Washington, Connecticut. At 2108 hours on April 13, 1970, Astronaut Jack Swigert of the crew of Apollo 13 uttered the words that have entered the English lexicon as an all-puropose phrase denoting one helluva problem. Two days into the mission, our third to land men on the Moon, a sharp bang occurred, followed by a vibration and then a red warning light came on. Swigert saw the light and radioed the Control Center on Earth, stating: “Houston, we’ve had a problem”. Houston wanted a clarification of this ominous announcement and crew-member James Lovell jumped in to add: “We’ve had a main B bus undervolt,” which is to say an oxygen tank had exploded and power was shutting down, not a very good thing when 200,000 miles from home. Thus began four extraordinarily tense days of life and death decisions to get these modern era explorers home. Using the Lunar Module as a lifeboat and ingeniously reconfiguring life support systems to bare subsistence levels, the crew used controlled and untested burns in order to employ gravitational forces that would slingshot them around the moon and on a successful trajectory back toward Earth, an extremely small target in the depths of space. Swigert refers to the episode, despite its enormous cost as a “successful failure.” Given the breathtaking array of ingenuity and skill that was displayed in bringing the three astronauts back safely and in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, one must agree. The term “successful failure” is a perfect summation of Apollo 13 and the miraculous events which riveted the attention of the world almost 40 years ago.

It seems to me that the term is also one way to describe what we face in our nation’s government. Hobbled by an economic catastrophe and assailed by malevolent terrorists, we remain a remarkable nation whose success would seem to have defied odds as great, if not greater than those faced by the crew of Apollo 13. However, it should be increasingly clear now that this great success is approaching inevitable failure if we do not confront the current situation with the same life and death clarity displayed by the men piloting Apollo 13 and their associates at Mission Control. There seems to be one gravitational force at our disposal today and it is called “muddling through.” Compromise and best intentions are expected to ricochet us back on a proper trajectory in the fullness of time when combined with the controlled firings of “future legislative remedy.” The prevailing energy of the gravity force that we must tame in this ricochet, and put back to productive use is partisan politics. By “partisan politics” I mean informed, principled and discursive politics where ideas and results are the goal, rather than simply the so-called  “60 vote majority.”  If we do not reform our political actions, we will surely rocket into oblivion, contentiously yammering all the way. It is not only toxic partisanship that is killing our chances, it is also a lack of attention to the real degenerative forces at work in our government today. We have a new yet very old BAAL on the block whose name shall never be spoken by either political party.

President Obama has announced his administration’s intent to begin combating the enormous budget deficits that we now face. Debt as a portion of Gross National Product is reaching levels that historically impose stagnation and bureaucratic atrophy upon even robust nations like Japan. Debt and the American Economic Outlook are as important a National Security Issue as any we face. In response, the President asserts that discretionary spending will be frozen at current levels. Given the challenge before us, this is akin to Mission Control telling the Astronauts on board Apollo 13 “Good Luck” and to cross their fingers. Perhaps it is a start, but it is only a start and in no way a finish, nor even remotely a solution.

Assessing the allocation of tax money from the year just past, the problem becomes crystal clear. Freezing discretionary spending will amount to a savings of far, far less than what is needed. The real culprits, military spending and debt service toward increasing deficits, are the black depths of space we now confront, with little hope of return. They are the new deity to which we sacrifice the future of the commonweal. According to a pie-chart produced by the “Friends Committee on National Legislation” and cited by Glenn Greenwald in Salon.com, the following 2009 tax allocation percentages are in play. Military Spending is the greatest piece of the pie at 44.4%. Health Care comes next at 19.7%, Response to Poverty is next at 11.8 % and Interest on the Non-Military Share of the Budget comes next at 10.9%. Accordingly, 55.3% of last years tax receipts are consumed by war and debt service. Adding Health Care and Poverty subsidies, we arrive at a total of nearly 87% of our annual budget consumed by a combination of debt, war, illness and poverty.

Can anyone seriously dispute the diminishing returns of such a trajectory? Does it matter whether one is a Republican or Democrat when faced with such appalling statistics? Democrats cite Health Care as a “crisis” when it constitutes just a little over a third of the amount we spend on the military and debt service. It should not be news to anyone now that we spend nearly as much on our military as the rest of the world combined, with our expenditure six times that of our nearest competitor, China. Furthermore, it should come as no surprise that a system propped up on debt is in for a very rude and catastrophic awakening.  What the figures really show is that we are a people who place little stock in the future and exhibit a mindset locked into a siege mentality with war helmet and bookie at beck and call.

