Just how much does the United States spend on its military? The figures are so vast they can sometimes be difficult to process.
Late last year, for example, President Donald Trump approved a colossal military spending bill totaling some $738 billion — billions more than it would cost to pay the tuition of every college student in the country. That figure, by the way, was just the operating budget for 2020, and 2021’s looks set to be even larger.
Though falling gradually between 2010 and 2015, America’s military spending has continued to balloon since Barack Obama’s final year in office — increasing from $586 billion in 2015 to a whopping $716 billion by 2019. All told, the Congressional Budget Office in 2019 predicted that the United States will spend over $7 trillion on the military over the next decade.
Such colossal spending has only been made possible through bipartisan effort, with Democrats and Republicans alike repeatedly at odds with public opinion surveys, suggesting that only a minority of Americans support continued spending increases. In 2019, for example, House Democrats newly in the majority proposed increasing the military budget to $733 billion, a figure not much smaller than the one favored by the Trump administration.
Though Pentagon officials and military lobbyists tend to claim that such spending is the necessary price of security, this argument collapses at the slightest scrutiny.
America spends so much on its military when compared to other countries, in fact, that even labelling it “defense” risks making satire obsolete. Figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, for example, find that the United States actually spends billions more than the next ten countries combined: easily outpacing the collected military budgets of China, Russia, and many allies throughout Europe, South America, and Asia.
In recognition that America’s military spending is completely out of control, California Representative Barbara Lee this week tabled a resolution proposing massive cuts to the Pentagon’s bloated budget — totaling some $350 billion. Lee, who incidentally cast Congress’s only dissenting vote against the authorization of unconstrained military force in the days following September 11, has tabled ten proposals that include eliminating Trump’s Space Force, reducing America’s military operations abroad, cutting military overhead by 15 percent, and shuttering some 60 percent of the bases America maintains abroad.
Lee’s proposals come at a time of renewed national focus on the problem of overfunded police departments and widespread protests calling for money currently being spent on policing to be redirected towards social services and programs. In similar fashion, her own language surrounding the resolution emphasizes that America’s bloated military spending itself poses a risk to public health, education, and the quality of public infrastructure, all of which could receive huge and necessary funding injections if billions were reclaimed from the Pentagon. “Congress,” Lee told the press, “needs to prioritize our safety and our future, not more war.”
America’s economy has often leaned heavily on state military expenditure to stay afloat. As Noam Chomsky explained in a 1993 essay:
By the late 1940s, it was taken for granted in government-corporate circles that the state would have to intervene massively to maintain the private economy. In 1948, with postwar pent-up consumer demand exhausted and the economy sinking back into recession, Truman’s “cold-war spending” was regarded by the business press as a “magic formula for almost endless good times” (Steel), a way to “maintain a generally upward tone” (Business Week). The Magazine of Wall Street saw military spending as a way to “inject new strength into the entire economy,” and a few years later, found it “obvious that foreign economies as well as our own are now mainly dependent on the scope of continued arms spending in this country,” referring to the international military Keynesianism that finally succeeded in reconstructing state capitalist industrial societies abroad and laying the basis for the huge expansion of Transnational Corporations (TNCs), at that time mainly U.S.-based.
Cutting America’s bloated military budget and redirecting the funds to health care, education, and social welfare programs would represent a major step towards building a more humane and less violent country both at home and abroad. But it would also represent a profound victory for democratic forces over a militarized state bureaucracy that seems to gobble up an ever larger share of America’s national wealth with each passing year.