Representative Barney Frank (D-MA). (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst.)
“Every time a group would come to my office,” says Frank, ‘and say, ‘We need more money for housing for the elderly, we need more money for transportation, we need more money for Superfund,’ at the end I would say, ‘You forgot one thing…. You forgot to say raise taxes and cut the military. Because if we don’t do some of each of those, then you’re never going to get anything you want.’”
And third, the drawdowns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Americans’ well-grounded war-weariness, create an opportunity to reorient our spending to better reflect our needs and values. “In the immediate post-2001 period,” says Frank, “you could spook them with terrorists. The public now understands. Iraq [War] is now thoroughly discredited…. people are ready to pull back substantially.”
As Frank notes, a confluence of factors now offers us a real opportunity to tame the out-of-control military spending that’s eating away at national priorities and possibilities. First, there’s the attention—some prudent, some unhinged—to our federal deficit. “Now everybody understands it’s a zero-sum game…” Frank said on a call with Campaign for America last month. “The way it’s set up, either you make these kinds of cuts to the military, or they devastate Medicare and Medicaid.” On that question, he adds, like on legalizing marijuana, “some of the politicians, including the president, suffer from cultural lag, and the public, for its part, is way ahead of them.”
Frank notes that after a bipartisan drawdown helped achieve the Clinton budget surplus, the trend reversed under George W. Bush. He says that after 9/11, neocons “managed to inflate terrorism to the level of an existential threat, of the level we had seen with the terrorists and the Nazis. And obviously the terrorists are terrible people, and we need to fight them, but that is not remotely the order of magnitude of threat that we’ve had previously, nor do you fight them in the same way.” Frank also notes that, in contrast to the “isolationist” notes Ron Paul sometimes struck while criticizing the Pentagon budget, “I’m in favor of increasing money that we give to fight AIDS, I’m in favor of increasing money to feed hungry children.” Frank says he just rejects “the notion that you can bring about social change elsewhere in the world, and enhance America’s influence, by military force.”
Frank notes that military jobs could be scaled down by attrition, rather than through layoffs. Still, any proposal for military cuts comes up against the claim that our economy can’t afford the loss of military jobs. Last month, Washington Post reporters Ylan Q. Mui and Marjorie Censer wrote that a new government GDP report revealed recent military spending cuts as the cause of slow GDP growth. Two days later, the Post’s Zachary Goldfarb wrote that liberals face “a conundrum,” because “the significant reductions in military spending that they have long sought are also taking a huge bite out of economic growth.”
How far can we pull back? Over the next three or four years, argues Frank, “it is easily achievable, consistent with any legitimate national security, and some sense of responsibility to help others in need, to spend less than 80 percent” of current non-Afghanistan expenditures. As one example of a common sense cut, Frank offers the F35. “One of the things that you must demand of a weapon is that it have an enemy,” says Frank. “And the F35 has no enemy…It’s already the case that the second-largest air force in the world is the US Navy.”
Second, Frank sees greater grounds for bipartisan bridge-building than we’ve had in years: liberals increasingly recognize that tackling defense spending is a necessary condition for preserving social progress, and some principled conservatives are applying their cost-cutting philosophy to the military-industrial complex. While Rand Paul may be the most prominent Republican breaking with the defense industry, Frank urges that we keep an eye on South Carolina Congressman Mick Mulvaney, “a leading Tea Party activist” whom he also calls “a very good guy, very well respected.” Frank notes Mulvaney “was my co-author on the first amendment that passed in my thirty-two years” in which the House reduced the level of military spending that had reached the floor from the Appropriations Committee.
Those arguments pack a punch in part because in recent decades, military Keynesianism has been nearly the only Keynesianism we’ve had. But as the Political Economy Research Institute’s Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier explained in our pages last May, military spending is one of the least effective ways for the government to create jobs: “1 billion in spending on the military will generate about 11,200 jobs within the US economy. That same $1 billion would create 16,800 jobs through clean energy investments, 17,200 jobs within the healthcare sector or 26,700 jobs through support of education.”
To avert draconian cuts, and bring sanity to the Pentagon budget, says Frank, “people really need to press the president.” Among the reasons for urgency is one that Frank notes too often gets overlooked: “It is the key to getting back to an effective government.” As Frank, the first member of Congress to marry a same-sex partner, notes, “my marriage now polls better than my congressional service.” He sees cutting the military budget as a necessary step to restoring faith in government. “The less the government can deliver,” says Frank, “the more unpopular it gets.”
When it comes to confronting military bloat, are we finally reaching a turning point? “We are on the verge, I think, of some major progress,” says Barney Frank. And if anyone would know, it’s Frank, the trailblazing former congressman and candor addict.
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