By Robert Naiman, Policy Director, Just Foreign Policy
We have just a week left to help Burlington, Vermont kill the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the biggest taxpayer ripoff in human history. On Monday, October 7, the Burlington City Council will vote on a binding resolution that would block F-35 warplanes from being based at Burlington International Airport, which is owned by the city.
If the Council votes to block the planes from being based in Burlington, that won’t kill the $1.5 trillion F-35 taxpayer ripoff by itself. But it will set a crucial precedent. It will prove that the F-35 is politically vulnerable. It will mark a historic defeat of pork-barrel military Keynesianism by citizen engagement. It would help change the national posture of Democrats on unnecessary military spending. It would help abolish the dogma that Democrats have to support unnecessary military spending when it takes place in their districts.
The dogma that Democrats have to support unnecessary military spending when it takes place in their districts is deeply ingrained. But there’s no intrinsic reason why it should be true. Democrats wouldn’t support federal spending for propaganda against birth control if it took place in their districts. Democrats wouldn’t support federal spending to promote homophobia if it took place in their districts. Why should Democrats support federal spending for the taxpayer-ripoff, Social Security-cutting, job-destroying F-35, just because it takes place in their districts?
A crucial fact about the Burlington fight over the F-35 is that it’s largely among Democrats. Republicans won’t decide whether Grandma’s Social Security check will be stolen by Lockheed Martin.
Vermont is deep blue: the Cook PVI of Vermont is D+16. There are 14 City Councilors in Burlington. The partisan breakdown is Democrats, 7; Progressives, 4; Independents, 2; Republicans, 1.
If the seven Democrats and four Progressives voted yes to bar the F-35 from Burlington, while both Independents and the lone Republican voted no, the binding resolution would pass 11-3. Even if only a bare majority of Democrats voted yes, the resolution would still have eight votes out of 14.
So this fight about national priorities is a fight among Democrats. Since Democrats are supposed to favor Social Security, Medicare benefits, Head Start and food stamps over corporate welfare for Lockheed Martin, this should be a slam dunk. But it’s not. Vermont’s leading elected officials — Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders, and Peter Welch — support military Keynesianism in Vermont, even though military Keynesianism destroys American jobs.
People who have never seen the numbers often act surprised that military Keynesianism destroys American jobs. There’s a powerful unquestioned dogma that unnecessary military spending creates jobs.
But the dogma just isn’t true. Compared to every other form of government spending to stimulate the economy — including tax cuts to promote personal consumption — unnecessary military spending destroys jobs. It’s true that if you could borrow the money for increased military spending, and didn’t have to pay for it through tax increases or cuts elsewhere, and if you weren’t allowed to borrow money to do anything else, including cutting taxes, borrowing money for unnecessary military spending would beat doing nothing in terms of creating jobs.
But that fact that unnecessary military spending could create jobs if you could borrow the money for only that and nothing else is totally irrelevant now, because national borrowing is now capped by the Budget Control Act. Every unnecessary dollar we spend on the military now has to come from cutting domestic spending or raising taxes. Given the domestic spending that is likely to be cut and the taxes that are likely to be raised to pay for more unnecessary military spending, hitting the incomes of people in the lower 99 percent of the income distribution, that means that unnecessary military spending is going to destroy jobs.
These basic facts about the economic impact of unnecessary military spending were documented in a 2011 paper by University of Massachusetts economists Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier, using the standard economic models which are, without controversy, used to estimate everything else. The numbers in Table 1, page 5, imply that every time you move a billion dollars from the domestic economy to the Pentagon budget, you destroy 3,900 American jobs. Moving $1.5 trillion from the domestic economy to the Pentagon budget, if you did it all at once, would destroy more than 5 million jobs.
Government spending on big objects is highly visible. If Congressman Joe can grab federal dollars to build a big military boondoggle in his district, his constituents will see people working on the big military boondoggle and may see it as credible when Congressman Joe claims that he is putting people to work.
But Congressman Joe is actually destroying jobs if the money for the military boondoggle comes from cutting Social Security benefits, raising the payroll tax, cutting the Earned Income Tax Credit, or spending less on food stamps, because these things deliver dollars more efficiently into the hands of working families who will spend the money in America. Protecting Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, and food stamps won’t build a shiny military boondoggle. But it will put more people to work than a shiny military boondoggle.
Because Social Security is so efficient at putting money in the hands of working families who will spend it — no corporate middleman takes a huge cut — there’s no well-heeled corporate lobby to promote it. Lockheed Martin doesn’t get a cut if Grandma’s Social Security check is increased — 100 percent of the money goes straight to Grandma. But if the government buys warplanes it doesn’t need, Lockheed Martin makes a fortune. With its taxpayer-financed wealth, Lockheed Martin can spend money on Democratic politicians to keep its taxpayer-financed gravy train running.
Could citizen engagement with Democrats turn this around in Burlington? Citizen engagement with rank-and-file Democrats in Congress was decisive in blocking the U.S. bombing of Syria, even though the Democratic leadership in Congress was in lockstep support of the bombing. A key vehicle for citizen engagement with Democrats against the war was MoveOn.org.
What if MoveOn members around the country encouraged Democrats in Vermont to oppose the F-35? Let’s spread the MoveOn petition and find out.