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The Myth Behind Increased Military Spending 

US policymakers need to stop believing that high military spending is necessary for the economy.

Words: Heidi Peltier
Pictures: Bob Ghost

The United States spends about half of its federal discretionary budget on the military, and about half of that on military contractors. In fiscal year 2023, this amounts to about $858 billion in funding to the Department of Defense (DOD) as well as nuclear weapons programs in the Department of Energy. 

While the government nearly shut down over a debt ceiling deal in early June 2023, Republicans and Democrats fought over protecting certain spending while cutting or freezing other categories. Unfortunately for the economy and the American taxpayers, nearly all of Congress chose to increase military spending. Domestic spending in other discretionary categories — including education, health, and the environment — was cut or frozen in order for military spending to increase.

Defense spending is part of a cycle of economic power. Military contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman — the “Big 5” — spend millions of dollars in lobbying each year and convince both the American public and the congresspeople they sponsor that defense spending is necessary for jobs and that it must be protected at all costs. Military spending is then prioritized in congressional budget negotiations. It often increases even when the United States is not fighting a war — and then half or more of that budget goes to contractors.

What’s on the Chopping Block?

The cycle of power continues as those military contractors not only receive billions of dollars in contracts (for example, Lockheed Martin scored over $45 billion in fiscal year 2022) but then strategically spread that spending out throughout the 50 states. Communities become dependent on those military contractor jobs, and representatives want to continue receiving military dollars in their districts to make their constituents happy. Who wins the most? The contractors themselves. According to its Annual Report, Lockheed Martin’s net profits were over $5.7 billion in 2022, almost exclusively funded by taxpayers.

Data shows that military spending is far from the best source of jobs. For example, a shift in spending from the defense sector to clean energy would create at least 6-9% more jobs.

Yet, the data shows that military spending is far from the best source of jobs. A shift in spending from the defense sector to clean energy, such as investments in manufacturing solar or wind energy, or increasing energy efficiency, would create at least 6-9% more jobs. Healthcare spending creates 40% more employment than the military, and education supports twice as many jobs (even more, if we focus just on primary school). The cost of providing one year of universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds is only $46 billion. Providing a year of free community college is $109 billion. Funding for infrastructure and climate change mitigation are also only a fraction of what we spend on defense. Yet, all of these programs go unfunded or underfunded in order to protect defense spending. 

The Myth-Making

Military contracting is lucrative. Large military contractors spend millions of dollars annually on lobbying and funding political campaigns and convincing US policymakers and the public that high military spending is necessary for the economy. But more jobs could be created by shifting spending to areas of urgent need, including in healthcare, education, infrastructure, and clean energy. When messages are repeated often enough, people start believing that they’re true. We need to stop believing the myth that high military spending is necessary for the economy.

And it’s not just about how we spend our dollars. We also need to look at how much of our federal employment is devoted to the military. In fiscal year 2022, over one-third of the nearly 2.2 million federal civilian employees worked for the DOD. In comparison, only 1% worked for the Department of State. In other words, the US government had 34 times as many people working for the agency that perpetuates war compared to the one devoted to diplomacy. If we add active-duty military to the civilian count, DOD civilians plus military account for 60% of the federal workforce. The total rises to 72% when we include personnel in the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Yet, do we consider whether this is the type of government and workforce we want? Are we ok with nearly three-quarters of our federal government jobs devoted to war? With the increasing consequences of climate change, bridges and water systems and other national infrastructure in dire need of repair, and a healthcare system that is overly costly and faces debilitating labor shortages, the American public may want to ask itself if we are spending our tax dollars wisely. Or have we been fooled into thinking that there’s no better option than funding the military and subsidizing contractor profits?

If the American people want to feel more secure, relying on ever-increasing military budgets is not the answer. Rather, investments in other types of security — including in our built environment, in sustainability, and in the education and health of the population — not only meet human needs but also contribute to a stronger economy. American voters should pressure their representatives to use taxpayer dollars more wisely. And for that to happen, we need to shatter the myth that military spending is necessary for security.

Heidi Peltier

Heidi Peltier is a Senior Researcher at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and is the Director of Programs at the Costs of War Project. She is an economist with expertise in federal spending and employment and clean energy policy.

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