to cut the Pentagon budget to fund local needs.
Taking on this national issue at the local level is an uphill battle. However, with so many states facing budget shortfalls and forced to cut social services, people across the country are starting to get the message.
In his book Authentic Hope, Nelson-Pallmeyer wrote, “It is time for us to reject the false narrative of debt, deficits, austerity, and the imagined benefits of Pentagon spending. It is time for us to unleash our imaginations and envision the millions of good jobs we can create and the better society we can build.” It’s an idea that should continue to take root in cities throughout our nation.
Candice Quinn holds a Ph.D. in history from Marquette University and is the communications coordinator for MN ASAP.
Image: Dollars in uniform pocket, xzserg / Shutterstock.com