Op-ed column: Costs of war curtail funds for state and municipal services

It can be hard to see a connection between the local economy and distant wars. The nation’s defense

It can be hard to see a connection between the local economy and distant wars. The nation’s defense costs rarely get mentioned during municipal or state budget battles.

But according to certain critics, sky-high military expenses are largely to blame for federal cuts to domestic spending. They say that states and cities across America may experience further economic decline, precisely because it costs so much to wage war.

Every year, the federal government spends hundreds of billions on defense. A substantial amount of those funds go to multiple foreign operations, which have spread U.S. personnel from Africa through the Middle East.

The conflict in Afghanistan has lasted almost 10 years, producing one of the longest campaigns in U.S. military history. The Iraq war is supposed to be winding down, but thousands of troops are stationed there eight years after the 2003 invasion.

In March, a third campaign was launched against Libya. Defense officials have admitted that more than $500 million worth of missiles were fired at Libyan targets.

Meanwhile, here at home, state and local budgets have been filled with red ink.

Curtailing services

Despite some positive economic signs, huge losses of federal funds are forcing New York and most states to curtail an array of government services, especially public education and health programs.

According to state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, New York saw federal aid reduced by nearly $7 billion during the 2011 budget process. On March 29, Silver told the TV program Capital Tonight that education funding alone was cut by over $1 billion.

Chris Hedges, a former New York Times reporter turned war critic, protested such federal aid reductions in a Feb. 28 column on Truthdig.com.

“We are wasting $700 million a day to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while our teachers, firefighters and police lose their jobs, while we slash basic assistance programs for the poor, children and the elderly . . . and while we do nothing to help the one in six American workers who cannot find work,” Hedges said.

“The sooner we leave Iraq and Afghanistan, the sooner we will save others and finally save ourselves,” he added.

However, federal priorities are not likely to change. A majority of lawmakers are opposed to cutting military expenses, out of legitimate concerns about terrorism.

The Congressional Budget Office reports that $707 billion was requested by the Defense Department for fiscal year 2011. The CBO separated regular military expenses of $548 billion, from an extra $159 billion needed for U.S. forces overseas.

Analysts’ warning

A few years ago, two economic analysts warned about excessive military funding and its potential effects on government finances. They concluded that U.S. operations in the Middle East ultimately would cost $3 trillion in federal resources . . . with consequences for the whole economy.

“The United States is a rich and strong country, but even rich and strong countries squander trillions of dollars at their peril,” said Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz, who co-authored an article in The Washington Post on March 9, 2008.

Bilmes and Stiglitz, professors at Harvard and Columbia, respectively, published a related book, analyzing the campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They estimated the total monthly cost of the wars at $16 billion. And those expenditures, they found, were diverting federal money away from states and municipalities.

These days, the work of Bilmes and Stiglitz seems more relevant than ever. Due to federal cuts, most state and local governments have faced significant budget deficits.

Fruitless efforts

Still, strong bipartisan support sustains the $707 billion military expense. Some members of Congress have made attempts recently to reduce that spending, to no avail.

On March 17, for example, a resolution from Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich was defeated in the House of Representatives. It would have asked President Barack Obama to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by year’s end (but was voted down 321 to 93).

In a statement issued afterward, the Ohio Democrat said: “The cost of the war, both in terms of blood and treasure, is unsustainable.” Kucinich vowed to lobby in Congress until the resolution passes.

Then, on April 6, the co-chairmen of the Congressional Progressive Caucus wrote a letter to Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen, who sits on the House Budget Committee. The letter urged Van Hollen, a Democrat, to resist Republican proposals for more domestic spending cuts, and to challenge the rising costs of armed entanglements.

“We need to responsibly end the wars abroad and limit future military excursions that obligate tax dollars, and the lives of young men and women, with little direct benefit to the United States,” said Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva and Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison.

The bottom line, critics say, is that the massive U.S. defense budget should be cut next. The price of continuous war and occupation in foreign lands, they argue, could be simply beyond America’s ability to pay.

Indeed, the economy may get worse if federal leaders keep funding global military objectives, regardless of the fiscal crises emerging in many states and communities.

Lawrence Goodman lives in Amsterdam.

Categories: Opinion

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