U.S. Spending Ignores Domestic Deficits

Write the word "fiscal" and know that a hefty proportion of your readers will find something else to read. So, let’s talk about money instead.

Specifically, about the money the states don’t have.

The only thing you need to know by way of background is that almost all states are required, by their own laws, to balance their budgets. They cannot — as the federal government can — spend more money than they have. So when they find that their expenses are greater than their revenues, they must either cut their expenses or raise their revenues or do both.

When the states enacted their 2003 budgets, they had to deal with an estimated shortfall of $50 billion. That estimate turned out to have been about $25 billion light, which means that the states must now find another $25 billion.

And then comes 2004, with an additional $75 billion in new cuts or new revenues required. So, over a two-year period, there is a total of $150 billion in gaps that by law must be closed.

Plainly, most Americans have no way to process such numbers. Here’s one way to think of them: Aggregate state spending runs about $500 billion a year.

So we’re looking at a shortfall of some 30 percent. And you don’t find the money to cover that kind of shortfall without cutting — slashing, really — core programs and/or raising taxes. Not unless the federal government is prepared to come to your aid in a massive way — which this federal government is most assuredly not.

As it is, the federal government has itself moved from very substantial surpluses to a two-year deficit of $732 billion. On April 24, President Bush said, "This nation has got a deficit because we have been through a war."

But when you add up all the costs of the war — including homeland security, Sept. 11 recovery, Afghanistan and Iraq so far, the total is only $160 billion — about 20 percent of the deficit. Tax cuts for the two years come to $510 billion, or nearly 70 percent of the total. But the president’s deceptions are a matter for another time.

For 2004, the president has asked for $399.1 billion for the military — 51 percent of what’s called "discretionary spending," as compared to $49 billion for health and $29 billion for international affairs, more than five times the aggregate state deficit for the year.

What have our military expenditures to do with the state of the states? After all, we are a long way from the guns vs. butter arguments, when we used to show how many new schools or hospitals could be built for the cost of one new aircraft carrier. Approve the recent war or condemn it, it was as swift as it was and caused as few (relatively) casualties as it did in significant part because of that same aircraft carrier, the precision munitions and so forth.

Like it or not, we are the world’s only superpower, and there really are some people out there who seek to do us harm, and there really are some other people out there who need our help if they are to live in anything approximating dignity.

Few people would argue that all domestic priorities ought take precedence over any military expenditures. So the question is: How much is too much? Which is to say, at the outer "edges" of our military budget –say, the last $100 million or $200 million — are we confident that what we are buying is sufficiently important to warrant cutting back on Medicare, education or on any of the other items that comprise the core of our commitment to our citizens?

For example, we have nine supercarrier battle groups, with a 10th under construction. No other nation has even one. We have more advanced fighters and bombers than all other nations combined, and we have two new stealth aircraft types awaiting production. No other nation has any.

One of those new planes is the F-22, designed during the Cold War to counter new Soviet planes that have in fact never been built. The F-22s cost $204 million each, and the cost of the total program is a shade under $70 billion.

The problem here is obvious: Very, very few of us are competent to say that the F-22 is a luxury we cannot afford. When we do, we sound naive or unpatriotic; fearing ineffectuality, we remain silent or grumble privately. But the Pentagon has a virtually endless supply of "experts," and the geographically decentralized nature of defense contracting today ensures widespread congressional support for major military procurement programs.

Many years ago, I developed a definition of personal affluence: Affluence, I decided, was when you could go ahead with your summer vacation plans even after learning that one of your children needed orthodontia.

I still regard that as a reasonable definition and fear greatly that in the current temper and with our current leadership, we first make our travel plans and only then, if there is money left over, turn our attention to our dental needs — and to food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless and health care for all. And there is no money left over. None. As the president well knows.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss, and Hope (Jewish Lights, Woodstock, Vt, 2001).