The figures representing the remaining paltry portions of our tax receipts, the areas on which a rightly ordered society should be expected to place the majority of their emphasis, are frightening in their implication. 6.9% is allocated toward “Government Operations”, 2.5% to “Science, Energy and Environment”, 2.2% on “Education and Jobs” and 1.5% on “Diplomacy and Needs Abroad”. So there you have it, our future, the continued health of the lapsed-republic is expected to be satisfied by an expenditure of less than 5% of our annual tax revenue for “Education and Jobs” along with “Science, Energy and the Environment.” Would that we eliminated all the so-called “Government Operations” in our D.C. office buildings, we could only save 6.9%! This proposed “freeze on discretionary spending” may amount to large sums of money but they are sadly, a scream into the void of our continuing downward trajectory.

One can dispute the figures cited or discredit sources or vigorously debate both sides of the military issue and assert that debt spending is only normal for a nation confronting such serious challenges. The fact remains: we are on an unsustainable path. We have for so long asserted that we are a force for good in the world and that our efforts are in the service of “democracy” that we can no longer see the irony of a nation refusing to call itself an empire when in possession of military bases around the globe and expending nearly half our annual tax receipts on war efforts without foreseeable end. Needless to say, the demise of our broad industrial capacity, i.e. the diversity of jobs that make for a healthy and productive populace, can be directly tied to the rise into dominance of our military budget. Perhaps we do not invade to make foreign territory our own or attack those who do not attack us (and this can be debated at length) but we are, in sum, attacking ourselves as much as we are attacking terrorism and subsequently immersing the nation in a hostile climate of diminishing returns that represent, in the end, an unavoidable tyranny over our very own selves!

Questioning Security, Military spending and National Debt is tilting at the shibboleth of the age. Anyone who attempts to raise these issues is labeled traitorous or a dreamer and their patriotism and resolve are questioned. Compounding this problem is all the various industries and interest groups attached to the Military-Security sectors and their bipartisan lock on our government representatives. By extension, our reduced industrial diversity removes the counterweight of this voice from the deliberations at hand. Finally, when something is cast as uneconomic and unpatriotic, well, one who engages in such a foolhardy quest should expect to enjoy a quixotic ride on Rocinante into the buzz-saw windmill of popular opinion.

Just the other day, the media reported on recent meetings between Defense Secretary Gates and several groups of military-industrial vendors. He made a point of asserting that the Administration would not only continue their current military spending, but that he would personally attempt to do everything he could to increase military spending. After one contentious meeting with recalcitrant Pakistani military representatives, a journalist recently noted that Mr. Gates watched the old movie “Seven Days In May” to, in the journalists words “wind down”. Our Secretary of Defense watches a movie on a military coup to “wind down” ehhh? Needless to say, the movie is fiction and so no need for alarm here, we do not need a military coup in this country, we are already a far-flung military encampment at home and abroad.

In the end, it is not about isolationism vs. imperialism or cowardly pacifism against ideological expansion, nor big government vs. little government or pragmatism against foolishness, nor even “us against them.” It is a matter of clarity in service to longevity. No nation can long endure when engaged in a life heavily weighted to war and debt. The current mentality of both the public and their Representatives is one operating upon borrowed money and time. In this era of transition, we cling in fear to the recent past and immediate challenges while abandoning both our most sturdy historic principles and our future dynamism. We purposefully forget our history as a nation that embraces the future with a passion by getting out of the way of our citizenry when needed and helping them when prudent. Time, of course, has required adaptation and adjustment. To think that we could forever remain the nation the Framer’s left to us is a bit of sentimental quackery. However, we now have very little real connection to the principles the Founder’s generation fought and died for. We have little in common now with the generation that survived the Depression to fight, beat and prosecute the Nazi’s at Nuremberg for War Crimes. We are a strange brew of cynicism, blithe indifference, fatalism, historical amnesia, hate, resignation and protestant “city on a hill” optimism. We shrug off pledges of “Change” when they fail to appear and continue to accept inexorably degenerating job prospects or rapidly shrinking purchase power.

Washington D.C. has had a problem. We can either take actions that are a matter of life and death, which indeed they are, or we can continue to reply “but what does the polling data say?” The Republic has experienced a “main B bus undervolt” and we can either turn our lessons into a “successful failure” or continue upon the current muddled trajectory, full of theater and borrowed money, sputtering along into monetary exsanguinations because we think we are immortal.

It is time that our elected leadership recognizes that we are, in essence, 200,000 miles from home with grim chances of return. The life of the Republic and our people are grimly at stake. If we continue the current delusions, it is a fair probability that we shall destroy ourselves before any terrorist gets around to doing it, no matter how hard they try. Thus is one of the many benefits of asymmetrical warfare for the weaker and more agile party: one’s opponent thinks brute strength will work against people who are a constantly moving target and have nothing much to lose. We have a lot to lose, too much to lose and unfortunately, it would seem that Washington doesn’t know it has a problem. Worse yet, it knows, and chooses not to acknowledge it because a mid-term election year is aborning. Gravity and trajectory are forces easy to quantify yet hard to engage. We cannot even get the “quantify” part down and so there is no hope that an engagement is even in the offing. A denouement is not hard to fathom though because the difference between “successful failure” and a “failed success” is a matter of degrees and one trajectory brings us home while the other loses its way in the black depths of space.

