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“Cashing in the War Dividend”: As Healthcare Reform Limited by Deficit Concerns, Military Spending Continues to Grow

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As lawmakers hash out the final details of legislation to reform the nation’s healthcare system, one of the key questions is: How much will it all cost, and how will it affect the federal deficit? While $900 billion over ten years may sound like a hefty price tag, it is a mere fraction of this country’s spending on the military, which is expected to grow by at least $133.1 billion over the next decade. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are hashing out the final details of legislation to reform the nation’s healthcare system. And one of the key questions is: How much will it all cost, and how will it affect the federal deficit?

In the Senate, legislation giving doctors $247 billion in increased Medicare fees over the next decade nearly collapsed on Tuesday amid bipartisan concern over growing federal deficits. Meanwhile, in the House Democratic leaders have cut the cost of their healthcare bill from more than $1 trillion to $871 billion over the next decade. That’s according to the Washington Post. The new estimate falls well under the ten-year $900 billion limit set by President Obama for the total cost of reform.

AMY GOODMAN: While $900 billion over ten years may sound like a hefty price tag, it’s a mere fraction of this country’s spending on the military. Consider that the Pentagon’s budget for 2010 alone is $704 billion.

A new article published at TomDispatch.com helps to put the numbers in perspective. It says, “According to [Department of Defense] projections, the baseline military budget — just the bare bones, not those billions in war-fighting extras — is projected to increase by 2.5% each year for the next 10 years. In other words, in the next decade the basic Pentagon budget will grow by at least $133.1 billion.”

The article is called “Cashing in the War Dividend: The Joys of Perpetual War.” It’s written by Jo Comerford, who is the executive director of the National Priorities Project. She’s joining us now from Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Jo, welcome to Democracy Now!

JO COMERFORD: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Lay out exactly what your findings are, as the big discussion is, can we afford healthcare in this country? The question of what the war costs.

JO COMERFORD: Absolutely. Good morning, everyone.

So, what you’re saying is true, Amy, and at the top of the show you mentioned healthcare and the cost of college. Well, our nation doesn’t take the same kind of care — it seems our federal budget doesn’t take the same kind of due diligence care with military spending. To date, Americans have paid $915 billion for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That’s as of September 30th of this year. In the fiscal year 2010 budget, as you mentioned, we will pay $704 billion in military expenditures; $130 billion of that is for the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you come by your numbers? And why is so little known about these real costs?

JO COMERFORD: Well, you know, the National Priorities Project, we’ve spent two decades — twenty-five years, actually, this year — looking into the federal government’s budget. And we look right at the primary source documents coming out from the government itself. So our researchers looked at President Obama’s 2010 budget, and we looked at the numbers and added them all up. It’s a job that folks have to do, because these numbers should be known by everyone, as you say.

ANJALI KAMAT: And Jo, can you talk about the states that are in debt, their budgets are in deficit? Can you talk about the numbers? How much would it take for federal spending to give to these states?

JO COMERFORD: Well, actually, one of the figures that we’re looking at now is that the combined total budgets of states, of the forty-eight states projected to be in deficit for 2010, is $689 billion. And when you compare that to our nation’s military budget for 2010 — it’s $704 billion — it’s striking that the total state budgets, forty-eight states, is less than our nation’s military expenditures. So, for example, for Massachusetts, we are at a $27 billion budget, $5 billion of which will be in deficit, which will mean huge cuts. For the states, it’s about $160 billion for all forty-eight states to bring them to level funding for 2010.

ANJALI KAMAT: You talk about the fact that every gallon of gas used in Afghanistan by the US costs $400. Can you explain this number?

JO COMERFORD: Well, actually, it’s out of a recent report on the Hill, and it looks at the — actually what they call a fully burdened cost of a gallon of gasoline in Afghanistan. And that number is at least $400 per gallon. And one of the other figures this article noted was that the Marines on average use about 800,000 gallons of gasoline every day. So this is actually an area that we’re going to look more into, because this is enormous expenditure in terms of war making in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: Take the example of the state you’re in right now, Jo Comerford. Talk about Massachusetts.

JO COMERFORD: Well, Massachusetts is really struggling, as is New York state. So our governor, Governor Patrick, is having to look at not only cuts for next year, but cuts, more cuts, for this year. So next year we’re projected at $5 billion in deficit. And so, Governor Patrick now and the state legislature is having to make some very hard decisions — healthcare for folks, elderly home care services, Head Start programs, programs for gifted and talented students in schools. And so, these things are true at the same time we are projected to get 17.3 percent less from the federal government next year in Massachusetts. So it’s really a collision.

