The Rebirth of The Military Industrial Complex

The new GOP plan (PDF) in the U.S. to replace the social safety net with military spending looks something like this, as a percent of real GDP:

Defense Expenditures

It was in 1959 that C. Wright Mills gave political economists and sociologists a moment of pause when describing the concept of the Military Industrial Complex in his seminal book “The Power Elite.” It was in 1961 that President Dwight Eisenhower showed he was paying attention to Mills when he gave a stern warning of the perils of such a structure.

But since 1965, defense spending has never been higher. In the 1980s, we all understand that President Regan absolutely hated communism, and outspent the Soviet Union into insolvency. We can see that defense spending as a percent of GDP clearly drops consistently over time after the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989. America had clearly won the Cold War.

Then it picks up again after 9/11, surpassing 100% of GDP by 2007. Now it’s 122% of GDP. It’s understandable that defense spending would increase with the 9/11 attacks. But did it really need to surpass 100% of GDP? That’s something only a forensic accountant can answer.

In the height of the Vietnam War however, arguably the most expensive war before 9/11, defense spending was only 45% of real GDP. But here’s the other stark difference – there was full employment.

1965 U3

During the Vietnam War, unemployment (U3) was only 3.5%. In the 1980s, it got much worse, 10.8%, but defense spending was still only 90% of GDP (I realize that saying “only 90% of GDP” sounds bad, but…). From 9/11 on, the more the unemployment rate rose, the more was spend on the military.

And let’s not forget my (and many others’ ) shouting from the roof tops that today’s unemployment calculations are inaccurate.

So with Ronald Ragan spending 90% of GDP to beat communism, with the Iraq War concluded, and the Afghanistan War on its last leg, who is the “enemy” now? And is that “enemy” really worth sacrificing the lives of Americans at home who are literally going hungry for that “enemy?”

To answer these questions, the United States needs to define its norms and values as a society. And there will be a lot of lives lost in that process; not from some “enemy” that is unseen, but from the very government (or as Mills put it, the “Higher Circles”) that has sworn to protect them. Those that don’t die, will surely be traumatized more than any war could.

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