Monday, March 14, 2011

Military Town, USA

The United States spends an astronomical amount of money on defense. In 2010, the military budget represented nearly 6% of GDP. That accounts for 19% of the federal budget, 28% of tax revenues, and 40% of total spending on arms worldwide. Despite Mark Twain’s warning against “lies, damn lies, and statistics,” these numbers really only point in one direction regarding our country’s allocation of funds between guns and butter. When you’re spending six times more on defense than China, you’re spending a lot.

In general, then, it’s reasonable to suggest that we spend too much on our military, and this reasonableness only increases during a budget crisis. Jim Wallis and Pete Stark have both argued that any cuts in federal spending must extend to the Department of Defense. Congressmen Barney Frank and Ron Paul agree, adding a bipartisan flavor to the argument. Indeed, the Secretary of Defense himself has already announced considerable reductions in the Army and Marine Corps.

I take no position in this blog on the wisdom of reducing defense spending – or even of scaling back from the expansion associated with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. For the moment, I simply wish to make a point about the potential impact of defense cuts on rural and small-town America.

Tom Green County is one of the relatively sparsely populated, largely rectangular counties that constitute the region west of Dallas and San Antonio. The county seat is San Angelo, a city whose population (91,880 as of July 2008) belies cultural and psychological touchstones that make it feel more rural than urban. This is West Texas, after all. On the southeast side of San Angelo is Goodfellow Air Force Base, where many airmen receive training before taking on jobs in intelligence. Beyond the military personnel stationed at Goodfellow, many civilians work on the base in positions ranging from food servers to administrators.

Goodfellow is easily the largest employer in San Angelo and all of Tom Green County. With 4,990 employees, it provides jobs to roughly twice as many people as the area’s second largest employer. San Angelo is a military town, with businesses going out of their way to cater to their uniformed clientele.

In short, the military industrial complex is not limited to weapons manufacturers and mercenaries. For every Blackwater, there is also a San Angelo. In this and many other places, military installations are the foundation in the economies that have grown around them. Removing or shrinking a base may thus have an effect similar to closing the saw mill or coal mine that once defined a rural community. Even when the best policy is shutting down that mill or mine, we create whole new policy challenges in the aftermath.


Caitlin said...

Fort Ord, which is located just outside of my hometown of Monterey, closed its doors in 1992 through a series of military budget reductions. With its closing, we as a community also felt the loss of jobs and economic investment in our community. Besides the obvious boarded up buildings dotting the sand dunes of Fort Ord, many local businesses closed. Our school district dropped something like 20% of enrollment. As much as I personally will take a stand and say that I believe that the US needs to rethink its military spending budget, I certainly understand how military bases, like prisons, can invigorate economies unlike the diverse one in Monterey, and create stability for people who have very little else on which they can base their livelihoods. This post was very insightful. Thank you!

Sarah J said...

Very good post--I have to admit that I wouldn't have thought about how cutting our defense spending would actually hurt rural towns who depend on their military bases for employment. It's a tough situation though, because if we did reduce spending, we could potentially redirect those funds to increase employment and boost the economy and/or social programming in rural America in other ways. It's a bit of a tall order, considering where our national priorities seem to be at the moment, but in an ideal world, I think it would make a lot of sense.

N.P. said...

Actually your post is perfectly timed to an article I recently read about the United States defense being one of the largest job making industries that we currently have. In fact, our defense systems and the companies that profit in it actually are the largest commodity (if you want to call it that) that our nation exports. I agree with Sarah that it is hard to draw a firm line on what to cut and what not to cut. Since defense spending is so integrated into our current economy, certainly its effects would be detrimental to some aspect of our society.