Americans' unrealized "peace dividend"

Once upon a time, as the Soviet Union decided, or felt compelled, to put an end to the “cold war” – a decade short of the new millennium – Americans rejoiced with a sense of relief from what appeared as a diminishing possibility of a nuclear doomsday. And there was also a rebirth of economic optimism.

For three or four years, the anticipated “peace dividend” became to most people more than a political slogan. It seemed only logical for Americans then to assume that as the only military superpower around – which probably entailed an ever continuing high level of defense spending – there would be a significant redirection of spending from defense to economic growth and/or education; and for dreamers and egalitarians, even money to go around for universal healthcare and social programs.

Even as Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990 and the US mustered a coalition that would get the Iraqis out in six months – at a cost of between $60 and $70 billion – the concept of the peace dividend did not go away. Reason: the reimbursement America received for most of its costs – ultimately footed by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the gulf nations, Japan and Germany; some critics claiming that the United States made money on these war transactions, particularly when considering the “sunk costs” for materiel and munitions dumped on the Iraq war, some obsolete and all overpriced. So the idea of investing $100 to $150 billion a year in the nation’s future, instead of the Pentagon’s bottomless pit, remained alive and well.

But two years later, early during Clinton’s first term, political considerations, particularly after Hillary’s false step with experimental health care, made any restructure of defense spending next to impossible. And arch-conservative Newt Gingrich’s 1994 takeover in Congress left no doubt that there was a zero chance for a peace dividend. At that point, the political beast in Clinton told him where he needed to be politically to stay in power. And it was the center; that is, the center of the political right.

The era of America’s political chameleonic experience saw its apogee with charismatic Bill Clinton. It was during his two terms in office that the scant waters of American liberalism were forced to pass through a filter to get any and all progressive impurities out of the way… before they could be allowed to merge into the American “mainstream.” The surviving Democratic Party became de facto indistinguishable from the Republican Party: the same church, a similar domestic agenda, and identical foreign policy dogma… just two different collection plates for politicians to attain power.

It was obviously chimerical to expect a redirection of funding towards the re-engineering of American social structures. But many of us anticipated that investing in education and health care had such an obvious societal high return, and a medium term payoff, that even the heartless, conservative elite would adopt it without second thoughts. But what did seem as obvious, and should make sense to a nation, failed the ultimate test of the new capitalist era: globalization. Why should the American entrenched power consent to “wasteful” spending by educating Americans and keeping them healthy? Why take this inefficient route when you can do it elsewhere at one-fourth or less of the cost? To those who control wealth, and thus power, the world is their community, their village; nations, or rather the people who inhabit those nations, don’t count. To them, any peace dividend to be efficient and effective must be solely in the form of tax cuts benefiting the wealthy. Let the marketplace perform its own magic allowing capitalist selectivity to evolve in the survival of the strongest productive species… which to them translates into greater profits.

So we ended up without a peace dividend but, instead, a nation in hock. Not only did our imperial military needs remain at stratospheric levels, but now we have little choice but to pay for our own wars of choice, be them in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Lebanon (… yes, Lebanon). Since we don’t have the money to defray the cost of these wars, we’ll just pay with IOU’s and hope that future generations can honor them. And while we are at it, we might as well gift our progenies an even bigger task… one of rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure that we have slowly allowed to crumble.

The calamitous state of our nation’s infrastructure probably requires close to $2 trillion to make it whole (drinking and waste water facilities; solid, hazardous and nuclear waste; roads, bridges, rail, and other transportation; schools; energy; aviation; parks and recreation… and the list goes on and on). [The estimate given in 2005 by the American Society of Civil Engineers, $1.6 trillion, has been adjusted to incorporate their 20-25% recurring “under-assessment.”] Not only are we doing little or nothing to remedy the situation, but are getting deeper and deeper, perhaps as much as an additional $50-75 billion a year, into an infrastructure hole. The lack of leadership in coping with this reality by the federal government has been faithfully replicated at the state and local levels, so that there won’t be any political envy, or blame, to go around.

Now, Mr. Bush tells us, we must not forget that “we are at war.” The “cold war” has now been replaced formally with the “war on terror.” So now we must deal with a new layer of totally inefficient and unnecessary fat: America’s Department of Homeland Security.

We must appear to the world at large as the densest people on the face of the earth to tolerate this type of masochistic abuse.

Once upon a time, back in 1990-1993, there was a glimmer of hope which we then envisioned as the prospect of a peace dividend. But we let our duopolistic politicians really screw things up; and under our democratic system, the bottom line is that we are getting our just deserts – no one to blame but ourselves.