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Missed opportunity in the budget debacle

The massive budget fight in Congress over deficit reduction threatened to shut down the U.S. government, but it also provided a massive opportunity – one that was completely missed. Members of Congress could have scrapped wasteful and environmentally destructive subsidies. They could have made decisive cuts and reallocations in the military budget. In the end Congress agreed to cuts totaling $38 billion, but another showdown looms over a vote to raise the debt limit.

They may have missed the chance to reorder spending toward what we would witness in a sustainable economy, but the fight is not over yet. Advocates of a fair and sustainable economy must continue fighting the following battles as the debt ceiling debate takes place:

I. Cutting Environmentally Damaging Programs. The Green Scissors report of Friends of the Earth and Taxpayers for Common Sense called for budgetary savings of $200 billion over the next five years, primarily by eliminating the subsidies to oil, corn ethanol, nuclear reactors and coal. Unfortunately, these cuts were not approved because the major campaign contributions from the well-heeled energy interests ruled the day.

II. Eliminating Nuclear Subsidies. Especially galling in the wake of the nuclear catastrophe unfolding at Fukushima, Japan was the failure of Congress to get rid of $46 billion in nuclear reactor subsidies. (See my last blog for details.)

The failure (meltdown) rate of the 442 nuclear reactors worldwide is an astonishing 1.5% – simply unacceptable, given the dire consequences that can unfold with a meltdown. Yet the nuclear energy lobby pretends as if a bet on the safety of nuclear reactors is like wagering the sun will rise in the East, when in fact the bet more closely resembles a game of Russian roulette.

As Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz put it: “when others bear the cost of mistakes, the incentives favour self-delusion. A system that socialises losses and privatises gains is doomed to mismanage risk.” (Guardian UK April 6, 2011)

III. Foiling Tax Dodgers. Experts on tax havens estimate that the U.S. Treasury loses about $100 billion each year as a result of money being placed in offshore accounts, for example in the Cayman Islands. Major corporations like General Electric, Exxon Mobil, Verizon and Boeing avoid paying tax because they know the techniques of taking all the profits in tax haven countries and allocating all losses to higher tax jurisdictions. Nicolas Shaxson’s new book Treasure Islands describes this massive tax dodging that is occurring worldwide.

IV. Reallocating Money Used for Weapons and War. Finally, the military budget was untouched save for one boondoggle fighter plane that both Republicans and Democrats found unpalatable. Thus, the U.S. military budget of over $700 billion – more than half of the total military spending in the world – perpetuates the global arms race America is having with itself. The big outrage is that of the more than $1 trillion spent to date on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, most has been done “off budget” under emergency appropriations. And all of this spending is aimed at stopping less pressing threats. The greatest security threats today come not from military sources but from the environmental destabilization of the life-supporting ecosystems of the earth.

Afghanistan is an ongoing tragedy spurred by such warfare spending, whether by Russia (USSR) or the United States. The awful incidents in which civilians have been bombed are exactly what can be expected in this kind of military conflict. It costs about $1.2 million a year to keep a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan. For that amount of money, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof points out that twenty schools could have been built for the children of that country. Mountain climber Greg Mortenson has successfully carried out a school construction program in Afghanistan, described in his book Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace through Education in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but he has to scramble for money.

We are coming to the point that every dollar spent on wars in places like Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan harms rather than improves our security in two ways. First, it alienates more and more of the civilian population, and second, it wreaks havoc on the land, rendering much of it poisoned, degraded, and incapable of supporting life. Afghanistan is a case in point.

Now is the time to reduce military spending and demand that at least one fifth go into a program to shift to a sustainable economy and to restore degraded watersheds. Lester Brown, in his latest book World on the Edge, calls for $200 billion per year to be spent on clean energy, empowerment of women, and ecosystem rehabilitation.

Expenditures like these would characterize the refreshing budgets that would emerge as nations shift to a steady state economy. But to transition to a sustainable economy, we need to start winning the four fights described above.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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