Beating Swords Into Solar Panels

Yves here. That peace dividend sure looks to be a long time in coming. But we’ve had some remarkable developments in the last few months. In addition to Congress saying “no” to war in Syria (not that it came to a formal vote, but whip counts were so hopelessly against Obama that he got reluctantly on the diplomacy wagon, at least for now), we also have the blunt instrument of the sequester forcing spending reductions onto the military. These cuts are admittedly modest, but they still set an important precedent, and dent the Armed Forces’ claim of “touch that budget dial and terrible things will happen.”

This post debunks the idea that reducing military spending would be damaging to the economy. Not only, in this era of curtailed spending, are there lots of potential uses, but domestic jobs and facilities that are focused defense-related production are already being repurposed, demonstrating that other operations could be reoriented as well.

By Mattea Kramer, Research Director at National Priorities Project and lead author of A People’s Guide to the Federal Budget and Miriam Pemberton,a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Cross posted from TomDispatch

A trillion dollars.  It’s a lot of money.  In a year it could send 127 million college students to school, provide health insurance for 206 million people, or pay the salaries of seven million schoolteachers and seven million police officers.  A trillion dollars could do a lot of good.  It could transform or save a lot of lives.  Now, imagine doubling the money; no, tripling it.  How about quadrupling it, maybe quintupling it, or even sextupling it?  Unfortunately, you really will have to imagine that, because the money to do it isn’t there.  It was (or will be) spent on Washington’s disastrous post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

War, the military-industrial complex, and the national security state that go with it cost in every sense an arm and a leg.  And that, in the twenty-first century, has been where so many American tax dollars have gone.

That’s because the cost of war always turns out to be more than estimated.  Who could forget the $60 billion high-end figure the Bush administration offered in early 2003 as its estimate for its coming invasion of Iraq? A decade later, we’ve spent $814 billion in Iraq to date with the full price tag yet to come in. Recently, when the Obama administration was planning to launch Tomahawk missiles against Syria, just about nobody even bothered to talk about what it would have cost. (Before Washington even considered such a strike, the Tomahawk program was already costing U.S. taxpayers $36,000 per hour all year long.)

This reality has slowly sunk into American consciousness, which may be why the public in opinion polls has proven so clearly opposed to jumping into another overseas conflict when tax dollars are desperately needed at home.

And those Tomahawk missiles are just icing on the cake of what this country spends on its military and the national security state that goes with it, estimated at nearly a trillion dollars a year. A fire hose of taxpayer cash — to the tune of around $600 billion — gets pumped into the Department of Defense each year (and that doesn’t include the “civilian” intelligence community or the Department of Homeland Security). 

The spending on that war machine is so profligate, in fact, that the Pentagon has never successfully completed an audit; its officials can’t even tell you where all that money goes. The U.S. accounts for a staggering 40% of all military expenditures globally. And some members of Congress — their bread buttered by military contractors — are ready to use the next war, whether in Syria or elsewhere, as a pretext to sustain or even expand our current wartime military budget.

Early Experiments in Civilianizing the Military Economy

Here’s what no one is talking about: maintaining that staggering level of military funding would mean squandering a once-in-a-generation opportunity. That’s because right now is a rare moment when two pieces of bad news Americans are accustomed to hearing could be converted into one piece of very good news.

First, there’s the bad news that threatens to change the course of human civilization. Following a year of record wild fires and droughts, crop failures, record flooding, and the punishing winds and waves of Hurricane Sandy, there’s the urgent crisis of climate change, already well underway. Intertwined with that is the mammoth problem of how to feed humanity’s insatiable appetite for energy, while somehow radically cutting our consumption of fossil fuels.

Then there’s a separate item of bad news: misguided budget cuts in Washington are pulling funding from obviously important investments like natural disaster preparedness, infrastructure improvements, the criminal justice system, and early-childhood education, among many other things. Budget-cutting fever in the capital shows no sign of subsiding, even though arguments for austerity have been debunked and our annual federal budget deficit has fallen sharply.

How, then, can these dismal pieces of news be transformed into the best thing you’ve heard in a while?

Budget cuts at the Pentagon were long considered an impossibility and a formula in Congress for political suicide. Now, the austerity movement’s first major initiative in Washington, known as “sequestration,” those mandated, take-no-prisoners, across-the-board cuts in federal spending instituted by Congress, have in fact accomplished what nothing else could: the first downsizing of our defense spending in this century.

