Military spending is starving the working class, and the problem is bipartisan

No sooner had Progressive candidates led the “blue wave” to retake the House of Representatives on a platform of working-class issues and social-welfare programs than pundits began asking, “how do you pay for it?” No government program, no matter how popular, is immune from budgetary restraint in the name of “fiscal responsibility” or “the deficit” — except for the military.

When the congressionally appointed blue ribbon National Defense Strategy Commission concluded that Congress must increase 2018 military spending by as much as 5 percent on top of the estimated $733 billion, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee James Inhofe said the $733 billion mark “should be considered a floor, not a ceiling.”

The example is hardly unique, but it is instructive: while programs that benefit the working class are endlessly scrutinized over their cost, ‘national security’ is given carte blanche.

No war since Vietnam has been funded, or “offset,” by a tax increase.[1] War taxes make the enormous monetary cost of waging war apparent to the general public, and they inevitably erode public support for conflict. On the other hand, financing war-level military budgets through deficit spending and by siphoning money from welfare programs reduces the apparent cost to the public while starving the social programs most desperately needed by the working class.[2] No surprise, then that in the absence of these offsets, American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the two longest in U.S. history.

Bipartisan blame


The problem is rooted in bipartisan and ‘national security’ expertise. Consider the National Defense Strategy Commission’s 2018 report, Providing for the Common Defense, written by a panel of Pentagon officials, Congressmen, and defense industry officials.

While this report markets itself as bipartisan — an expression of desired credibility — conflicts of interest that in any other sector would be dismissed as a blatant conflict-of-interest are apparent on the report’s cover. Admiral Gary Roughead, Co-Chair of the report, is on the board of directors for a top weapons manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, as identified by a Project on Government Oversight initiative led by Mandy Smithberger. Jon Kyle joined the list of authors while a member of the U.S. Senate, a brief interruption in his career as a lobbyist for arms manufacturers.

While this raises numerous red flags for making unbiased national policy recommendations, former Secretary of Defense James Mattis assured us that these conflicts of interests serve practical purposes. As the former Secretary wrote, “this report demonstrates how DoD has kept its promise that every decision we make is focused on lethality and affordability.”

This escaped the critique of how it was relayed to the public. Journalists frequently described the report — and others like it — as “independent” and “bipartisan.” This mischaracterization is politically consequential. Because bipartisanship is routinely pronounced dead,[3] the products of bipartisan agreement are liable to be misinterpreted as being above politics. “Bipartisanship” suggests common ground has been found by virtue of pragmatism and the recognition of a universal good. In the context of military spending, however, bipartisanship does not mean a convergence of diverse opinions. It means the dominance of a uniform narrative.

Fiscal Year 2018 military spending was nearly a historic high. Yet Michele Flournoy, who would likely have been Hillary Clinton’s appointment for Secretary of Defense, wrote in the Washington Post while this budget was working its way through the Congress that “Trump is right to spend more on defense,” qualifying her support with mere technical quibbles over the way in which that money should be spent.

Security establishment coercion

Congress is meant to consider not only the insecurity produced by remote, improbable military threats, but the insecurity produced by inadequate healthcare, climate change, low wages, and crumbling infrastructure. That Americans continue to face urgent and pressing threats in these areas makes clear Congress has abdicated this responsibility.

A lack of health insurance, for example, leads to an estimated 44,789 fatalities annually, according to a 2009 study by the American Journal of Public Health. Uninsured working-age Americans are 40 percent more likely to die compared to the insured in the same demographic. 

“We doctors have many new ways to prevent deaths from hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease  — but only if patients can get into our offices and afford their medications,” Andrew Wilper, the study’s author, wrote.

The national security establishment actively fuels this congressional abdication. For the authors of Providing for a Common Defense, anything short of a 3 percent to 5 percent increase on the proposed $733 billion budget — already $17 billion more than last year’s record-setting amount — perpetuates spending levels the authors characterize as “a crisis of national security.”[4] The authors don’t provide a specific funding estimate, but they do warn that no matter how large the ultimate proposal, if it is not funded, “we will surely regret it.”[5]

The accepted norm of exempting national security spending from the opportunity cost calculations ruthlessly applied to social spending proposals allows the report’s authors to ignore real crises in healthcare, social mobility, or income inequality.

