In the 1960s, the silver-tongued leader of the Senate Republicans, Everett Dirksen, is reputed to have said, “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon, you’re talking real money.” According to a recent article by Chalmers Johnson, “Going Bankrupt: Why the debt crisis in now the greatest threat to the American Republic,” we may have to replace Dirksen’s “billion” with the Pentagon’s “trillion.” By Johnson’s accounting, the military is now spending over $1 trillion a year.

At the same time, Bob Herbert has been arguing for a serious committment to rebuild our physical infrastructure:

The country has been hit hard by lost jobs in manufacturing and construction. As government and political leaders are scrambling for ways to stimulate the economy in the current downturn, infrastructure improvements would seem to be a natural component of any effective recovery plan … We appear to have forgotten the lessons of history. Time and again an economic boom has followed periods of sustained infrastructure improvement.

The way I see it, we need to understand three things: the nature of the military budget, the needs of the current infrastructure, and how infrastructure renewal could be used to create a green economy.

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First, how much of the military budget could theoretically be transferred to civilian work? According to Chalmers Johnson, quoting other experts, in fiscal year 2009 the Department of Defense wants to spend $766.5 billion for “salaries, operations … and equipment” ($481.4 billion), as well as to fight “the two on-going wars” in Iraq and Afganistan ($141.7 billion), “hitherto unmentioned war costs in the remainder of 2007” ($93.4 billion), and an “allowance” ($50 billion).

Then there’s the “$23.4 billion for the Department of Energy [that] goes toward developing and maintaining nuclear warheads; and $25.3 billion in the Department of State budget” for “foreign military assistance.” There’s a couple of extra billions for various expenses (why count those?), and another $7.6 billion “for the military-related activities of NASA.”

Thus, there is about $825 billion in direct expenses, and also another $230-billion-plus that is used to repay interest on past military expenditures and payments to veterans, and also the $46 billion for Homeland Security; but let’s use the $825 billion as the available pot of money.

The second area to understand is the current needs of the infrastructure. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, we need to spend $1.6 trillion in the next five years in order to bring the infrastructure up to an adequate level. So that’s $320 billion a year for five years, or about 39 percent of the available military budget.

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Now, Johnson quotes Thomas Woods, to the effect that between 1947 and 1987, the U.S. military had spent enough money that the entire network of factories and infrastructure could have been rebuilt instead. Woods is a libertarian economist who once contacted me concerning the work of the late Professor Seymour Melman, a friend of mine.

Melman was, according to Johnson, “The pioneer in analyzing what has been lost as a result of military Keynesianism,” that is, the use of military spending to try to keep the economy moving; Melman wrote several books and many articles backing up his assertions with in-depth research and analysis, and published several op-ed pieces in The New York Times showing the trade-offs between expensive military programs and critical infrastructure needs in the U.S., such as education and housing.

At the rate we’re going, then, the military budgets will preempt the building of a green infrastructure and economy. Unless the military budget is reined in, it will be very difficult to find the resources to create the “green engine,” to quote Barack Obama, that “can drive growth for many years to come.”

As Miriam Pemberton showed in a recent report for the Institute for Policy Studies, there is an enormous gulf between spending for the military and spending to reverse global warming.

The third major consideration I proposed was greening the economy. Including the $320 billion that the ASCE advocates spending on infrastructure, what could the $825 billion military budget be used to for? Here are a few ideas, which I will grandly call the National Program of Economic Reconstruction and Environmental Restoration:

  1. A high-speed rail network among all of the bigger cities;
  2. Light rail networks within most cities
  3. Bus rapid transit between cities and near suburbs
  4. Bike lanes with physical barriers along most city streets
  5. A program to put solar panels on most rooftops
  6. A program to put geothermal exchange units under most buildings (for heating and cooling)
  7. A federally owned, or at least regulated, national high-voltage DC electrical grid, hooking up to:
    • Environmentally sensitive wind farms
    • Environmentally sensitive solar thermal farms, and
    • Environmentally sensitive deep geothermal plants
  8. A policy of encouraging organic, permaculture-like farm belts around most cities;
  9. A policy of encouraging the building of walkable communities in cities and near suburbs
  10. A national policy of no more than 15 students per classroom, with:
    • Universal pre-kindergarten, starting with one-year-olds, and
    • Universal health insurance, of course
  11. Contribution to Lester R. Brown’s global plan for alleviating poverty and environmental destruction, as laid out in his book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civiliation

As they say here in the Midwest, “Well, alrighty then!” I hope to elaborate on these points in the weeks ahead, particularly addressing this question: How much would each of these cost? Any help would be appreciated.