Archived Story

Time to invest in preschoolers over bombs

Published 9:25am Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Column: My Point of View, by Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Productive capacity versus destructive capacity. Which is a better investment: a preschooler or a Predator drone?

The budget sequester is set to go into effect on March 1 if Congress doesn’t act, or at least doesn’t forestall it once again. Impending cuts in military spending are supposed to induce Republicans, despite being handcuffed by Tea Party ideologues, to work out a budget agreement with Democrats.

Jennifer Vogt-Erickson
Jennifer Vogt-Erickson

Cutting $500 billion out of the military budget over the next 10 years is treated like a disaster-in-the-making, even by many Democrats. The money, though, probably isn’t crucial for military preparedness. We already spend $200 billion more per year on our military than the next top 10 countries combined. Since the U.S.’s military spending is out of proportion to what other countries allocate, even considering our large population, why is it such an issue to cut back on that spending?

Having the ability to go it alone (unilateralism) with military action is one rationale for our huge defense outlay. It goes hand-in-hand with resistance to the U.N. If our leaders were less reluctant to build true military coalitions with other countries in the event of a threat, we wouldn’t feel forced to spend so much on our own military.

But probably a more important reason is that military spending is a form of government stimulus. Military spending during World War II pulled the U.S. out of the last dregs of the Great Depression. During the Reagan era, increased military expenditures were an integral part of the deficit spending that put our economy back on track. Today, representatives want to keep the military bases and weapons manufacturing they have in their districts. It’s a lot of paychecks.

We need every one of those paychecks, but that isn’t the only way the U.S. could be pumping money into the economy. Think about it, the military money spurring the economy is going mainly into building our destructive capacity. If it accumulates and just waits, that is the best possible outcome. If it gets used, it usually takes out lives (which can’t be replaced) or damages infrastructure (which is expensive to replace).

What could a fraction of that money be doing for us if we diverted it into building productive capacity instead of destructive capacity? President Barack Obama laid out a number of priorities in his State of the Union address, which focus on building productive capacity. He wants to put more resources into developing high-tech manufacturing jobs, investing in scientific research and innovation, improving energy efficiency of vehicles and buildings, competing in clean energy markets, upgrading communications systems and power grids, and building high speed rail.

He also proposed a program to replace deficient infrastructure. Perhaps more importantly, he announced plans to make high-quality preschool affordable for all children, which is a proven high-return public investment. He also called for more technical training programs available within high schools, which will help our students prepare better for the workforce and be able to earn certifications along with a diploma.

All of these investments in productive capacity promote long-term economic development. They don’t sit and wait. They accommodate growth or accumulate value.

We’re living in an age when the old incentives for war — territory and treasure — are no longer permissible or not worth the cost. Economic sanctions are often more effective than military action. Social media, derived from growth in information technologies, has helped depose dictators. The world’s biggest players are determined more by their economic muscle than their military might.

Again, I’m not remotely suggesting we dismantle our military. I’m saying we should look at how military spending functions as stimulus spending, and consider if some of that money could be designated in a more efficient way to secure our national interests.

Otherwise, the handcuffs the Tea Party has on Republicans could be nothing compared to the shackles we place on our own economic competitiveness. As for my initial question, I’d put my money on a preschooler. Every time.

Albert Lea resident Jennifer Vogt-Erickson is a member of the Freeborn County DFL Party.