Admittedly, in the scheme of overall U.S. military spending, those cuts remain marginal.  Sequestration shaved around $40 billion from the Pentagon’s funding this year — which is a modest figure relative to that $600 billion budget.  Still, it’s a start. With these cuts already underway and slated to continue in 2014, we can at least begin to imagine what sort of resources it might be possible to free from the military economy and how, if we’re smart, these could help fuel our transition to a low-carbon, twenty-first-century economy that would work for us and for the planet.

That’s because it’s possible to “harvest” military-generated technology and repurpose it for this task. As the sequestration cuts begin to bite into the defense sector, some high-tech production facilities and the workforce that goes with them will need to find a new purpose. Taxpayers have invested billions of dollars over decades in developing inventive technology, building infrastructure, and training skilled workers to fulfill military contracts for the war economy. It’s time for the American public to start seeing all this harnessed to new purposes, first among them tackling our climate crisis.

As it happens, some savvy and forward-looking outfits in the military sector have already begun converting their know-how into green-tech manufacturing.

Take, for instance, Bath Iron Works, the largest employer in Maine.  For several decades, the company has gotten most of its revenue from building and maintaining destroyers for the Navy. Now, however, it has joined an initiative to develop deep-water, offshore wind power, with the goal of making Maine the leading state in the nation in such technology and the production systems that go with it.

Oregon Iron Works has similarly built its expertise by fulfilling contracts for the U.S. military. Now, it’s diversifying into renewable energy, noting proudly that its “history of innovation in the marine industry gives [it] the ability to produce high-quality, cost effective Wave and Tidal energy devices.”

The Philadelphia Naval Shipyard dates back to 1776.  Its workforce peaked at 40,000 during World War II. The end of the Cold War brought an end to most naval activities at the yard, and today that industrial space has been re-imagined as an expansive corporate campus that includes a green technology incubator site and research collaboration between private business and universities.

In the same spirit, Connecticut, which has a sizeable defense industry, passed first-of-its-kind legislation this year to establish an economic development advisory committee aimed at helping defense contractors move into “environmentally sustainable” sectors of the economy. The committee is also charged with better aligning the state’s educational institutions with its manufacturing sector to ensure that its workforce of the future has training in the skills that green industries will need.

Downsizing the Global Military Mission, Building a Civilian Economy

These are promising examples of how to begin the process of converting from a war economy to a civilian one, and they provide reason for optimism, but they are also small potatoes when compared to what might be possible. Consider the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia, a vast facility that repairs and rebuilds submarines. It spans 800 acres, contains 30 miles of paved roads and four miles of waterfront, employs 6,750 civilian workers, and has its own police and fire departments. Examining the current job categories at the shipyard reveals a skills base ready to be tapped to develop and produce green-energy technology. From electrical engineers and chemists to machinists, metal workers, and crane operators, there’s plenty of overlap between existing man- and womanpower in military industry and what’s needed for the robust growth of this country’s green energy sector.

For now, though, the shipyard is still doing submarines. And it will keep doing them until Congress makes new and different plans for this country.

A great deal of good can happen if military contractors and militarized communities, one by one, see the writing on the wall and move away from economic dependence on Cold War weapons systems, investing instead in new energy technology. But for such a transition to happen on a national scale, there would have to be a lot more of that writing on far more walls.  Even though cuts to the military budget have gone from fantasy to reality, many lawmakers still don’t support substantial reductions in military spending and hope to prevent additional cuts from taking place in 2014. 

To really move this country in a new direction, the Pentagon budget would have to be cut substantially. Not by 7% as now, but by at least 20%, and for that to happen, the American global military mission and posture would have to be downsized in significant ways.  Recent polling around the Syrian crisis indicates that the public might indeed be ready to consider such changes.  Whether Congress and the rest of Washington’s elite would be is obviously another matter.

Right now lawmakers are loath to cut funding if it means erasing military jobs in their districts, and the military-industrial complex has been particularly clever in the way it has spread its projects across every state and so many localities. Converting military contracts into green energy contracts would make redirecting wasteful military spending more politically feasible, and the federal government already operates an array of programs — including the Pentagon’s own Office of Economic Adjustment — that could be expanded to help businesses and communities make the transition.