———

Citations:

1. http://history.nasa.gov/SP-350/ch-13-2.html

“Apollo Expeditions to the Moon”, Chapter 13 “Houston , We’ve Had a Problem ” by James A Lovell

2. “The Sanctity of Military Spending”, by Glenn Greenwald. Salon.com, 1/26/10

17 COMMENTS

  1. Great essay. It dumbfounds me that we keep looking for targets to blame for our current economic woes – yet the cliched 800 pound gorilla in the room – the one trillion or so we are spending on two wars – gets little attention.

    I see little that would encourage me to believe that our mindboggling expenditures on maintaining a world wide military presence will even be contested much less diminished. What is discouraging is that it seems obvious that our investment in a military presence will increase if we face competition or shortages in oil, food, minerals etc. It seems the players are already preparing for such in the Antartic and the Artic Circle.

    Meanwhile – we do not have the resources to invest in this nation’s infrastructure and its most important resource – we the people. Any fool should be able to figure no military can protect a nation of poorly educated people.

  2. Military spending might be 44% of _discretionary_ spending, but is less than 20% of all spending; the continued growth in “nondiscretionary” spending dwarfs any amount of military spending. If the US were to zero out the military budget entirely, the US would still have an $800 billion deficit.

    Social Security and Medicare spending are unsustainable; even the Government admits that.

    So why aren’t we proposing any solutions?

    Oh yeah; nobody wants to lose an election. So we play ‘kick-the-can’ down until there’s a crisis; just the way we did with the bankrupt Savings & Loans.

  3. All of which makes the reader wonder why it is The Affirmitively Brilliant “O” quadrupled the dafficet precariously balanced on a ballooning housing bubble pumped up by the commie-Dem’s Freddie Mack and Fanny Mae and that ever reliable economic principle calling for the lending of tax monies to people who ain’t never gonna pay it back just so we can all feel oh so good.
    Frankly, Bro Sabin your last sentence says it all.. “Any fool should be able to figure no military can protect a nation of poorly educated people.”

  4. The mess in America is due to the failure to recognize that with market capitalism businesses are continuously under pressure to exploit as well as benefit in order to survive in a competitive environment. This pressure will exist irrespective of the nature of ownership. To prevent exploitation requires constant checking by citizen’s representative bodies that checks and balances are effective and if not new ones put in place as soon as possible. This is especially important with regard to representative democracy itself because business will always attempt to control it in order to maintain its right to exploit when it feels the need.

  5. The empire is unsustainable, then. In that case, perhaps losing the strength to hold it together is neither surprising nor entirely unwelcome.
    So assume we go on calling each other names until everything falls apart – this country does not simply end; Life goes on, and I’m sort of interested in what that might look like. But I’m not as intelligent as the rest of you, so help me out here. We’re not going to the depths of space, but somewhere. If we don’t look to Washington – what does a university, a city, a community do?

  6. What a community does depends upon how it views it. We need to re-phrase Karl Marx’s famous saying so that it reads:-

    “Up till now the philosophers have only interpreted the world as they would like it not as it is, they should do the latter and then change it”

    Perhaps then we would have a more cohesive world based on our true natures both selfish and unselfish. We need to both cherish and guard against our natures. The inventive efficiency with which we do this is the community’s task.

  7. Ahhh Albert, so well put, so succint.
    Eric, Discretionary Spending and Entitlement programs are certainly a debilitating problem in and of themselves but according to the 2009 Budget chart published by the Government, 16.85% went to the DOD, 4.75% went to the GWOT, 1.46% went to Veterens Affairs and 1.23% went to Homeland Security. This arrives at a Military related Budget percentage of 24.29% , significantly outpacing Medicare/Medicaid (20.66%), Social Security (21.05%) or Unemployment/ Welfare (11.77%). One also simply cannot track the off the books or obscure money either. The essential premise remains unchanged and inarguable.
    Debt Spending + Debt Spending = Broke = Weak.

    Dave, What the university and community needs to do is do what it does best. This general premise needs to occur, from the bottom up, in a subsidiary manner accross the board. It is taken as an article of faith that large government is needed for a complex world with complex problems. Complexity may exist but it is not a default position.

    The longer the citizen awaits “leadership”, the more likely it is that the chimera will never arrive, thus producing the “leadership” an expectant public deserves.

