At war with peace dividend

Dan Rodricks

April 13, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

Of course, they were just joking. Or maybe the wine was talking. But two men having dinner in a Baltimore restaurant were distinctly heard to say that what this nation needs is another war. Ha, ha, ha!

One of the men was a retired military officer, the other an official with a major defense contractor. Kindred spirits they were, bemoaning the stagnant economy in the post-Cold War world, and eventually arriving at their solution: Another war to pump up America's tired industrial muscles.

But no civilized person would drink to that, would he? We can't take such dinosaurian sentiment seriously, can we? It's a new world, isn't it?

The end of the Cold War was supposed to signal liberation, for taxpayers and their dollars, from the tradition of massive subsidies for defense. We were due a peace dividend that would enable us to break from massive deficit spending and to set our sights on new economic horizons. We could rebuild bridges and dams, repave streets, expand mass transit, attack environmental problems and provide incentive for research and development of new technologies. And there are all those human needs, starting with medical care, that could finally get the attention, and the government support, they deserve. We could better educate our children. We could make health insurance available for everyone, not just those who can afford it. We could keep the libraries open, and teach more people to read.

Such was a promise of the end of the Cold War. We need no longer concede, as so many of us have been taught, that America's stature in the global economy is dependent on spending hundreds of billions of dollars on defense. We no longer need a war to pull us out of economic lethargy. With the Soviet Union finished as a world power, we are free to pursue the other great endeavors that have been put on hold for decades, while still maintaining a military strong enough to put out any fires that might erupt.

Well, guess what. It's not a perfect world. The so-called peace dividend is being squandered by a narrow-minded, status-quo president and a Congress that doesn't have the guts to do anything important. On Friday, the Senate approved a federal budget for 1993 that carries a deficit of $320 billion and contains a defense budget of $292 billion. Obviously, the defense budget can't be eliminated entirely, but it doesn't appear anyone is even trying to mine it for a peace dividend. In fact, the most substantial budget changes the Senate made affected domestic spending and, according to one informed estimate, amounted to shifts of only one one-thousandth of the total budget. That's tinkering, not change.

So the military industrialists, like the two pals overheard at dinner in Baltimore the other night, needn't fret. The Senate is wimpy. And the status-quo president has proposed cutbacks that make only a small ripple in a huge caldron of defense spending that swelled to record size, along with the deficit, in the 1980s.

If the buildup in defense was designed to bring the Soviet Union to its knees, then mission accomplished. But where's the payoff for the United States?

We are told to lower expectations. To wait. To consider the realities. If we reduce defense spending, people lose jobs and become burdens on the government. The peace dividend would be used to pay unemployment benefits, to make up losses in income tax revenues from laid off defense industry workers, and, perhaps, to retrain them for new jobs.

All of that, we can buy. But it's unbelievable that government spending of this magnitude -- $292 billion in fiscal 1993 -- has to continue. It's unbelievable that a truly significant reduction in defense spending would be eaten up entirely by largely one-time transitional costs.

There's a peace dividend to be had, all right. But not enough Americans are demanding it. And that's what it takes. The old Cold War warriors don't give anything up. Over the weekend, the Navy commissioned a new attack submarine, the USS Annapolis, at Groton, Conn. During the ceremony, the retired commander of the U.S. sub fleets, Vice Admiral Bernard Kauderer, said: "A proposed hiatus in submarine construction places at risk the tactical advantage our submarines have long enjoyed and sets the stage for a loss of technological lead to one or more emerging undersea powers."

That was the military speaking up for industry, keeping faith with a relationship that has long endured. And keeps costing us plenty.

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