Providing for a Common Defense derides the defense budget increase of $74 billion approved by Congress as insufficient despite the fact U.S. military spending outpaces that of China and Russia 3-to-1 and 10-to-1, respectively.[6]

Pointing to a “grave” erosion in U.S. “military superiority” lends the appearance that more dramatically increased military spending is needed to confront real and urgent dangers, yet Providing for the Common Defense effectively requests a substantial increase in defense spending not in response to a clear and present threat, but a threat of a threat.[7] 

Crucially, this threat inflation reduces the chance that Congress will take heed of the way the authors benefit personally from runaway military spending.

Admiral Gary Roughead’s employer, Northrop Grumman, was awarded government contracts amounting to $10.7 billion in taxpayer money in 2016. Senator Jon Kyl, a contributing author, shares common ground with Roughead. Before his latest stint in Congress, Kyl lobbied for both Northrop Grumman and Raytheon for the same firm to which he has just rejoined.

A more inclusive version of security

The accepted definition of ‘national security’ does not ensure the human security of the very people the defense establishment claims to protect. In fact, these two versions of security exist in fundamental opposition. The working class effectively pays twice for ‘national security.’  First, more than one-half of taxpayer discretionary spending goes to military spending. Second, because this spending is also funded by the national debt, it inflates the power of ‘the deficit’ as a rhetorical device, invoked by both Democrats and Republicans to justify cutting social programs that support working-class survival.

Ironically, while the national security establishment is unencumbered by the prevailing social conditions in the their own country, the authors of Providing for a Common Defense focus intently on the domestic conditions of China:

“[A]s part of a whole-of-society approach to innovation, China is currently making great strides in the race to dominate in key areas such as Fifth-Generation Long-Term Evolution (5G LTE) broadband wireless networks. That effort may yield great economic, geopolitical, and military benefits for Beijing — and equally great dangers for the United States.”[8]

Their solution to China’s development of an advanced broadband internet network is not a reciprocal investment in American critical infrastructure. Instead, they advise the exact opposite: that U.S. taxpayer dollars be redistributed into accounts for projecting military force.

“Congress and DOD must find new ways of enabling more rapid maturation, acquisition, and fielding of leap-ahead technologies… optimizing them for innovation and warfighting effectiveness.”

To the authors’ credit, they openly admit these investments in “the U.S. National Security Innovation Base” will probably be wasteful, yet they insist on the need of accepting “greater cost and risk in pursuit of speed and the game-changing technological breakthroughs necessary to sustain U.S. military advantages.”[9]

A more meaningful version of security would avoid the routine inflation of remote or imagined ‘national security’ threats. This deprogramming will take some time. Yet just as progressive grassroots movements have brought income inequality to the fore by challenging the interests of the economic elite, only by challenging the threat inflation of the national security establishment will it be possible to begin addressing the crises of real security — in real and present issues such as health and livelihoods.


[1] “Political Parties at War,” by Gustavo Flores-Macias and Sarah Kreps (2013) in American Political Science Review, Vol. 107, No. 4.

[2] “The Economic Value of Peace,” by Institute for Economics & Peace (2016), p. 6. <>

[3] For example: Jenkins, Nash.  Rhodan, Maya.  2017.  “The Republican Tax Bill Proves That Bipartisanship is Dead,” Time, 20 December.  <>; Badger, Emily.  2009.  “There is no common ground anymore,” Pacific Standard, 13 October.  <>)

[4] Providing for a Common Defense, 1

[5] Providing for a Common Defense, 3


[7] The report based this recommendation on an imagined future scenario. Potential increases in the military budgets of China or Russia could potentially lead to conditions threatening to the United States.  Why confronting the United States is assumed to be a priority for China and Russia is not explained. The rationale producing these actions is effectively ignored.

[8]  Providing for the Common Defense, viii.

 [9] Providing for the Common Defense, ix.