Moving public dollars into this country’s renewable energy sector could begin to lay the groundwork for a vibrant economy in the second and third decades of this century, while creating good jobs in a growth sector, working toward energy security, and helping this country reduce its reliance on fossil fuels. Like the construction of our interstate highway system in the 1950s, it’s an investment that would pay dividends for decades to come.

Or we can skip all that and launch the next war.

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  1. psychohistorian

    I liked reading this posting and will continue to hope that it can be turned into reality.

    To do that we need to take away power from the global plutocrats that use war to keep all in fear of others….who do we hate today and why?

    I believe to do this we need to take away the inheritance of the global plutocrats…not all of it but enough so that they cannot own the MSM, buy governments, control/own the monetary systems of most nations and further project/engage in imperialism.

    1. Glenn Condell

      To do that we would need either to prevent their being able to remove their gains, ill-gotten or otherwise, to the tax and audit-free safety of illicit offshore havens, or, more plausibly, prevent their being able to repatriate that money back into licit financial environments. There to purchase politicians and parties, or buy up public assets in distress sales due mainly to all that wealth having been removed from national economies in the first place.

      ‘A trillion dollars. It’s a lot of money. In a year it could send 127 million college students to school, provide health insurance for 206 million people, or pay the salaries of seven million schoolteachers and seven million police officers.’

      Yeah. Just think what 32 trillion could do.

      Still, encouraging to read this, especially ‘As it happens, some savvy and forward-looking outfits in the military sector have already begun converting their know-how into green-tech manufacturing’ Lots of lucrative, or at least not hideously expensive baby steps along these lines might be very useful. Not as useful as 32 trillion though.

    2. John Jones

      I agree. I think there needs to be publicly funded elections
      With potential candidates only allowed to appear on a
      publicly funded channel. So as to eliminate money and lobbying from politics completely. And do something about revolving door crap.
      Then regular people might see some change happen in their favour. Untill this happens I doubt anything will ever change.

      1. porge

        One last thing.

        How do you get the public to accept a new currency?
        Require taxes to be paid in the new species.

        Basically use the same game that the money masters use now against them.

        Oh yeah…..and enforce all this with the monopoly on violence that the government enjoys.

    3. porge

      Rather than trying to “claw back” the ill-gotten gains how about issuing a parallel currency much like the greenback dollar that is debt free and legal tender?
      Once established and recognized, this new currency would replace the banking cartels debt slave currency in everyday use and slowly transfer the buying power away from the bad guys back to the public.
      The key point is to make the bad guys buying power less effective.
      Lincoln did this and Kennedy tried this.
      And they both ended up dead……..hhhmmmm…………

      I guess crazy, lone gunmen don’t want a treasury issued debt free currency in circulation….

      1. porge

        One last thing.

        How do you get the public to accept a new currency?
        Require taxes to be paid in the new species.

        Basically use the same game that the money masters use now against them.

        Oh yeah…..and enforce all this with the monopoly on violence that the government enjoys.

      2. rob

        Great idea!

        This was most recently promoted as the “NEED ACT”.HR 2990 112th congress,sponsored by dennis Kucinich.It is the new Chicago plan.
        This replacing federal reserve notes and debts with treasury created US DOLLARS.

        In fact the theme of this post is in some part about,”where do we get the money to do this?”
        The answer is we create it debt free.And use it for the good of the people.Healthcare,energy,education.All of these would be able to be helped,when we get the reform of the money system..implemented.

        And a side note as to federal funding airtime for elections.
        My Thinking is that free airtime ought to be afforded to anyone who can run for office.After all, “airtime” is when companies use the public commons of electromagnetic wavelength spectrums,to broadcast whatever they are selling. Whatever they do. in order for anyone to get an FCC license,they must agree to give a certain amount of free time to candidates.local and national.Be it radio or tv frequencies.The fact that these wavelenths are public is supported by the fact that the FCC has jurisdiction.

