During the time that Gen. Raymond Odierno was U.S. Army Chief of Staff, he testified in congressional budget hearings for three different fiscal years that the Army didn’t really need any new tanks or upgrades to existing units. He told them that they were spending “hundreds of millions of dollars on tanks that we simply don’t have the structure for anymore.” But at a cost of roughly half a billion dollars during the four years Ordierno was at the helm, Congress kept giving him what he said he didn’t need. Of course, that ends up being chump change compared to the revelation that the Army cooked its books to the tune of $6.5 trillion in 2015.
Meanwhile, I recently spoke with a pediatric medical researcher who lives in a part of the country with high levels of childhood asthma. She was applying for a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to further research and address the causes. Asthma is one of the leading causes of school absence. The grants have traditionally been $600,000. One year’s worth of unneeded tanks could fund 300 of those grants.
But in current budget proposals, it’s things like asthma grants that are on the chopping block.
In 2011, the Commission on Wartime Contracting reported that up to $60 billion in private contractor expenses in Iraq and Afghanistan could be considered wasteful. There is a command center in Helmand Province that cost $36 million to build but is sitting vacant and unused. We built water treatment plants without electricity, schools without teachers, and clinics without equipment.
Meanwhile, in public schools, many teachers dream of having enough funding to even make ends meet in their classroom without having to dip into their own pockets. They work overtime without overtime pay. The $60 billion figure from the aforementioned commission study is an amount that, using national averages, would educate 5.6 million public school students for one year.
But in current budget proposals, it’s education that’s on the chopping block.
Although the U.S. has drastically reduced its number of nuclear warheads since the 1960s, our stockpile was counted at 4,760 in January 2015. That’s 4,760 more than we would ever use, supposedly and hopefully. The cost to maintain these weapons is hard to come by, but was estimated to be roughly $22 billion for 2016.
Meanwhile, the National Endowment for the Arts requested a budget of $150 million for FY 2017, $119 million of which is grants. Those grants fund things like art therapy with veterans who suffer from PTSD, and initiatives to help people with disabilities find employment in the arts. The cost to maintain our nuclear arsenal for one year could fund NEA grants for 185 years.
But in current budget proposals, it’s the NEA that’s on the chopping block.
More and more for machines that kill, less and less for things that invest in our future and enhance our society. There is a theological word for this kind of thing: sin.
Let me offer two important disclaimers. First, the above comparisons should not in any way be interpreted as a devaluing of our brave men and women in the armed services, nor disrespect for the incredible burden that they and their families bear, nor an illusion that we do not need a military. Secondly, I am not in any way suggesting that there is not waste and abuse present in other areas. Inefficiency is a constant problem in government, and no program holds the answers to all our society’s ills.
The above comparisons simply serve to illustrate a pretty obvious truth: we have a problem of priorities.
It is not just a question of politics and budgeting, however. It is spiritual issue. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
These “programs of social uplift” are not just expenditures. They are investments with a return. A healthier, more educated, more creative society is a more prosperous society. The arts, for example, play a crucial role in raising our collective consciousness and challenging our prejudices. For those who need to see dollar signs, “the arts and cultural production” contributes billions to the U.S. economy every year, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
How did we get here? Among other things, we are being sold a false narrative about our safety and security. If protecting U.S. citizens against violent death were really a top priority, we would be pumping our money into research and programs to reduce gun violence, the number one cause of such deaths. Instead, to justify bloated defense budgets and private contract work, we are bombarded about the threat of terrorism which, in the United States, is the least likely cause of death, behind things like being in a plane crash or struck by lightning.
This is a modern day version of something for which the prophet Amos issued stark warnings of judgment: “They sell the innocent for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals.”
Are we to become a gutted fortress with thick, fortified walls around the perimeter but with no way of life worth defending left on the inside? This is a spiritual issue, and our current reality is something against which Scripture paints an entirely different vision.
Outside the United Nations Headquarters in New York, there is a statue created by Evgeniy Vuchetich and gifted to us by the Soviet Union in 1959 as “a symbol and expression of the desire … for general disarmament.” The sculpture is a visual representation of the prophet Micah’s vision of God’s reign: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” God has placed us here to proclaim and live this promise of a new world, what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.”
We have a spiritual problem. It is not a hidden problem; it is in plain sight in our budgets, priorities and rhetoric. But there is another vision, another way; and it’s up to the people of God to be its champion.