As a detailed outline of how the government will spend your tax dollars in fiscal year 2009, which starts October 1, the budget submitted to Congress by President Bush on Monday is virtually worthless. But as a way to contrast the misplaced — and, frankly, immoral — priorities of the last seven years of conservative rule with what the country really wants and needs, Bush’s 2009 budget document is invaluable.
Bush’s $3.1 trillion budget is wrong-headed on so many counts, as the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities points out, it is no wonder the conventional wisdom is that the Democratic-controlled Congress will ignore it, at least to the extent that the combination of President Bush’s veto pen and an obstructionist, sycophant Senate Republican minority will allow.
But just because significant parts of it will be rewritten does not mean that it should be dismissed as politically irrelevant. It is, in fact, very relevant to what should be the core political debate of 2008: Do we want a government that supports the needs and aspirations of ordinary Americans or one that turns its back on them?
On that score, there is only one thing that President Bush is prepared to say yes to: an exorbitant increase in military spending that is well above what the country actually needs to protect itself. In inflation-adjusted terms, Bush’s proposed $514 billion budget for the Pentagon is the largest since World War II. Think about it: When the United States was involved in a two-front, full-out ground and air war, the United States government was actually spending less money on the military than it is today.
Critics say that the real story is that military spending as a percentage of the country’s gross domestic product — about 4 percent — is actually at historic lows. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen is making the 4 percent figure a threshold. “I really do believe this 4 percent floor is important,” Admiral Mullen is quoted by The New York Times as saying. “It’s really important, given the world we’re living in, given the threats that we see out there, the risks that are, in fact, global, not just in the Middle East.”
But why 4 percent, when the world average is 2 percent, according to the CIA Factbook, and the 27 countries that spend more than 4 percent of their GDP on defense, aside from China at 4.3 percent, are either small countries, heavy oil exporters or, as in the case of Oman and Qatar, both?
As it turns out, the 4 percent figure was pulled out of the posterior of The Heritage Foundation, which doesn’t explain why 4 percent is the magic number, either. (Perhaps it’s only because “Four Percent for Freedom,” like so much conservative nonsense, nonetheless makes for a crisp, alliterative bumper sticker.) What The Heritage Foundation does say in one of its “Four Percent for Freedom” papers, though, is that “projected growth in entitlement
expenditures will jeopardize the nation’s ability to wage war over the long term. This harsh fact makes entitlement
reform a national security issue.”
There you have it. President Bush’s cuts of Medicare and Medicaid funding, his 10 percent slashing of the Justice Department’s budget, the nearly 8 percent cut at the Labor Department, his 25 percent cut of the Department of Transportation — these cuts and more will help us preserve our “ability to wage war.”
But we must ask: How secure is a nation that will not adequately fund local police and fire departments? How secure is a nation that will not preserve the rights of its workers and protect them from both discrimination and the economic threats of globalization? How secure is a nation that will not preserve and expand its transportation network in the process help reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil? How secure is a nation that will not assure that its citizens have health care, or equal access to a quality education, or a job with a living wage? How secure is a nation whose leadership vociferously champions the wants of the wealthy while dismissing the needs of the poor and working class?
Progressives are in a better position than ever to win the debate what makes a nation secure, especially in the wake of an administration that has spent billions of dollars actually making the nation less secure through a combination of rank incompetence, ideological wrong-headedness and an unaccountable privatization of military and civilian duties that has led to huge wastes of both tax dollars and American credibility.
The Bush budget, therefore, should be debated before it is tossed into the trash, where it ultimately belongs. The American people need to have a meaningful discussion about whether their tax dollars should be used for their needs or those of the military-industrial complex.