Contributed by Lisa Bergson. 

WHEN ALI HAJAJI’S SON FELL ILL with diarrhea and vomiting, the desperate father turned to extreme measures. Following the advice of village elders, he pushed the red-hot tip of a burning stick into Shaher’s chest, a folk remedy to drain the “black blood” from his son.

“People said burn him in the body and it will be O.K.,” Mr. Hajaji said. “When you have no money, and your son is sick, you’ll believe anything.”1

Although not our biggest-ever defense budget — as Trump likes to boast2 — his two-year $1.4 trillion military spending authorization raises issues relating to economics and efficacy. On its face, our military spending should make our country stronger and safer, and, working in tandem with a robust and intelligent diplomatic effort, promote American values of democracy and free trade around the world.  Yet we find presently find ourselves collaborating with Saudi Arabia in a dubious proxy war with Iran, transpiring in one of the world’s poorest countries, Yemen.  There, the Saudis have promoted a strategy of economic strangulation, driving down Yemeni currency, blockading aid, and turning a blind eye to corruption among local coalition-backed officials.3

This continues the sorry saga of our engagement in The Middle East, where we have been active, at least since the George W. Bush invasion of Iraq in 2003.  The on-going lack of a well-thought-out endgame has plagued our direct and proxy wars, drained our Treasury, brutally damaged our reputation, inflamed terrorism, and exacerbated the refugee crisis.  As bravely illustrated in the New York Times, our tragic engagement in Yemen has put the populace on the brink of mass starvation and led to desperate measures, such as those conducted by Mr.Hajaji, who was trying to save his second son from the fate of his first – death by famine. “All the big countries say they are fighting each other in Yemen,” he said. “But it feels to us like they are fighting the poor people.”4

At home, the economic impact of our growing emphasis on military build-up is more insidious and may take years to emerge. But already, Trump’s stepped-up military spending, combined with huge tax cuts, has drastically raised our government deficit, fueling inflation, which ultimately threatens our economic stability.  By putting money into non-consumable military expenditures, as opposed to goods and services that people can use, scarcity grows and, with it, higher prices.  That leads to inflation, classically defined as too many dollars chasing too few goods. Think supply & demand.

Indeed, Trump’s stance is eerily reminiscent of the 1981-1989 Reagan era’s disastrous combination of “trickle down” economics, heavily cutting taxes for the wealthy, and military build-up.5  In what seems almost paltry compared to today’s budget, President Reagan planned to raise military spending from $162 billion in 1981 to $343 billion a year in 1986. Writing in 1981, MIT economist Lester Thurow warned against the potential damage this would have on the economy.  The accuracy of his predictions bears special consideration in our present scenario.

Thurow foresaw that Reagan’s policies would lead to:

  • Inflation: Thurow sagely predicted “bottleneck inflation” based on the diversion of resources (manpower, materials, money) to military expenditures, leading to a drop in overall productivity. That said, his dire predictions actually fell way short of the real damage that resulted. Thurow wrote (boldface mine):

If productivity does not recover and the economy’s real growth rate is 3 percentage points less than Mr. Reagan predicts…[and] the President is underestimating 1982 expenditures by $25 billion…. you have a deficit of $111 billion in fiscal 1986.6

At the end of the day, by 1986, Reagan actually doubled the national debt from $998 billion to $2.1 trillion7!

  • Less innovation: “Since our high-technology civilian industries…demand the same equipment and personnel as our military industries, a rapid military buildup can only occur by taking resources out of the high-technology civilian sectors. The effects are going to be particularly severe in the semiconductor industry since it is going to be facing a Japanese onslaught during the next three years…. [But) our computer industry will be hemorrhaging personnel just when it needs its best brains to survive,” Thurow wrote.

