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.
“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