Cracks in the system

Deferring infrastructure maintenance for war spending builds a bridge to nowhere.

After watching coverage of the minneapolis-St. Paul I-35W bridge collapse, Anita Dancs was shocked by the terrible spectacle and dreading the outcome of the search for survivors. Yet her next thought may not have been one that immediately sprang to the minds of many other CNN viewers. “Here’s your tax cuts at work,” she remembers thinking.

But Dancs is not your average Headline News junkie. As research director for the National Priorities Project, she has been among those crying in the wilderness over the misallocation of America’s wealth. Each federal budget season her organization tracks the astounding dollar amounts dispersed on defense and tabulates its “opportunity costs,” those investments that could have been made in the U.S. common good that have instead been surrendered to war-making.

Not long ago the idea of a bridge simply falling into a river would have seemed preposterous, but the collapse of I-35W, constructed in 1967 and deemed “structurally deficient” as long ago as 1990, probably didn’t surprise everyone. Back in 2005 the American Society of Civil Engineers issued a failing grade on the nation’s rotting infrastructure, arguing that the United States needed to commit $1.6 trillion toward shoring up our failing highways, bridges, dams, water systems, and other critical infrastructure. This recent disaster joins the levy collapse in New Orleans in making ASCE’s case that a dramatic reinvestment in America’s undergirding must begin immediately.

For years folks at the NPP and many other budget and policy analysis and peace organizations have been arguing that the nation’s permanent war economy is measurably harming our way of life. The spiritual damage of that commitment is hard to track, but the practical impact of our preferential option for the Pentagon by now has been well established.

As a culture, as a nation, we remain committed to the primacy of military response in crafting our strategic and diplomatic future. Despite the billions piling up in debt that our grandchildren will be shouldering, we have somehow embraced the illusion that our war commitment is relatively cost free.

But trillions spent on defense means trillions not spent on dams, bridges, schools, hospitals, and more, as that noted radical Dwight Eisenhower pointed out 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. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Whether it is a levy system built on a budget to endure a Category 3 hurricane, not the Category 4 storm that overwhelmed it, or deferred infrastructure spending that likely contributed to the failure of a bridge that killed 12 and the midafternoon detonation of a New York steam pipe that took one life, it may be finally clear that prudent public spending on our nation’s physical and human capital can be matters of life and death. The disproportionate percentage of annual tax revenue devoted to defense prevents us from building a better future for our children and sharing this nation’s great wealth with others so in need around the world.

“Most people realize that we’re spending too much on the military and we’re spending too much waging an unjust war,” says Dancs. “We could be spending that money protecting the people at home, building safer housing, creating safer workplaces.”

It’s all a matter of priorities. We can build a better world or a better military machine; we can’t do both. “We’re making some really bad choices,” Dancs says, “and the bad choices we’re making are coming back to haunt us.”

Kevin Clarke is senior editor at U.S. Catholic and online content manager at Claretian Publications. This article appeared in the October 2007 (Volume 72, Number 10; page 46) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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