Fifty-one years ago, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King warned that “a nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”
Dr. King’s moral equation, spoken at the time the U.S. was raining bombs and napalm on the people of Vietnam, still applies today.
“Since Vietnam, the United States has waged an ongoing war against diffuse enemies, siphoning massive resources away from social needs,” according to a detailed report on poverty from the national Poor People’s Campaign, a new movement inspired by King’s vision. “The current annual military budget, at $668 billion, dwarfs the $190 billion allocated for education, jobs, housing, and other basic services and infrastructure. Out of every dollar in federal discretionary spending, 53 cents goes towards the military, with just 15 cents on anti-poverty programs.”
That’s one reason why poverty has actually gotten worse in the five decades since Dr. King died while standing alongside striking garbage collectors in Memphis. In other words, excessive military spending equals worse schools, deteriorating housing, decaying infrastructure, and a frayed social safety net. President Eisenhower described the equation this way in 1953, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
We also know that aerial bombardment equals civilian deaths, mostly for women and children. Consumption of fossil fuel by naval vessels and military aircraft equals tons of carbon injected into the atmosphere. War equals ecological devastation. And extreme violence equals lasting trauma for both the perpetrators and the surviving victims.
But there’s another equation, impossible to avoid in hundreds of communities spread across the country, which says military spending equals jobs.
For a case in point, I need look no farther than Nashua, New Hampshire, home of BAE Systems, which with 5,400 employees, is by far the largest industrial employer in the state. Not only does BAE employ more than three times as many workers as the number two, but it matches charitable donations from employees and provides grants in the areas of education, including sponsoring the First Lego League and a Women in Technology program. BAE states that it is “committed to working to high ethical, safety and environmental standards, retaining and attracting a diverse and talented workforce and making a positive contribution to the countries and communities in which we operate.” A BAE representative sits on the board of the United Way of Greater Nashua. In other words, BAE presents itself as a good corporate citizen with a $982 million annual impact on the New Hampshire economy.
BAE’s largesse, like the wages it pays to its workers, is a product of the war economy, more specifically the sale of electronic components for missiles, bombs, aircraft, and other military technology to the Pentagon and other weapons makers.
BAE, a subsidiary of the firm formerly known as British Aerospace, is currently the third largest military contractor in the U.S., with more than $23.6 billion in Pentagon sales, an amount which makes up 91 percent of its total revenue, according to Defense News. It spent nearly $4 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and $1.2 million on political candidates in the 2016 campaign cycle.
Its former president was the Republican candidate for governor of New Hampshire in 2014. Its former director of public affairs served until recently as the head of New Hampshire’s Department of Resources and Economic Development, the state agency charged with promoting local business. The agency (now renamed NH Economic Development) provides support to the NH Aerospace and Defense Export Consortium, a trade group that encourages foreign sales of NH-produced military hardware.
With the community dependent on it for employment and charity, with millions invested in politics, and with its leaders embedded in its community’s social and political infrastructure, BAE is as good an example as we might find of what Eisenhower called the “military industrial complex.”
While the jobs it creates are real, the military spending equals jobs equation doesn’t hold up when we ask what would happen if the funds were spent elsewhere. According to Heidi Garrett-Peltier, a University of Massachusetts economist, “Over the past 16 years, by spending money on war rather than in these other areas of the domestic economy, the U.S. lost the opportunity to create between one million and three million additional jobs.” The reason: Government spending in any other area is a better job creator.
We might say that the equations that join military spending to jobs can be disproved. But that is not just a mathematical process, it’s a moral and political one. That’s the point of the Poor People’s Campaign, to recast our nation’s politics in a moral framework.
Fifty years after the first Poor People’s Campaign, it is well past time to tend to our spiritual health by changing our nation’s priorities. We don’t have as much to lose as we might fear, and we have a lot of ground—moral and economic—to gain.
Read more about the national Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.