He was beyond prescient. The U.S. semiconductor industry, which had been in the forefront, fell so far behind the Japanese that the government (we taxpayers) had to pony up $500 million in 1987 for a five-year program run by the Department of Defense to “regain competitiveness”.8,9

In addition to the damage to our high-tech industry, this writer also saw first-hand how Reagan’s policy sabotaged initiatives to become less carbon-dependent, as one of Reagan’s first budget cuts was to table all of President Jimmy Carter’s programs to develop alternative energy.  (Just think how far ahead of the global warming curve we would be if even a fraction of those projects had come to fruition!)

To make matters worse, Bill Clinton wound up ripping into the welfare safety net and making other unpopular moves to restore our economy, much as Obama’s efforts to promote a socially progressive and economically restorative agenda were undercut, in part, by pressure to clean-up the enormous Bush deficit. (Someday it would be nice to see the Republicans clean up their own mess – or, then again, maybe it wouldn’t.  In any case, it is always the poor and the middle class who pay the price for these faulty policies.)

Based on his experience, Robert Reich, Clinton’s former Labor Secretary, offers a lucid account of our current debacle:

Since taking office, Trump has increased military spending by more than $200 billion. Let’s take a second to look at how else that $200 billion could be spent. We could, for example:

Offer free public colleges and universities, as proposed by Bernie Sanders.

And fund the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

And expand broadband internet access to rural America.

And meet the growing needs for low-income housing, providing safe living conditions for families and the elderly.

And help repair the physical devastation in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.10

Of course, you could argue that protecting our nation is paramount, regardless of the cost to our economy and our civilian programs. But, this assumes that our military strategy is effective. For his part, Reich, now the chancellor’s professor for public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, questions how much of our “bloated” defense budget, more than two times that of China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea combined, goes to waste:

According to the Pentagon’s own internal figures, the department could save at least $125 billion by reducing operational overhead.

Out-of-control defense contractors also drive up spending. In the coming years, cost overruns alone are projected to reach an estimated $484 billion. Meanwhile, the CEOs of the top five defense firms took home $97.4 million in compensation last year11

These days, the rapidly expanding varieties and sophistication of “virtual threats”, like Chinese- backed infrastructure hackers and Russian social media trolls and election meddling, as well as the destructive and scary activities of domestic crazies, such as the recent massacre by a social-media-fueled anti-Semite, and the rise of Trump-inspired militias, like the Ku Klux Klan and the “Proud Boys” are examples of the confounding array of ways to wreak havoc and destruction. There is also a critical need to address the underlying causes of the destabilizing refugee crisis plaguing the west.  Such dislocations are prompted by vast geopolitical forces tied to the impacts of global warming, internecine wars, and terrorism — issues that all the drones in the world cannot eradicate.

Aside from the lack of a viable endgame in conflict zones, U.S. military spending may be misdirected or, at a minimum, imbalanced with “soft-power” diplomatic, cultural, and economic programs. By way of example, Trump cut U.S.-sponsored “Peace Programs” in Israel that fostered Israel-Palestine musical gatherings and interfaith schools for children, designed to encourage tolerance and appreciation of differing cultures.  “This is my only chance to meet a Palestinian,” a 17-year-old Israeli musician, who loves Arabic music, told NPR’s “Here and Now”.12

At a time when the threats we face call for a multi-faceted and well-orchestrated approach, our tools for promoting democracy and free trade (assuming these remain, in fact, our goals) become lesser and blunter. Echoing Thurow, Reich writes, “As Trump stokes tensions around the world, he’s adding fuel to the fire by demanding even more Pentagon spending. It’s a dangerous military buildup intended to underwrite endless wars and enrich defense contractors, while draining money from investment in the American people.”

You that never done nothing
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
“Masters of War”13 – Bob Dylan

  4. ibid.
  5. “Beware of Reagan’s Military Spending”, Lester Thurow, The New York Times, May 31, 1981
  9. Interesting false history from conservative site, crediting Reagan’s policies for revitalizing Silicon Valley!
  11. ibid.
  13. “Masters of War”, Bob Dylan, 1963,


A flock of birds fly past the Marine One helicopter with U.S. President Donald Trump aboard, as he returns to the White House after a visit to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, U.S., December 21, 2017. REUTERS/JIM BOURG

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