Crippling deficits and a nightmarish national debt are popular, recurring tropes in American politics: Every few months, politicians and the pundit class seem to recall that we’re broke. While some are no doubt sincere in their concern, our pocketbook cops are wildly inconsistent. They complain that America is running out of money when it comes to helping the poor, people of color, the disabled and the elderly. Their worries miraculously disappear whenever the military wants to start a new war.
Let’s begin with a recent editorial in The Washington Post alleging that single-payer health care in the U.S. is simply unaffordable. It cited studies showing it would cost “$32 trillion over 10 years.” Yet, in the past 20 years of editorials on U.S. wars — every one of which the paper has supported — the Post has never framed the issue of bombing and occupying as one of cost. Most glaringly, its 2003 editorials in support of invading Iraq never mentioned dollars and cents, even though that war ended up costing the U.S. more than $2 trillion — not including the subsequent costs of fighting Islamic State. Never in any of its cheerleading did it stop to consider the war’s affordability.
In the Democratic primary debates and in press conferences, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders was grilled on “how he would pay” for his free college and health care plans over and over again. Putatively liberal publications including the New Yorker and Vox decried Sanders’ “vague and unrealistic” price projections. But nobody asked his challenger, Hillary Clinton, how she would pay for the “no-fly zone” in Syria she championed that, according to the Pentagon, would require at least 70,000 servicemen and dozens of aircraft.
Similarly in the presidential debates, billionaire Pete Peterson’s pro-Social Security privatization group, the “bipartisan” Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, was mentioned twice by the moderators — that’s twice more than climate change — in the context of deficits and the alleged impending insolvency of Social Security. Yet, none of the 178 mentions of Russia, 71 mentions of Syria, or 67 mentions of Iran had anything to do with costs to the U.S. Treasury. War and agitation and the routine functions of empire are “factored in.” Like gravity, they’re a universal constant that politicians don’t have to “account for.” They just are.
One common rejoinder to this complaint is that military spending is about national security and protecting lives and is thus sheltered from such calculus. Even if you believe that’s true (it’s not), it’s still a bad answer.
An estimated 44,000 Americans die per year because they don’t have access to health care, whereas you’re more likely to die taking a bath than at the hands of a terrorist. Why is spending on the latter existential and beyond cost-cutting, but working urgently to address the former a budget-buster we can’t afford?
Politics is priorities, and ours align with a specific class whose interests are far out of line with the collective good.
The same ideological scam is used on the topic of government shutdowns. The parts of the government that benefit the poor and middle class — labor and safety regulators, libraries, environmental regulators, national parks, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (which oversees the derivatives market), financial regulators, welfare, and WIC — are suddenly unable to operate and must be shuttered, but the cogs that feed the war machine are deemed essential and remain untouched, defended by everyone from Democrats to alleged “small government” conservatives.
House Speaker Paul Ryan somehow got a reputation as a deficit hawk despite voting for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and every one of their supplemental budgets — the current total is $5 trillion and counting. Defense budgets and those that pad them operate in an alternate universe where military spending, somehow, isn’t spending.
In the same vein, the media’s most consistent deficit scold, Charles Lane, constantly hand-wrings about “entitlement reform” but the only time he brings up excess cost in the context of defense spending is when he wants to privatize the health care system for veterans. A $1.45 trillion F-35 program is A-OK; it’s Afghanistan war veterans’ medical costs that are going to cripple the economy.
If editorial boards and OpEd writers and debate moderators were genuinely concerned about us “running out of money” they would show concern across the board — especially on matters of U.S. military adventurism — and not just when it comes to programs that help the vulnerable.
Adam H. Johnson is a media analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.