The five largest U.S. defense firms have shed 70,000 jobs since 2008. It seems like the time is right for the U.S. to transition to a “peace economy,” in which defense funds would be channeled elsewhere, but the Islamic State threatens the possibility of such a shift.
WASHINGTON — Whether or not they are legitimate concerns that demand American attention, issues like the Islamic State, general instability in the Middle East, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine are used by the defense industry to argue for more funding. This makes issues that involve life and death more confusing because it creates economic incentives for congressional districts to support war.
“Many members of Congress, others, lobbyists from the defense industry, they want to get rid of the budget discipline that was established by the Budget Control Act ,” said Miriam Pemberton, director of the Peace Economy Transitions Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, a think tank based here, while speaking with MintPress News.
“They’re using current unrest in the Middle East as a reason to do that… [and] that would be a big mistake,” Pemberton said.
Recently, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Islamic State is “rapidly developing a method of blowing up a major U.S. city,” while Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, told Fox News that the group is a “direct threat to our homeland.” While those statements, if true, should be heeded, they don’t fit with official U.S. government analyses of the situation, raising questions of why these senators would say anything at all.
“We have no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the United States,” Matthew G. Olsen, director of the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center, told those gathered for an event sponsored by the Brookings Institution’s Intelligence Project on Sept. 3.
On Aug. 25, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, insists “there currently is not an active plot underway to attack the U.S. homeland by ISIL.” The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have also backed up these sentiments.
However, the increase in war rhetoric has excited security analysts, prompting Roman Schweizer of Guggenheim Securities to forecast that “defense spending is going to go up.”
This buzz comes at a time when one of the United States’ most powerful industries is facing sharp downsizing. Politico last month published its analysis of employment figures from the Securities and Exchange Commission and found that the “number of employees at the five largest U.S. defense firms has dropped 14 percent from a peak in 2008.” The report further states that Lockheed Martin, Boeing’s defense unit, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman have cut a total of “70,000 jobs since 2008.”
A peace economy
But does this mean that more money should be allocated for defense to thwart the Islamic State and reintroduce the thousands of jobs which have been lost since the defense industry has started to downsize?
No, says Pemberton.
Rather than creating hysteria over the Islamic State, she says the U.S. should begin to transition itself toward a more peaceful economy by investing in resources that will help the economy as a whole grow. She argues that while it does create jobs, investment in the defense industry doesn’t have the same kind of multiplier effects that investment in American infrastructure, health care, and strategies to avert climate catastrophe do. Indeed, a 2011 study by the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute corroborates her argument. Researchers there concluded that a $1 billion investment in clean energy, health care, and education would “create substantially more jobs within the U.S. economy than would the same $1 billion spent on the military.”
The U.S. economy currently spends approximately 19 percent of the federal budget on defense and international security assistance.
Pemberton told MintPress that two things must happen in order for the U.S. to transition to a peace economy: First, there needs to be a fiscal shift in the budget toward programs such as those mentioned above; and second, communities and workers affected by budgetary transitions must be helped.
“I’ve been working on this program that’s in the Pentagon that offers planning grants to communities who are facing defense contract cancellations [and] provides funds for them to come up with a plan to diversify their economy beyond defense contracting,” she told MintPress.
The program is in the Office of Economic Adjustment at the Pentagon, which recently gave $2.8 million to Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio for a regional Defense Manufacturing Assistance Program to “find new markets, support business stabilization, and implement diversification strategies” to transition away from defense and into more sustainable industries.
One of the primary issues in attempting to transition funds away from defense and into industries like education, clean energy, and health care is that defense contracts are spread out to as many constituencies throughout the U.S. as possible to garner votes and support for legislation that is valuable to those contracts. This is why issues related to defense are constantly trumpeted by Congress and the media — the industry has immense political power, which translates into news coverage and public support.
Pemberton says she pushes back against this power by focusing on strategies for working with communities to acquire planning funds and “make plans to come up with alternatives that are disengaged from the Pentagon, and to argue for shifts of resources toward the kinds of things that can create those alternative economies.”
While the Budget Control Act of 2011 and sequestration helped to cap some of the more egregious problems that lead to unlimited public spending on defense, Pemberton says that it is not the kind of mechanism that should be used “for doing the kind of investments that we need to do in infrastructure, in building clean transportation systems, [and] investing in our people.”
Instead, legislation is required, and a small amount is on its way. Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison recently passed an amendment to the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2015, that increased funding for the OAE by $10 million, which would directly help communities affected by “military base closures and Pentagon contract cancellations plan for themselves a future that is not dependent on a militarized economy.”
Pemberton mused about the Obama administration’s decision to go back into Iraq while speaking with MintPress, noting that “ISIS wants nothing more than to goad the U.S. back.” She wondered aloud about the necessity of a U.S. presence, saying that the Islamic State is “hated by everyone in that country and beyond, in Iran and most of the Muslim world, so the idea that the U.S. needs to go to war against ISIS is just wrong.”
Part of the administration’s plan to defeat ISIS includes ramping up “military assistance to the Syrian opposition.” However, such a strategy has proved risky in the past, as it bolstered the Islamic State’s strength because the group was able to capture weapons reportedly provided by Saudi Arabia and intended for Syria’s “Free Syrian Army” opposition fighters.