Don’t Cash Your Peace Dividend

By George P. Brockway, originally published March 19, 1990

1990-3-19 Don't Cash Your Peace Dividend Title

THE THING about the peace dividend is that there is not going to be one. At least not the kind you and I long for. Not this year, and probably not next.

1990-3-19 Don't Cash Your Peace Dividend Cheney

The reason for this is quite simple: We live in a historical universe, a world where one thing leads to another, a world of time. If we lived in a world of equilibrium economics, where everything happens in an instant, we could have any kind of peace dividend we liked, just by hitting the right computer keys to switch the accounts around. It’s different in the real world.

The arguments of Irving Kristol and William F. Buckley Jr. and the mysterious Mr. Z have nothing to do with our predicament. Even if Fidel Castro shaved off his beard and became a fellow of the American Heritage Foundation, we would still need the military-industrial complex for quite a while longer. The issue, however, is economic; it is not military.

As you may have heard tell, we are alleged to be in the sixth or seventh year of one of the longest peacetime economic expansions in our history. It is not much of an expansion, to be sure, for most people. The defense budget, though, has grown handsomely – it has almost doubled, and by doing so has kept the expansion alive. Of course, the expansion would have been just as vibrant if we had spent those extra billions on public housing or better schools or controlling acid rain, but what’s done is done.

Let’s look first at the military side of the military-industrial complex. Among the things Secretary of Defense Richard B. Cheney says we could perhaps do without are two Army divisions, or maybe three. With the various support troops, that could come to about 50,000 men and women – not enough to satisfy the most enthusiastic peaceniks, but a start, anyway. If deactivating the divisions is going to contribute to the peace dividend and save us some money, the 50,000 have to be taken off the Federal payroll. They have to be fired.

I don’t know what these young people signed when they enlisted. I do know that they are all volunteers, and that we spent (and still spend) a lot of money on TV commercials during sports broadcasts persuading them that the Army is a real fun place. (The old Army, the one I was in, was more accurately described by Elliot Nugent in John Van Druten’s The Voice of the Turtle. When Margaret Sullavan asked Nugent if he liked the Army, he replied, “I don’t think you’re supposed to like it.”) In any case, we have a moral, if not a legal, obligation to these volunteers. We can’t just toss them out on the street. Even if we could toss them out, and did, they would then become part of the civilian problem. We’d have to use the peace dividend we earned by firing them to feed, clothe, and shelter them until we somehow found a peaceful use for the skills they had learned jumping out of airplanes and firing assault rifles.

Of course, many of the young men and women in the services do have skills that are in demand. Military air traffic controllers, for example, and military police could fill a gap in the civilian world without breaking stride. The trouble is, we do not have enough money in the budget for more air traffic controllers, and there is certainly no money to share with the cities and states that are too broke to hire as many cops as they need. Again we find that the peace dividend is at best a swap (maybe a swap we ought to make), not something to put in the bank. Besides, if the military air traffic controllers all went to work for the Federal Aviation Administration (or whoever runs civilian airports), who would keep the Air Force from flying its planes into each other?

The problem with the industrial half of the military-industrial complex is a little different. The workers can be fired, all right – certainly those on the factory floor – and they will wind up on the welfare rolls. Their reduced incomes will also mean some hardship for neighborhood supermarkets, the trusting banks that hold their mortgages and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The complex’ corporations, by contrast, if experience is a guide, won’t suffer.

Once upon a time I edited a book by the late Blair Bolles called How to Get Rich in Washington: The Rich Man’s Division of the Welfare State. Bolles told how, at the end of World War II, some companies got more money for canceling contracts than they would have gotten for fulfilling them, how surplus truck spare parts were sold by the government for peanuts, and so on. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then whistle-stopping through Pennsylvania during his first campaign, referred to the book glowingly (thus stimulating some welcome sales), until some spoilsport whispered to him that most of the rich men in question were Republicans. The bottom line (to preserve the metaphor) is that there’s no likely peace dividend here, either.

All that is, I think, understandable; yet common sense cries out that somehow life ought to be better without a cold war than with one. And not only better for us, but for everyone around the globe. Certainly this was a better world after World War II than during it or, for that matter, before it. Why then and not now?

