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Is the Next Defense Budget a Stimulus Package? | The Nation

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Is the Next Defense Budget a Stimulus Package?

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Lifting America by the (Combat) Bootstraps?

About the Author

Frida Berrigan
Frida Berrigan is a Senior Program Associate at the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative (ASI). She is...

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And are we hearing those claims these days! The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), representing more than 100 leading defense and aerospace corporations, has been trumpeting their contributions to the economy in a print ad campaign and on their website under the catch-phrase: "Aerospace and Defense: The Strength to Lift America."

In terms of American well-being, the AIA estimates that defense and aerospace manufacturers contribute $97 billion in exports a year, while maintaining 2 million jobs. As Fred Downey, an association vice president, told the Associated Press, "Our industry is ready and able to lead the way out of the economic crisis."

As the association sees it, defense and aerospace corporations are about as shovel-ready as you can get. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), however, offers quite a different view of the AIA's two-million jobs claim. Their "Career Guide to Industries," for example, looks intensively at Aerospace Product and Parts Manufacturing (which would also include some non-defense related corporations) and finds that the sector employed 472,000 wage and salary workers in 2006. Now, this is not the whole picture of defense-related employment, but according to the Associated Press, the BLS estimates that only 647,000 people work in industries where at least one-fifth of the products are defense-related.

Perhaps the AIA was including not just jobs making weapons but jobs lobbying Congress to pay for them. Then Downey and crew might almost have a case. The BLS would probably not consider lobbyist jobs to be defense-related, but maybe they should, because the Center for Responsive Politics, a research group that tracks money in politics, reports that the industry spent $149 million on lobbying firms to get its points across to Congress and the administration last year. That has to be a lot of shovel-ready jobs right there.

Speaking of shovel-ready jobs shoveling out defense industry claims, if the lobbying sector is happy, ad firms must be ecstatic. These days, defense contractors and associations are spending striking sums on what's politely termed "public education": full-page ads in major newspapers, ads in Washington metro stations near the Pentagon, Crystal City (a Virginia community where many Pentagon satellite offices are located), Capitol Hill and other places where the powerful congregate when their limos are in use, not to speak of aggressive pop-up ads on political news sites like the National Journal.

Lockheed Martin, for example, recently unveiled a new ad campaign pitched towards troubled economic times. It depicts proud blue-collar workers above the tagline: "95,000 employed, 300 million protected." At the bottom of the ad are the logos of the supersonic fighter plane known as the F-22 Raptor and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers whose members build it. As if to underline these messages, 200 members of Congress signed a January 20 "Dear Mr. President, Save the F-22" letter, meant to be waiting for Barack Obama as he entered the Oval Office. The letter asserted that the F-22 program "annually provides over $12 billion of economic activity to the national economy."

Even if that dubious claim were substantiated, the economic activity comes at a high cost. The United States spent more than $65 billion to design and produce the F-22 Raptor--a fighter plane originally conceived to penetrate the airspace of the long-extinct Soviet Union, to counter large formations of enemy bombers in cold war scenarios that are today inconceivable, and to achieve air superiority high over Eastern Europe whose greatest problems now involve a potential region-wide economic meltdown. In the wake of the cold war, as military analyst Chalmers Johnson recently pointed out, the F-22 lacks a role in any imaginable war-fighting scenario the US might actually find itself in.

Efforts to promote the plane as a critical tool in the Global War on Terror floundered when Defense Secretary Gates spoke plainly about the system's uselessness last year. "The reality," he said, "is we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the F-22 has not performed a single mission in either theater."

Fortunately for Lockheed Martin, once the US economy began to crater, it could emphasize a new on-the-ground use for the F-22--as an instant make-work jobs program.

However, even there the plane's utility is questionable. William D. Hartung, director of the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative, points out that, if the F-22 program is cut, the "job losses will be stretched out over two and half years or more, and could happen after the end of the current recession." In addition, Lockheed has had to back away from the 95,000 jobs claims, clarifying that more than 70 percent of those jobs are only indirectly related to the F-22, and that just 25,000 workers are employed directly on the plane's construction. Winslow Wheeler is the head of the Center for Defense Information's Straus Military Reform Project and his scholarship is built on more than thirty years of service at the Government Accountability Office and on the Senate Budget Committee, among other places. He points out that, when it comes to high-tech weapons, today's military-industrial complex bears not the slightest resemblance to its World War II predecessor as a job generator. As he describes it, in the early 1940s "production lines cranked out thousands of aircraft each month: as fast as the government could stuff money, materials and workers into the assembly line."

In stark contrast, the F-22, he points out, is essentially an artisanal product. "Go to Lockheed Martin's plant," he writes. "You will find no detectable movement of aircraft out the door. Instead you will see virtually stationary aircraft and workers applying parts in a manner more evocative of hand-crafting. This 'production rate' generates one F-22 every 18 days or so." This is, in fact, what shovel-ready largely means in Pentagon stimulus terms these days.

War for Jobs?

Economists have also weighed in on why "war for jobs" as a way out of recession or depression has entered the world of mythology. An analysis from the University of Massachusetts's Political Economy Research Institute, for instance, finds that, for every one billion dollars invested in defense, 8,555 jobs are created. By contrast, the same billion invested in health care would create 12,883 jobs, and in education, 17,687 jobs or more than double the defense stimulus payoff.

It has often been said that World War II--and the production stimulus it offered--lifted the United States out of the Great Depression. Today, the opposite seems to be the case. The "war economy" helped propel the US into what might turn out to be another great depression, and so, unlike in 1929, as our economy crumbles today, we are already on a global war footing.

As the Obama administration grapples with economic disaster and inherited wars, it will have the added challenge of confronting a military-industrial complex accustomed to budgets that reach almost three-quarters of a trillion dollars, based on exaggerated global threats, unsubstantiated economic claims, and entrenched profligacy. When Obama's analysts pore over the budget, looking at all those overpriced weapons and plum contracts, they'll have to ask: Is each weapons system or program actually needed for American security and is it cost effective? Or are the defense contractors shoveling a load of shovel-ready bull?

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