By Donella Meadows
–January 12, 1990–
Ever since the Cold War ended a month or so ago, politicians and columnists have been having fun figuring out what to do with the money we will save — the so-called “peace dividend.”
You would think ordinary citizens would be playing this game too. After all, we are the source of the money. But the public seems strangely uninterested in this opportunity to re-allocate hundreds of billions of our own dollars. I don’t see many letters to the editor. I haven’t heard of a flood of communications to Congress. Why not?
My guess is that when dollars mount into the billion range, most folks’ eyes glaze over. We can get excited about a hundred dollars off a set of new tires, but a hundred billion off the military budget is not real. I bet many people aren’t even too clear about the difference between a million, a billion, and a trillion.
So let’s get clear. The re-allocation battle going on now will shape our nation and our personal finances for years to come. We’d better get into it.
For starters: a million dollars is a thousand thousand. It’s the amount someone making $20,000 a year would earn over a 50-year working life. The Pentagon spends $1 million every two minutes.
A billion is a thousand million — the amount a thousand people would earn in their lifetimes. Since there are a quarter of a billion Americans, each billion dollars the government spends costs us on average $4 apiece. One Trident submarine with enough nuclear missiles to devastate every city in the USSR costs $1.7 billion. Though the Cold War is over, we are still building a fleet of 25 Tridents for a total of $42 billion — $168 from every man, woman, and child of us.
A trillion is a thousand billion. The government budget will be about $1.3 trillion dollars this year — $5200 on average from every American. Our national debt is over $3 trillion and rising by about $200 billion a year (the famous deficit). The interest on that debt in 1989 was $170 billion.
Those numbers should put the peace dividend in perspective. The Pentagon budget runs about $300 billion a year. Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney figures he can now get by with $45 billion less (a 15 percent cut). Retired Admirals Gene LaRocque and Eugene Carroll calculate that even with a cut of $100 billion a year the nation would have a strong defense. That cut would roll the military budget back roughly to where it was in 1980.
Let’s assume, very optimistically, a peace dividend of $100 billion a year. That amount by itself will not end the deficit; it won’t even pay the interest on the debt. But compare it to the following figures and you’ll see that it could do a tremendous amount of good.
The Agriculture Department spent $4.45 million last year on organic farming research (out of a total research budget of $1 billion).
The world spends about $30 million a year on the United Nations Environmental Program ($10 million of which comes from the United States).
Unesco is trying to find $130 million a year to establish at least one Biosphere Reserve in every important ecological zone on earth, thus preserving at least remnants of all the earth’s major ecosystems. One Stealth bomber costs $600 million.
In this democratic land we spend $2.5 billion a year taking public opinion polls. We spend $5 billion per year for exercise clubs and almost that much for leotards and warmup suits. We spend $7 billion a year on pet foods, $10 billion on cosmetics, $24 billion for lawn care (that’s out-of-pocket costs; it doesn’t count our time).
The 1990 budget of the Environmental Protection Agency is $5.4 billion. Total federal funding for elementary and secondary education in 1989 was $9.1 billion.
U.S. foreign aid in 1990 will be about $14.5 billion.
$50 billion was the net flow of funds in 1989 from the poor countries of the world to creditors in rich countries.
$60 billion is the amount by which government income would go up each year if this decade’s tax cuts for the wealthy were reversed.
The Medicare program cost $95 billion in 1989.
Gamblers spend $190 billion a year in the United States. Social Security last year cost $247 billion — and Social Security taxes brought in $322 billion. The $75 billion surplus was used to make the national deficit look smaller.
We are in fact a very rich nation, spending enormous amounts of money both privately and publicly. There is no excuse for us to have a deficit, or to neglect our environment, or to be stingy with the poor. The military budget is one good place, but not the only one, where we can find the funds to solve our financial problems — and to do good.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990