Remiss spending on national defense deepen the deficit
We live in an era of both unprecedented government spending and a remarkable lack of accountability for what is done with the average American citizen’s tax dollars. While money is continuously shipped overseas to military operations in foreign countries — and sapped from medical and welfare programs — politicians on both sides of the party line say they are diligently working to reduce the country’s national debt.
The most obvious suspect of negligent spending is national defense. Over the past several years there has been debate as to just how many wars the United States is fighting at any given time: Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and the list goes on.
In August 2011, The Huffington Post published a report filed by the Congressional Committee on Wartime Contracting on military spending in Afghanistan that contained startling figures. The committee reported that around $60 billion spent on the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq was lost to poor planning, oversight and fraud, amounting to nearly 30 percent of funding that was essentially wasted. Committee members insisted this was a very conservative estimate. The committee also estimated that aside from the drug trade, the largest source of funding for terrorist groups in the Middle East is U.S. dollars, usually diverted from projects in the area for protection money against warlords and insurgents.
Ithaca College politics professor and director of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race and Ethnicity, Asma Barlas, said it is important to understand that most money budgeted to Afghanistan by the United States is not actually flowing into the economy, but is instead going toward sustaining its military forces. Barlas said poor oversight on spending and refusal to look at the larger social structure in Afghanistan are primary causes of wasteful spending.
For example, a U.S. initiative instructed farmers to stop cultivating poppies in order to cripple the drug trade in the Middle East. While the poppy plant can be used to make opium and other illegal drugs, it is also many farmers’ sole source of income. Because of this, it is unsurprising that money ends up in the hands of warlords and terrorists.
“Throwing money at a problem without looking at the context of the situation is a bankrupt strategy,” Barlas said. “You would think the U.S. might have learned something from this in the last hundred years. If these are the people with the power, where do you think the money will end up?”
Overall, the U.S. military estimates that around $360 million in U.S. tax dollars is now in the hands of the Taliban, mostly thanks to careless spending and oversight practices.
“No amount of money can compensate for the violence and destruction that the U.S. has caused in Afghanistan,” Barlas said. “It seems to be mostly meant for the U.S. to feel better about itself rather than actually help anyone.”
The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment said that even though defense spending is at a historic high since World War II, it is consistent with its portion of overall government spending, around 20 to 25 percent, being still affordable. But if wasteful spending practices such as those used in Afghanistan persist, it may not continue to be affordable for long.
The effects of this government waste are spurring many legislators to cut funding from other national programs to compensate. The areas often targeted, such as Social Security and Medicare, are the programs that can ill afford to be downsized.
Jennifer Tennant, an assistant professor of economics at Ithaca College, said that while Social Security will face insolvency by 2037 if current patterns continue, the situation is not as bad as it sounds. Older Americans dependent on the system will receive reduced payments, but will not be cut off entirely.
Tennant said there are many possible solutions possible to the Social Security problem, including institutionalizing a graduated tax where wealthier Americans would pay more to the program and raising the retirement age.
“If 65 years is the average and people are living to 90, why should you have 25 years of retirement?” she said. “But what about people who do really manual labor or have disabilities? There are a lot of pros and cons to consider.”
During the writing of this article, many attempts were made to contact government officials, spokespeople for organizations calling for greater oversight of government spending and journalists who had addressed the deficit in their work. Several New York congressmen and representatives of the Citizens Against Government Waste group could not be reached for comment, and one editor from the Huffington Post cited being “oversubscribed” as a reason for lack of comment. It is baffling that despite the serious nature of this issue, advocates on both sides of the deficit argument are silent when asked for more information.
Rob Montana, editor of the Ithaca Times, said the reason sources were not forthcoming could be because journalists have less time and drive to investigate matters of spending and budget. Montana also said the public in general is not usually interested in hearing about budgetary and spending debates.
“A journalist’s role is to go through the budget line by line to see what money is really being spent on,” he said. “We’ve gotten into a very rushed philosophy of getting information out there faster when we should be worried more about just doing it better.”
Government action alone cannot be depended on to solve the problem of the national deficit. If everyday Americans take the time to inform themselves about how their money is really being spent, they could then join with journalists and interest groups in demanding more.
Kyle Robertson is a sophomore journalism major who is stuffing his mattress with his work-study paychecks. Email him at krobert4[at]ithaca[dot]edu.