  2. charles 2

    The problem is that these long shot projects are COSTLY. They may bring reward in the far future, but, like a war, they imply short term curtailing in consumption ; SIGNIFICANT curtailing, not just the fat, but the meat too (as in rationing healthcare, education, transportation, etc…) !
    People accept austerity because of a war against a tangible enemy, but having the same acceptance for the sake of obtaining energy sufficiency ? I have my doubts…

    1. hunkerdown

      The USA did it once for the moon shot, but perhaps outside pressure was necessary to inspire that effort, and perhaps the US has since forgotten how to respond to fair competition other than by kneecapping or offing competitors.

  3. Schofield

    Oh I’m sure a world working on greed and tribalism will see the United States make a request to become a protectorate of Communist China at some stage this century. Liberty and eusocialism will be reduced but global warming will stand a better chance of a coordinated response.

  4. Xelcho

    This sounds good. Reality it seems is very different. In addition to the good comments above about how the 1% needs to be reeled in; how to prevent them from turning this into another government sponsored handout needs investigation.

    I would offer that New Deal 3.0 under the Zero Administration gave 5% for us to do 100% of the work. From where I sit, the only way to alter this “picture” is 50s and 60s style non-violent massive protests. Wherein the whole political and “free-market” systems are slated for serious change. The huge military corporate-welfare system is a symptom of the illness.

    Further, I would offer that the regulatory methods of old to constrain business simply are not and will not be effective. Whole sectors of business have been developed specifically to combat regulatory efforts and they are very successful at their trade. I can see how democracy in the workplace is a good starting point to realign income.


  5. Eureka Springs

    “To really move this country in a new direction, the Pentagon budget would have to be cut substantially. Not by 7% as now, but by at least 20%, and for that to happen, the American global military mission and posture would have to be downsized in significant ways.”

    Somehow I don’t see leaving ‘defense’ spending at 500 to 800 billion as a sane, peaceful move in a new direction. Perhaps the authors just want to skim off enough to enact green energy plans they have in mind, which is terrific, but we should be cutting defense by at least 80 percent…. and keep cutting from there. Hell, cut 75 percent off that trillion per year figure and we still spend as much as China and Russia (nearly 2 billion people with massive territory arguably in much, much more troubled neighborhoods) combined… which is way to much.

    Nevertheless it’s great to read posts which discuss these matters at all.

    1. Jesse

      The author and Yves arent back-slapping and high-fiving each other just yet. They acknowledge that the cuts are small; everyone is just hoping and praying that they snow-ball into larger cuts.

      There’s what we dream of: a $50-100 billion pentagon budget. And then there’s reality (even in the 1990s I believe the pentagons budget was $200+ billion.)

      We have to have faith that if we continue to present the figures to people (more military spending than the next 30 or so countries combined) that it will force a change. Peopleare tired of aseeing their kids graduate $30K in the hole.

  6. Terry Mock

    You’re right,Yves: “That peace dividend sure looks to be a long time in coming.”

    How about another more sustainable approach?

    A Pentagon study ( assessed the possible ramifications of climate change and continued environmental degradation to U.S. national security in the future if it is not adequately mitigated through environmental restoration practices. Many have argued persuasively that climate change is the single biggest threat to our national security. Violence and disruption stemming from the
    stresses created by needs for dimini shed natural resources such as energy, food and water may lead to increased confrontation. While certain groups seize and safeguard
    such resources for themselves, other vulnerable groups would fight for access to them. The shifting motivation for confrontation from ideology, religion and nationalism to a life-threatening need for survival would alter which countries are most vulnerable and the existing warning signs for security threats. Within the Department of Defense, the US Army Corps of Engineers – the largest land developer in the world – has a unique opportunity to lead the charge toward sustainable land development principles
    and practices, and implement clean and renewable energy, green building, ecosystem restoration, carbon sequestration, soil enhancement, water purification and retention water retention technologies.

    Sustainable Land Development International
    Proposal to Assist with the Successful Implementation of the Obama-Biden Plan
    December, 2008

  7. TC

    Why reduce military spending when it was the military command who forced Obama to go to Congress for authorization to attack Syria? What? The pop directed at the nation’s military command on Monday at the Washington Navy Yard wasn’t good enough for incompetent bean counters who wouldn’t know an investment from an iguana? Solar panels are a complete waste of time and money. These by no means offer that critical increase in energy density needed to expand the nation’s material capital stock in the face of limited natural resources whose supplies and qualities are both entropic. Indeed, these limitations have always been the case, yet look what mankind has accomplished increasing its intellectual capital stock in spite of natural, material limitations, and in the process not only increase its number geometrically, but likewise its comfort and command over nature. It’s time the “renewables” crowd face truth the intention behind it is to kill off people, make them die on account of a forced abandonment of investment in intellectual capital needed to expand the material capital stock in the face of natural, entropic limitations. There are no limits to growth because the human creative capacity has barely been scratched. Those otherwise acting to suppress this capacity truly are a curse. I would suggest this possibly goes as high up as those who insist Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity is the unvarnished “truth.” Tesla certainly didn’t think so.