And one of the things that NPP is looking at is the fact that often when we talk about state fiscal budget deficits, we really talk about declining tax bases, but we don’t make the connection to federal spending in the local communities. One of the fact sheets we have out now is — looks at the growth of the federal budget. So our federal budget grew over the last seven years or so, between 2001 and 2008. It grew about 28 percent. And so, we would expect funding for states and local communities to grow at that same rate. But in truth, they only grew 14 percent, while military expenditures grew 41 percent, or over budget. So, really, as our federal budget pie grows, states and local communities are getting smaller, smaller slices of pie, while the military is getting a much larger slice.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the number, 14 million children in poverty; even if the Baucus plan or some version of it were to pass, the millions of citizens who remain without health insurance; the 7.6 million people who’ve lost their jobs since 2007. Put this all in perspective for us.

JO COMERFORD: Well, you know, if we want to — say, for example, in honor of Democracy Now, look at New York City. Since 2001, New York City has spent $30.6 billion — these are taxpayer dollars coming from New York City — to fund the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we want to think about healthcare, that’s 5.6 million people in New York with healthcare for one year. Or if we want to think about our students, that’s more than one million four-year fully funded Pell Grants for our students. So these are enormous numbers. These are opportunity costs of our government’s decision to have a huge military budget, the largest in the world, and to continue prosecuting these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

ANJALI KAMAT: Jo, I want to turn to the issue of military recruitment. For the first time in more than thirty-five years, the military has announced it’s met or surpassed its recruitment goals. And the National Priorities Project is one of the few organizations that tracks these numbers. Can you talk about how much the military spends per recruit?

JO COMERFORD: Actually, I don’t have that figure. We will have the figure once we look at this next year’s recruit numbers, and that will come in December or January this year. But it is, as you know, a very large number, in terms of recruitment bonuses and recruiter salaries and all of the expenses to attract young people into service.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about cashing in the war dividend. For people who are very young right now, they might not even know what you’re playing on, the idea of a peace dividend, and what that meant and where that has gone today.

JO COMERFORD: Thank you. You’re right, Amy. I date myself.

What we’re talking about in this is that at the end of the Cold War there was a great deal of hope, right? The late ’80s, early ’90s, there was a great deal of hope that some of the money that the United States had spent on Cold War weapons or fighting the Cold War, as it were, would be reduced, you know, some of that money would come out of the military budget and would be available then for use by Congress and the president for work in the states and local communities. So we thought that there would be a return, something that could talk about our nation, now at peace, getting money back for where it really is needed: in our schools, in our healthcare systems, in transportation, infrastructure, water, the like.

But, as you know, that didn’t happen. We didn’t get the kind of return to local communities that we wanted. And so, you know, it’s important for us to hold a mirror up, really, to our federal government, to our elected officials, and say, “Look, $704 billion in 2010, nearly a fifth of our federal budget, half — 55 percent of all discretionary funding, will go to military. And we need more in our local communities.”

AMY GOODMAN: How do people influence federal spending priorities? I mean, your organization is called the National Priorities Project.

JO COMERFORD: Well, you know, they do it in a lot of different ways, and I think people are creative all over the country. And we’ve seen so many years of really great response to the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

People can enter in in the legislative process all throughout the calendar year. As we know, the 2010 budget is coming, is actually in now, right as of October 1st, and will go through. But President Obama has to put out the 2011 budget in February of next year. And also February of next year will be the time where we really move toward $1 trillion in war spending, right? We project $1 trillion in war spending sometime in 2010. And those numbers will be more concrete as we have more information.

So people in local communities can start right now talking to their elected officials about what they want to see in the fiscal year 2011 budget and be prepared, when President Obama puts it out, to have a lot to say about it in terms of analysis. We’ll have a piece out then to help folks understand it. There’s a piece out now on the fiscal year 2010 budget on the site nationalpriorities.org that people can look at. As we care about, you know, our funding in local communities, people should see the relatively small amount of money going to, for example, education or the environment or science.

There’s another thing that people can do. They can make a lot of noise and have a lot to say about where their tax dollars are spent. And we have a fact sheet on that, with regard to energy, the environment and science. People might be surprised to know that only 2.8 cents of every one of their federal tax dollars is dedicated to that trio, energy, environment and science, where 37.4 cents of every one of their tax dollars goes toward the military.

ANJALI KAMAT: And finally, Jo Comerford, can you comment on by what margin the US is the largest spender on the military? Put the US against the rest of the world.

JO COMERFORD: Well, 45 percent. We’re 45 percent of world spending. We spend more than the next fourteen countries combined. So we’re the vast giant in this area. And if you want to put that in perspective, the rogue nations — and that’s, of course, a term used to describe nations with which our government believes we have conflict — they spend one percent of the total global military spending. So, 45 percent to one percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Jo Comerford, I want to thank you very much for being with us, executive director of the National Priorities Project. Her latest article at TomDispatch.com, “Cashing in the War Dividend: The Joys of Perpetual War.”

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