In hard times, good people still can surprise us. “Only $30 billion will bring clean water to everyone on earth,” said a couple in a recent church service I attended; then they began to collect, dollar by dollar, the beginnings of that $30 billion.
The disconnect between people’s fundamental decency and their government’s awful public policy is doubly frustrating when you know the facts. For example, the Pentagon spent more than three times that $30 billion on the (still non-working) “Star Wars” weapon alone. Defense spending is not just defensive, either; as military historian Andrew Bacevich says “for Pentagon, Inc. defense per se figures as an afterthought.”
The U.S. currently spends more than the rest of the world combined on its military but less than 2% of its budget on humanitarian aid, even if clean water would do more to promote peace. If the U.S. spent only three times more on the Pentagon than its nearest military rival (China), the Federal budget would be in perpetual surplus. Even the current administration’s proposed $78 billion reduction in military spending only slows its growth without really reducing it.
The local counterpart to military expenses is prisons. Says Senator Jim Webb: “The United States has by far the world’s highest incarceration rate. With 5% of the world’s population, our country now houses nearly 25% of the world’s reported prisoners. We currently incarcerate 756 inmates per 100,000 residents….With so many of our citizens in prison compared with the rest of the world, there are only two possibilities: Either we are … the most evil people on earth or we are doing something … vastly counterproductive.”
How effective is such punishment? Canada incarcerates 111 per 100,000, yet despite similar demographics, its crime rates differ insignificantly from ours for the four decades during which U.S. incarceration increased to current levels.
This “prisoner surplus” comes from the drug war. Public policy that treats drug problems as crime rather than as illness are seven times more costly, and there’s good evidence decriminalizing drugs reduces other crime too. In other words, costly prisons do not make us safer.
Churches have traditionally been the champions for healing and peacemaking in public policy–instead of punishment and war. They have advocated for the “least of these.” Lately, however, their efforts have been drowned out by the supposedly “liberal” media clamoring for cuts in social safety net programs rather than in defense and prison budgets. Not surprisingly, defense contractors (e.g. GE) have large stakes in U.S. media outlets, and a handful of large corporations own more than 90% of them.
Cutting social programs rather than the orders-of-magnitude larger budgets for weapons and prisons is the kind of thing Jesus called “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.”
Nevertheless, there are still opportunities to put humans first, acting positively rather than accepting more of the same. For example, the Friends Committee on National Legislation (Quakers), have a petition to cut military spending and fund community programs. You can see the petition’s proposed cuts and sign it here: http://action.fcnl.org/petitions/war_making_you_poor0710/
The greatest temptation to inaction is to say “It won’t matter.” If you’re a Christian, though, one article of faith is that your smallest actions, and even your thoughts matter.
While violence and punishment can be effective in the short run, you don’t have to be a fan of the “Prince of Peace” to believe that kindness and mercy–and caring for the “least of these”–is far more likely to produce lasting peace.
Let’s put our money where our hearts are. What have you got to lose?
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