It’s not a surprise, but it’s now official: Donald Trump’s latest budget proposal is a disaster. The president who campaigned on ending wars wants to grow military spending to 62% of the discretionary budget in the next ten years. How? Mostly by squeezing already under-resourced domestic programs aimed at meeting human needs.
This is not a new phenomenon. Advocates have long pushed leaders to fundamentally restructure the way we spend our money as a country, only to see the military’s coffers swell further year by year. Current advocacy efforts include calls to cut Pentagon spending — currently at $738 billion — by $100 billion, $200 billion, or even $350 billion per year, with many urging reallocation of that money to other priorities like health care, education, and protecting the environment.
Trump’s proposal is just that, a proposal. But since budget requests serve as a statement of values, not to mention a starting point for negotiations, it’s also a snapshot of what this administration thinks is valuable. Which begs an important question: how do those values differ from those of the candidates vying to replace Donald Trump as Commander-in-Chief?
Line items determine who lives and who dies, who eats and who doesn’t, who gets what kind of education, and who gets to go to the doctor without fear of bankruptcy.
It actually hasn’t been easy to ascertain exactly what a future Pentagon budget would look like if these candidates were to be victorious. But a few numbers have emerged over the course of the campaign season thus far: Elizabeth Warren proposed eliminating the Overseas Contingency Operations war spending account, frequently referred to as a slush fund, as part of her plan to pay for Medicare For All. This would amount to a cut of about $80 billion per year. He’s out of the race now, but Andrew Yang suggested rerouting approximately $60 billion per year from the military budget to create a domestic infrastructure project called, and this is real, “The Legion of Builders and Destroyers.” Tom Steyer wants to pay for his education plan by rolling back $100 billion in Trump-era increases to the Pentagon budget. Though he doesn’t specify what a Pentagon budget would look like under his presidency, Bernie Sanders frequently suggests that global forces should stop spending $1.8 trillion on destructive weapons and instead pool that same money to jointly confront the climate catastrophe.
When we talk about hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars, it’s easy to get lost in the massive numbers and to lose sight of what those changes in resources could really mean in the context of people’s lives. So here are some points of comparison to put it all in perspective.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that the cost of eradicating homelessness in the United States is about $20 billion annually. Advocates place the price tag of eradicating hunger across the country at about $26 billion annually. Estimates indicate that every home in America could be powered by wind and solar energy with expenditures of about $80 billion each year. For about $12 billion per year, we could create 160,000 new clean energy jobs to kickstart a Green New Deal. Tuition-free public college could be provided for about $70 billion per year. It would take approximately $165 billion per year to cover health care costs for every uninsured American. And though estimates vary, it would take about $300 billion per year to cover the difference in transitioning to a Medicare For All system from what we have now.
The point is that budgets tell us a story about how our government wants to use its power and resources. Line items determine who lives and who dies, who eats and who doesn’t, who gets what kind of education, and who gets to go to the doctor without fear of bankruptcy. The latest budget suggests that we are a nation intent on pouring more money into unwinnable and destructive wars, more fighter planes that don’t work, and more bonuses for defense contractors. It suggests that we are a nation not particularly concerned with lifting people out of poverty or confronting the climate crisis. But this is not what we aspire to be.
Polling indicates that cutting into the Pentagon budget to invest in other priorities like jobs, health care, or the environment is politically popular. People understand that some fraction of waste in the Pentagon budget could be better spent to improve their lives and they want to see it happen.
That’s why it’s so important for candidates to use their platforms now to speak with specificity about the federal budget. They should tell us how they want to see tax dollars spent if they are to become the next president, because that helps us understand what they think is valuable.