    1. Stelios Theoharidis

      Have you been reading Clive Cussler books in your spare time, you know the ones where the antagonist is always the green energy developer?

      You obviously know little about clean technology and your conspiratorial ideas about its proponents wanting to kill people off borders on ‘reptillian theories’ ala David Icke.

      Because cornucopian ideas of human development haven’t destroyed enough habitat or killed enough people off? I am all well and good about focusing on developing human capital but clean technology is an area of scientific creativity. So aren’t your statements against clean technology but for supporting human creativity mildly contradictory. Some people just can’t accept it because it would be a direct affront to their wasteful existence.

    2. tim s

      Tesla the scientist, or Tesla the new ELECTRIC car that has become quite successful despite all of the people who have said for so long that an electric car is not an never will be feasible?

      Anyone who says that these energies that are still in their infancies are doomed to fail are either propagandists with an interest in their failure or are oblivious to the fact that there are many recent developments in areas of panel and battery fabrication/cost/efficiency/etc among other things. These developments at least show that there in progress and that one should never say “never”. The pace of these advances is quickening.

    3. hunkerdown

      Well, you are entitled to the free exercise of religion, and American Exceptionalism and Progressivism are indeed America’s civil religions.

      As for futurism, it can be dismissed as materialist theology.

      “Those otherwise acting to suppress this capacity truly are a curse.”

      Those seeking to develop this capacity are ants, not humans, and rather than become ants, humans would do well to borrow just one behavior from them, the instinct to banish Ophiocordyceps-infected ants very far away from the colony, lest they climb the space elevator to the top, hang by their teeth from it and poison us all.

  8. Susan the other

    I loved this post. Thank you Yves. We’ve invested the wealth of almost 4 generations in our military. It is a remarkable institution and can be retooled for much better purposes. Now it is time for the peace dividend. They promised us one after Vietnam, but we never saw it. Now it really seems the time has come. I’d like to add that in addition to retooling the Navy/supply chain to do wind power, we should 1. retool the Army to hire civilians to plant a zillion trees, whatever new species will survive best in this era of climate change, maybe some bamboo; also plant new species that will clean and anchor our estuaries; 2. Use the military experts to decommission our old nuclear reactors and build new clean ones; 3. Retool Navy freighters and even submarines to clean up all the garbage in the oceans. 4. Use the Army to start efficient recycling operations across the entire country, 5. Maybe even use the Air Force to analyze the atmosphere with their balloons; and use old U2 knowhow to fly high enough to analyze actual mechanical clean-up devices. 5. The military could start now by eliminating its own CO2 footprint – the largest in the world – use scrubbers that are known to be effective, etc. This is making me giddy.

  9. jfleni

    Beating swords into ….

    1. Busses/transit/high speed trains:

    Desperately needed in most places.

    Cars, self-driving or not, are just tin tumors roaming the countryside that take the place of essential transit, smear the highways with innocent blood, and impose ruinously high charges, mostly going to Korean/Jap/Euro plutocrats, or insurance swindlers.

    2. Essential infrastucture: Potholes, ricketty bridges,and many more safety by-passes are self-evident needs everywhere; and the desperately unumployed workforce is just waiting to do it all!

    3. Space exploration:

    Congress wants to go back to the moon, but aside from staring at night, does nothing. While TEXAS plans space centers and launch complexes, DogPatch Tallahassee and DogPatch DC are completely oblivious there Bubba!

    Meanwhile, “Constitutional Lawyer” Barry babbles away as usual.

  10. Jeff N

    the only good thing about every politician screaming “ZOMG WE’RE BROKE” is that people start thinking about the cost of every aircraft carrier trip across the sea… the cost of every cruise missile fired…

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