  8. Amen, Bruce Smith.

    It shouldn’t matter whether one is a Democrat or a Republican, we should all recognize that we simply can’t fund the volume of military adventures we have been pushing… but since we have to vote, it is worth remembering that the last Democratic president actually generated a budget surplus and started paying down the debt, whereas Republican philosophy, in practice, remains “Reagan proved deficits don’t matter.” Any tax cut is OK as long as we can borrow from China to pay for it. Balancing the budget and getting back on track to pay down the deficit is going to require more taxes as well as cutting spending. The spending cuts must include substantial ones in the military sector, and, the tax burden should be placed on those who can afford to bear it. They’re the ones who have been merrily raking it in off the bubbles that keep popping for the rest of us.

  9. Sabin with statistics! Holy Moly. Then everybody disclaiming “partisan” politics (as if politics were anything but partisan). Face it, guys, and somebody out there probably will: make a case for the trinity of Obama, Reid and Pelosi governing for the next seven years.

  10. I would think that if we were to re-order our priorities and reduce costs through the greater efficiencies of the subsidiary traditionally Federalist approach, we could likely avoid the kinds of tax increases the liberal wing believes is required. The urge to reach some kind of All-Pleasing Market Marxism of the type extolled by Friedman in his peans to the Chinese seems to be as big a default position on the Left as Tax cuts and spending increases are on the Right. Both are whistling past the graveyard of proven mistakes.

    In a Right-Ordered society, the centralized concentrations of wealth accompanying a Financialized, debt-centered economy and their Defense-centric globalism…… with its concomitant decline of local employment and vibrancy…. would be a thing of the past. In that context, excessively penalizing the higher wage earner…within strong local economies…. would be counter-productive. Cutting costs (surely to be a charade) and raising taxes on the rich to continue the current paradigm in a slightly tweaked manner is simply slowing the decline, not reversing it. Do not take this as an endorsement of the skewed compensation regime currently in force now either, a bi-partisan inside game of Statism and its many sycophants.

    Willson, I include the figures because of their comic effect. The absurdist quality they reveal cannot be disputed and they are, as you note, bi- partisan because in the end, both parties have had their fat clutching hands plunged deeply into this honey jar.

    Just yesterday, the assistant to the Sec. of Defense didn’t seem to bat a single one of her eyelashes in irony when she replied to a Congressman who asked if they had considered more substantial reform that “we have just had a first bite of the apple on this issue”. I love it when original sin can be brought into any discussion of our completely out-of-whack military expenditures.

  11. The budget simply cannot be balanced (particularly in the long-term) simply by cutting military spending. Entitlement spending _has_ to drop; yet in this entire thread, not one person (aside from me) has mentioned this. In 2017 – 10 years from now – the Social Security surplus vanishes. If you think spending is out of control now, just wait a decade.

  12. As I stated Eric, “Discretionary Spending and Entitlement programs are a debilitating problem in and of themselves”. My specific goal here was to spotlight the unbalanced military-security portion of our foolhardy budget, not to ignore or devalue other abject portions of what can only in sum be described as an unmitigated and suicidal farrago.

  13. But the military budget simply isn’t that large, historically speaking; this chart shows that total defense spending is around 6% of GDP, considerably less than spending from 1950-1990.

    Pension spending has gone from ~1% to 8% in the same time frame, and is set to grow much further; similarly, healthcare spending has grown from 1% to 8%, again, with no sign of stopping.

  14. O K Eric, by all means, let us leave the Military Expenditure alone and we really can become like a bunch of camp followers straggling along behind the War Train. Your graph is clear but it begins in 1960, at the height of the Cold War and ends now, showing a decline in the future…… which I doubt…..and a clear spike upwards from the brief period surrounding the mythical “peace dividend. The period you would like to compare our current expenditure with saw the Soviet Union ahead in the Space Race and seemingly undeterred in an international crusade. Instead of being in an actual decline, we only thought we might be declining against the Soviet Juggernaut. Now, we show all the signs of wanting to out-Soviet the Soviets.

    Spending is out of control…period.

    National Infrastructure and Employment is crumbling ….period.

    Washington D.C. is delusional….period.

    The States are waiting for “somebody” to bail them out and that somebody does not exist…..period.

  15. Good Lord. Talk about missing the point. Military expenditures are easy to cut; but cutting military expenditures doesn’t solve the problem. Entitlement expenditures are the problem; they’re hard to cut, and are ever-growing.

  16. Eric,
    “Military Expenditures are easy to cut”. Ho Ho Ho.

    now we are in serious la la land. But I forgot, we’re talking conceptually here now aren’t we. You might have missed the part where I agreed that entitlement spending is out of hand so I’ll re-state it “I agree that entitlement spending is out of hand”.

    Missing the point indeed.

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