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magic money tree covid spending stimulus

We Don’t Need a Magic Money Tree To Help Americans

Congress says it can't find the money for COVID relief, but some lawmakers should look to their own double standard.

Words: Zach Stone
Pictures: Annie Spratt

“We have a magic money tree — we should use it!” mocked self-described “fighter for limited government” Ted Cruz in response to Senator Ed Markey’s call to provide $2,000 monthly payments to Americans during the coronavirus crisis. It’s all a big joke, you see. “Why be so cheap?” Cruz added. “Give everyone $1 million a day, every day, forever. And three soy lattes a day. And a foot massage.”

Of course, Cruz is aware that a pandemic-induced recession has pushed up to 40 million people in the US to the brink of eviction, and that more than 54 million people may experience food insecurity this year due to the effects of the pandemic. Yet pointing to those harrowing statistics would do little good in a quarrel with Senator Cruz, as he espouses a loud, if inconsistent, commitment to limited government. Instead, you’re better off letting the Senator’s hypocrisy speak for itself by highlighting that Cruz recently voted to approve a colossal $740 billion Pentagon budget, all while touting himself as an anti-spending crusader. That breaks down to roughly $2 billion a day, every day — or in units that Cruz may better understand, roughly 420 million soy lattes a day.


As the Digital Manager at Public Citizen — a public interest advocacy organization fighting corporate power — I spend much of my time combatting phony frames on social media. If I’ve learned one thing in the online wasteland, it’s that engaging with bad-faith arguments is a road to nowhere.

Stop accepting the fraudulent frames, full stop. Instead, find the underlying premise — and gut it. Fiscal conservatives in Congress have carefully crafted and sustained the myth that our government simply can’t afford to invest in its citizens. In reality, the reluctance to spend on human needs has never been about fiscal principles; it’s about priorities. And nothing better exemplifies the hollowness of mainstream fiscal conservatism than its champions’ unwavering support for obscene, ever-escalating military spending.

So, yes, Ted Cruz’s magic money tree exists after all! It’s just planted in a secret grove behind the Pentagon, and you need level five security clearance to access it.

So, yes, Ted Cruz’s magic money tree exists after all! It’s just planted in a secret grove behind the Pentagon, and you need level five security clearance to access it. What else could explain the fact that the US spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined? Or that US post-9/11 wars have cost a jaw-dropping $6.4 trillion (135 trillion soy lattes)? If you thought these figures were the ones making fiscal hawks in Washington screech, you’re wrong. Of course, their silence may have something to do with the cozy relationship between legislators and defense contractors. This relationship may also be the reason why many members of Congress also had little to say when the Pentagon recently funneled a $1 billion fund meant for PPE to defense contractors building jet engines and body armor.

This gross misuse of taxpayer dollars is a rare instance where we actually know how the Department of Defense spent its funds. The Pentagon, which has never passed an audit, racked up a mind-boggling $35 trillion in accounting adjustments in 2019 alone, a sum that dwarfs the entire US economy. The Department of Defense also requested and was awarded an additional $10.5 billion in COVID-19 pandemic assistance, but has yet to report out on where that funding was spent. Who was “assisted,” if not the everyday citizens who need that funding the most? Needless to say, failing to account for spending is a major problem when your funding comes directly from taxpayers and makes up a whopping 53% of the federal discretionary budget.

If we want to dig deeper into the war machine’s wasteful spending, let’s zero in on the Defense Department’s most expensive weapons program ever; the notoriously dysfunctional $1.5 trillion F-35 initiative, which churns out $110 million planes like the inconveniently named “F-35 Lightning II” which is “unable to fly in thunderstorms.” Or, the Navy’s $13 billion aircraft carrier with launch system failures and perpetually clogged toilets that cost $400,000 per flush. Shouldn’t purported fiscal conservatives be up in arms about the gross levels of ill-advised Pentagon spending?

With the exception of a lonesome few, they’re not. Instead, the latest mob craze is pretending to be outraged about the cost of operating the widely beloved United States Postal Service. Here’s a tip: when encountering this nonsense, save yourself the energy it would take to defend the entire concept of mail and simply remind folks that the Postal Service’s “losses” over the past 11 years equate to a mere 5 weeks of Pentagon spending. Don’t let them obscure the forest for the trees.

No more playing defense. No more back-peddling to justify modest government spending on essential services and human needs. Instead, it’s time to go on offense and upend the discourse about cost and affordability. We can all take a cue from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has shined a much-needed light on Congress’s spending hypocrisy: “We only have empty pockets when it comes to the morally right things to do… but when it comes to unlimited war, we seem to be able to invent that money very easily.”

It’s time to discuss fundamentally transforming our national priorities. The current arrangement is indefensible. For every $1,000 we give the Pentagon, the CDC receives a single dollar to target new infectious diseases like COVID-19. Is that in the best interest of our national security? With less than 10 percent of the Pentagon’s bloated budget, we could house every person experiencing homelessness in the United States with money to spare. Who could oppose providing relief to the 567,000 people on the streets in a given night?

The list goes on, but here’s the bottom line: Reforming our national priorities toward human needs wouldn’t take a magic money tree. A branch or two from the Pentagon’s would do.

Zach Stone is the Digital Manager for Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest and fights corporate power.

Zach Stone

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