This essay originally appeared on TomDispatch
It’s the magic incantation to fix our economic woes. Many states and federal agencies have already gone from scouring their budgets for things to cut to green- lighting construction projects. The Obama administration’s $787 billion stimulus package is sure to muster many shovels in an effort to rouse a despondent economy and put Americans back to work.
Here’s the strange thing, though: That package was headline news for weeks, bitterly argued over, hailed and derided in equal measure. And yet road construction, housing projects and green retrofits aren’t the only major projects getting the shovel-ready treatment via massive infusions of cash.
At the end of February, another huge “stimulus” package was announced but generated almost no comment, controversy, or argument. The defense industry received its own special stimulus package — news of the dollars available for the Pentagon budget in 2010; and at nearly $700 billion (when all the bits and pieces are added in), it’s almost as big as the Obama economic package and sure to be a lot less effective.
Despite the sort of economic maelstrom not seen in generations, the defense industry, insulated by an enduring conviction that war spending stimulates the economy, remains almost impervious to budget cuts. To understand why military spending is no longer a stimulus driver means putting aside memories of Rosie the Riveter and the sepia-hued worker on the bomber assembly line and remembering instead that the Great Depression came before “the Good War,” not the other way around. In World War II, it’s also important to recall, the massive military buildup was labor intensive, employed millions, and was accompanied by rationing, austerity and very high taxes.
This time around, we began with boom years and spent our way into the breach, in significant part by launching unnecessary, profligate wars. Meanwhile, President George W. Bush cut taxes at a more than peacetime pace and borrowed like an addicted gambler on a losing streak to underwrite his wars of choice, including his “Global War on Terror.” If the former president’s nearly trillion-dollar (and counting) global war got us into this mess, by simple logic it’s not likely to bail us out as well.
Riding the Slide to Billions
While the good times rolled during the long slide from surplus to deficit, from no war to global war, it wasn’t just the Merrill Lynches and subprime mortgage giants that cleaned up. Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman–the top three defense contractors–had a ball, too.