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People v. U.S. Govt

By davidswanson - Posted on 04 March 2011

Statistically speaking, virtually nobody in the United States of America knows that we spend more on the military than the rest of the world combined, that we could eliminate most of our military and still have the world's largest, that over half of the money our government raises from income taxes and borrowing gets spent on the military, that our wars (outrageously costly as they may be) cost far less than the permanent non-war military budget, or that most of the financial woes of the federal and state governments could be solved just by ending a war in Afghanistan that two-thirds of Americans oppose.

Here's a useful budgetary pie chart and a brand-new update based on the proposed 2012 budget.

UPDATE: new pie chart.

One reason we know that nobody knows these things is that they are not spoken on television. Another is that we have polls, including this one showing that only 25% of Americans think our country should spend three times as much on the military as the next most militarized nation, but only 32% (not 75%) think we currently spend too much. In reality, of course, we spend much more than three times what China spends. A bill in Congress to restrict US military spending to three times the next most militarized nation might carry big popular support, but Congress would never pass it in the absence of intense public pressure, because it would require major cuts to the US military.

How many Americans know that most US weapons have no defensive purpose, that the Department of Defense became less, rather than more, defensive when it took on that name, that its old name was the Department of War, that the United States has about 1,000 military bases in other people's countries, that military spending is worse than most other kinds of spending and even worse than tax cuts when it comes to job creation and economic benefits, that the president's deficit commission and think tanks on the right and left have proposed cutting the military, or that the military has been increased every year of the past decade, or that President Obama hopes to increase it further this year and next year and the year after that? Statistically speaking, probably almost no one.

In the absence of information, with a communications system run by war supporters, and with activist groups loyal to one or the other of the two war-making political parties, what are pollsters supposed to do? Here are two basic, contrasting, approaches.

Technique Number One: Just ask people about stuff they have no information on. Gallup recently asked Americans about so-called "defense" spending, and despite widespread ignorance, 39% of Americans knew enough to say it was too high, while 22% thought it was too little, and 35% thought it was just about right. While military spending has risen dramatically in absolute terms, in per capita terms, and as percentage of GDP, by all of which measures the United States leads all other industrialized nations, Gallup's polling over the years has not seen the percentage of Americans saying the bill is too high similarly increase. Given that nobody knows what military spending is, what Gallup is telling us is primarily what percentage of Americans can never get enough war (22%), what percentage will approve of anything the government does (35%), and what percentage is inclined to resist the powers that be (39%).

Technique Number Two: Tell the public what the federal budget is, and then ask them how they would change it. We can't do this on a massive scale without breaking up the corporate media cartel, but pollsters can do it with sample groups, as was just done here (and also six years ago here) with predictable results that of course almost nobody, statistically speaking, could have predicted. It turns out that the budgets produced by the White House and Congress in no way resemble the budget Americans would write. The biggest difference is that the public would significantly cut the military, while the White House and Congress would increase it.

There are lots of other differences too. The public, unlike the White House or the Congress, would cut space spending . The public would more than double investment in renewable energy and conservation, while the President would increase it only 44% and the House Republicans would cut it by 36%. The public would increase spending on controlling pollution by 17%, while Obama would cut it by 13% and the House would cut it by 39%. The public would more than double spending on job training while Obama would cut it slightly and the Republicans cut it substantially. The public would boost higher education spending by 92% while Obama would only raise it 9% and the Republicans cut it 26%. The public would cut foreign aid to dictatorships but increase humanitarian assistance abroad. The White House and Congress? Not even on the same page with us. The public and the President both want to cut subsidies to big agriculture, but the public is alone in wanting that funding to assist small farmers.

Mass transit is an outlier in this poll. The President (and I agree with him) wants to increase it, while the public does not. Obama also wants to increase veterans' benefits, while the public wants them cut. I side with the President on that one, unless the alternative is to improve the lives of all of us instead of just veterans -- in which case the public would be right, I think.

And here's the big gap between the people and the politicians. The public wants to raise more money by cutting the military and by taxing the wealthy, taxing wealthy estates, taxing corporations, taxing alcohol, taxing soft drinks, taxing hedge fund managers' income, and by charging a crisis fee to large banks. A plurality of 49% of the public also wants to tax carbon dioxide emissions. A strong majority does not want a sales tax. The White House and Congress, in contrast, prefer a combination of going into debt and slashing basic services. The public reduces the deficit dramatically. The President increases it, and Congress leaves it about where it was before.

This is a comparison, let's remember, of an INFORMED public with its misrepresentatives in Washington, but even the ACTUAL public is almost always opposed to anything done by its government. I would challenge anyone to find a bill passed by Congress and signed by the President, or an imperial decree by a president, or a secret program later exposed, in the past decade that lines up well with what a majority of Americans would have done if they had had control over the issue. You can find polling on numerous topics here, and the Congressional Record here. Happy hunting!

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