Monday, April 14, 2008

War on the Poor

Senator Obama recently gave a speech linking the high price of oil and gas to the Iraq War. But that is only a part of the connections between the war in Iraq and conditions at home. The war in Vietnam gave us the War on Poverty; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has given us the War on the Poor.
One of the recent articles commemorating the beginning of the sixth year of the current wars (this one in the NY Review of Book) pointed out that the majority of new enlistees in the Armed Forces have significant economic motives for joining the military. No one doubts that young men and women enlist from patriotic motives, or to avenge 9/11, or to protect their loved ones from future terrorist attacks, or from a desire for adventure, or just to get out of town. But whatever their other motives, a majority of enlistees also cite economic reasons: getting out of debt when they received their signing bonus of $ 10,000.00 or more, getting a pay check after having been unemployed for a considerable period, help with getting a college education once they complete their military commitment, finally getting out of poverty and off welfare. What decides many enlistees to join the military is economic need or, to put it bluntly, poverty.
This creates an opportunity for a government that needs more soldiers to continue its different military adventures, but is unwilling to institute a draft. The solution is to reduce the rates of unemployment payments. Currently only 35 % of unemployed receive unemployment benefits. Many of the rest are sufficiently hard up to consider a military career. Another solution is to keep the minimum wage low, so that even people who do manage to find work cannot make ends meet. They too may consider enlisting. Over the last 30 or so years, working and middle class people have lost ground economically. Real wages have barely kept up with inflation. While more and more super rich appeared in the top layers of our society, the income of the bottom layers stagnated. Prices went up; wages did not. But there was always the possibility of getting three square meals and a bit of cash by soldiering. More young women and men saw a military career as advantageous because civilian life only promised a lot of drudgery and very limited incomes. A government intent on war, facilitated an economy that would maintain a steady supply of soldiers.
Steadily growing military budgets until, today, the government spends about half of its tax income on military expenses have reflected constant warfare. But military jobs are in the words of some economists "job-killers." Money invested in the military goes, to a significant extent, into weapons production. Such production employs a lot fewer persons than if the same amount of money had been invested in schools, in hospitals, in facilities to take care of the sick and the elderly. In all of these places, most of the investment goes to hire people; very little pays for machines or buildings. The same is true for money invested in entertainment, in sports, in libraries or after-school programs. They employ a lot more people than money invested in largely automated production processes that make bullets, bombs, or sophisticated weapons systems. There most of the money is invested in machines, not in workers.
A nation that spends half of its income on the military will suffer from significant unemployment and thus provides itself with another source of willing recruits for the military.
Wherever we look, at our excessive military budgets, at the continuing cuts in essential social services, at the low minimum wage, at the continuing increase in economic inequality, we can see clearly how war and economy are in lockstep: wars require ever more soldiers and those are procured by an increasingly harsh economy that produces enough poverty to push people towards military service. The government makes civilians suffer economic deprivations; it can then find willing recruits for its armed forces. It makes life at home sufficiently miserable that, by comparison, a tour of duty in Iraq may actually seem attractive.
You tell me whether that's right.