Well, it’s no secret. There’s the Federal deficit, and the Federal debt, and now the states’ deficits. We can’t afford to shelter our homeless or to teach our children to read and write or to provide comprehensive health care as good as, say, ltaly’s, or a hundred other things. What’s possibly worse, we can cheer Lech Walesa‘s gruff courage in Poland until the rafters ring and can applaud Vaclav Havel‘s eloquence in Czechoslovakia with tears in our eyes, yet the only way we can think to help them is by reducing our aid to the Philippines or welshing on our obligation to repair the damage we did to Panama. We shrug when we read Zbigniew Brzezinski‘s plan for Eastern Europe because we know we’re too far gone even to debate it.

Everyone says we are in this mess because of the Federal debt. Leonard Silk said it in the same issue of the New York Times that carried Brzezinski’s Op-Ed article. But that’s nonsense. Last year’s deficit was $152 billion, bringing the national debt to $2,866 billion, which is equal to about 55 per cent of the GNP. On June 5, 1947, when Secretary of State George C. Marshall gave his famous commencement address at Harvard, the national debt was equal to about 115 per cent of the GNP. Then, as now, we had a President and a Congress of opposing political parties, and we had a national debt that was, proportionately, more than twice what it is at present. But we weren’t paralyzed.

In the four years from 1948 through 1951, the Economic Cooperation Administration gave away $13.2 billion. Most of this went to the countries of Western Europe, although the Soviet Union was invited to participate, and Czechoslovakia actually did join but was forced to pull out. Some of the money went to the Near East and Asia, too. While no one claims that the Marshall Plan was perfect in all respects, no one doubts that it helped Western Europe recover from the War, and very few doubt that it was crucial to the recovery. Today we have a similar opportunity to do some good in the world, and we’re acting like J. Alfred Prufrock.

The $13.2 billion the Marshall Plan cost us was 1.1 per cent of the GNP of those four years. What would 1.1 per cent of the GNP of the next four years be? In 1989 the GNP was $5,233.2 billion. If our famous expansion continues at its current rate, the GNP of the next four years will total approximately four and a half times that, or $23,549.4 billion. And 1.1 per cent of the astronomical sum would be $259 billion, or roughly $65 billion a year. As Senator Everett McKinley Dirksen would have said, that’s real money. It’s about 50 -repeat fifty – times what we’ll probably come up with. We’d be out of our minds to think so grandly, we are told.

YES, WE WOULD be out of our minds-but not because we couldn’t afford it. We could afford it. We could afford it, and we could balance the budget at the same time, for that’s what we did in 1948-51, back in the days of Harry S. Truman, the supposed spendthrift. What I’m afraid we are incapable of now is summoning up the necessary intelligence and the vision to tackle the job properly.

Although we have the successes of the Marshall Plan to show us what to do, and the disasters of the banks’ recycling of OPEC money (see” 100 Million Children Can Be Wronged,” NL, January 8) to show us what not to do, we also have an Administration that is at least the second most doctrinaire of our history. The Marshall Plan worked because it required each of the receiving countries to develop detailed recovery plans that fitted in with neighbors’ plans. The plans were theirs, not ours. Can you imagine the man who sent the Army and the Air Force into Panama standing for such namby-pamby stuff? He’s no wimp. The first thing he would do is send the Vice President to warn the potential recipients of our help against abortion and the capital gains tax.

Today there’s no danger of our doing anything like the Marshall Plan or the Brzezinski Plan. Gramm- Rudman-Hollings and President Bush’s lips will forbid it.

At best, we might pick up some crumbs at home. The Department of Defense is now eager to enter the war on drugs. It could be helpful. For my part, I’m skeptical. Recalling the old Army again, I remember that six months after Hiroshima morale was so poor that the more guards they put around supply depots and motor pools, the more hands there were to steal the stuff. It may be different with volunteer troops.

There are other things that might be done, especially by the Army engineers, who could work on playgrounds and airports and roads as well as on the dams and waterways they always handle. Tent cities could be quickly established for the homeless on vacant city lots. The Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the most successful of the New Deal programs, could be resurrected. In fact, the New Deal had a lot of ideas that might be suitable, as we used to say, for retreading.

Well, I dream. As I said at the start, I don’t expect that there will be a peace dividend. Not even a crummy one.

 The New Leader

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