One of the few things most Americans agree on is that it’s the job of the federal government to “provide for the common defense.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said earlier this year that defense is the “one unambiguously federal function.” So defense hawks are clearly right in arguing that military spending is sacred and should be spared as we try to get our budget house in order, right?
Well, no, not exactly. For starters, the very next phrase in the preamble to our Constitution, right after “provide for the common defense,” is “promote the general Welfare.” In short, our Founding Fathers gave that second function equal billing with defense, a fact lost in our bitter debates about how to solve our budget and related woes.
However you may feel our various wars are going at the moment, there’s no doubt that the general welfare here at home is hurting. We’re living through the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Millions of families have lost their homes and millions of others live in fear they soon will. Unemployment hovers stubbornly near double digits. Health care costs keep rising, well beyond the reach of many. Church-run food shelves can’t keep up with the demand. Anyone not living in a gated community or a moat-protected castle can offer his own unhappy details.
In his second inaugural address, in the depths of the Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “I see on third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” In decrying the grim conditions of his time, Roosevelt added that “the test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have little.”
Not passing the test
We’re not passing that test these days. Yes, we’ve made some great strides in the decades since that 1937 speech, but now, as we again battle hard times, we overlook the daily struggles of ordinary citizens while we give priority to foreign wars and theological debates about debt ceilings and balanced budgets.
We spend $10 billion a month on our war in Afghanistan while we lay off teachers and firemen, deny food stamps to the poor and turn our eyes away from 30 million countrymen who cannot afford health care. Is that faithful to the constitutional imperative to promote the general welfare?
But we’re broke, the answer goes; we can’t do anything until we bring the federal debt under control. Sorry, but yes we can; we can so walk and chew gum at the same time. One place to start is with serious cuts in our defense spending. Our core budget for defense is more than $600 billion a year – not counting the costs of actual wars. China’s military budget is about $150 billion. No other country spends even $100 million. The U.S. by itself accounts for nearly half of the world’s total annual spending on arms. The Department of Defense employs nearly 2 million people. The military-industrial complex that President Dwight Eisenhower warned us about is alive and well and has a vested interest in arguing that such spending is sacrosanct. More is always better.
Time to question such claims
If we are to provide for the welfare of our own citizens, we need to question such claims. Does it really make sense to spend fabulous sums to try to build a nation in Afghanistan while allowing our own to deteriorate here at home?
To remain a great nation, we need to get our own house in order. Yes, government must become leaner and more efficient. That’s one essential step toward bringing our debt under control; the other half of the equation is increasing revenue by raising taxes, which are currently at their lowest level in half a century. We must also forge a consensus on how to make health care more affordable and available to all; reduce our involvement in foreign wars; and cut the waste and redundancy from our defense budget.
Achieving those and other related goals will be difficult, but no more so than the challenges Americans of previous generations took on and mastered. Doing so again will require a sustained, cooperative effort and shared sacrifices.
Compromise is not a dirty word in a democracy; it’s what makes a system of checks and balances work. We need to resist the siren song of politicians who offer only partisanship and simplistic solutions in which all the sacrifices are made by someone else. In sum, we need to rededicate ourselves to living up to our Constitution and its ideals.
Dick Virden is a retired Foreign Service officer who now serves as Diplomat in Residence at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict; he lives in Plymouth.