America’s Biggest Jobs Program: The U.S. Military

America’s biggest — and only major — jobs program is the U.S. military.

Over 1,400,000 Americans are now on active duty; another 833,000 are in the reserves, many full time. Another 1,600,000 Americans work in companies that supply the military with everything from weapons to utensils. (I’m not even including all the foreign contractors employing non-US citizens.)

If we didn’t have this giant military jobs program, the U.S. unemployment rate would be over 11.5 percent today instead of 9.5 percent.

And without our military jobs program personal incomes would be dropping faster. The Commerce Department reported Monday the only major metro areas where both net earnings and personal incomes rose last year were San Antonio, Texas, Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. — because all three have high concentrations of military and federal jobs.

This isn’t an argument for more military spending. Just the opposite. Having a giant undercover military jobs program is an insane way to keep Americans employed. It creates jobs we don’t need but we keep anyway because there’s no honest alternative. We don’t have an overt jobs program based on what’s really needed.

For example, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced Monday his plan to cut spending on military contractors by more than a quarter over three years, congressional leaders balked. Military contractors are major sources of jobs back in members’ states and districts. California’s Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, demanded that the move “not weaken the nation’s defense.” That’s congress-speak for “over my dead body.”

Gates simultaneously announced closing the Joint Force Command in Norfolk, Virginia, that employs 6,324 people and relies on 3,300 private contractors. This prompted Virginia Democratic Senator Jim Webb, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to warn that the closure “would be a step backward.” Translated: “No chance in hell.”

Gates can’t even end useless weapons programs. That’s because they’re covert jobs programs that employ thousands.

He wants to stop production of the C-17 cargo jet he says is no longer needed. But it keeps 4,000 people workiing at Boeing’s Long Beach assembly plant and 30,000 others at Boeing suppliers strategically located in 40 states. So despite Gates’s protests the Senate has approved ten new orders.

That’s still not enough to keep all those C-17 workers employed, so the Pentagon and Boeing have been hunting for foreign purchasers. The Indian Air Force is now negotiating to buy ten, and talks are underway with several other nations, including Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Ever wonder why military equipment is one of America’s biggest exports? It’s our giant military jobs program in action.

Gates has also been trying to stop production of a duplicate engine for the F-25 joint Strike Fighter jet. He says it isn’t needed and doesn’t justify the $2.9 billion slated merely to develop it.

But the unnecessary duplicate engine would bring thousands of jobs to Indiana and Ohio. Cunningly, its potential manufacturers Rolls-Royce and General Electric created a media blitz (mostly aimed at Washington, D.C. where lawmakers wold see it) featuring an engine worker wearing a “Support Our Troops” T-shirt and arguing the duplicate engine will create 4,000 American jobs. Presto. Despite a veto threat from the White House, a House panel has just approved funding the duplicate.

By the way, Gates isn’t trying to cut the overall Pentagon budget. He just wants to trim certain programs to make room for more military spending with a higher priority.

The Pentagon’s budget — and its giant undercover jobs program — keeps expanding. The President has asked Congress to hike total defense spending next year 2.2 percent, to $708 billion. That’s 6.1 percent higher than peak defense spending during the Bush administration.

This sum doesn’t even include Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, nuclear weapons management, and intelligence. Add these, and next year’s national security budget totals about $950 billion.

That’s a major chunk of the entire federal budget. But most deficit hawks don’t dare cut it. National security is sacrosanct.

Yet what’s really sacrosanct is the giant jobs program that’s justified by national security. National security is a cover for job security.

This is nuts.

Wouldn’t it be better to have a jobs program that created things we really need — like light-rail trains, better school facilities, public parks, water and sewer systems, and non-carbon energy sources — than things we don’t, like obsolete weapons systems?

robert_reich.jpgHistorically some of America’s biggest jobs programs that were critical to the nation’s future have been justified by national defense, although they’ve borne almost no relation to it. The National Defense Education Act of the late 1950s trained a generation of math and science teachers. The National Defense Highway Act created millions of construction jobs turning the nation’s two-lane highways into four- and six-lane Interstates.

Maybe this is the way to convince Republicans and blue-dog Democrats to spend more federal dollars putting Americans back, and working on things we genuinely need: Call it the National Defense Full Employment Act.

Robert Reich

This article first appeared on Robert Reich’s Blog. Republished with permission


  1. Marshall says

    Of all the jobs and items that were written about in these posts, which are mandated by our constitution? So those first and then follow with the others after the the first are done.

  2. says

    That’s just sad. National defense is of course monumentally importance, however, so is education and revolutionazing beaten down infrastructure. Why can’t they find a way to fill those holes in a better and more proportioned manner?

  3. says

    People always use this specious “military jobs” argument, and it is totally wrong and needs to be challenged and shot down in flames whenever it appears.

    When we make or do something useful and valuable, we trade a resource, our time (which is our life), and we get something valuable back. Of course we could pay people to dig holes in the ground and then fill them up again just to make work, and then we (our society) does give something to the worker. But we get back nothing valuable in return for that expenditure, so one side of the equation is a dead loss.

    This “win-win” concept is the basis of all decent and honest economics, where both sides benefit from the exchange.

    I would not quite want to say all military and defense spending is quite as useless and valueless as digging and filling holes. Sometimes it is probably necessary to prevent other problems in this messy and imperfect world.

    But against that is the fact that a tremendous amount of that societal cost actually gives negative value in return! We make things that are dangerous (some incredibly so), to ourselves and to the world. We take upon ourselves the right and authority to interfere in the lives and governments of other peoples, other cultures. We set ourselves us as the Global Empire, like to become the Dictator of Earth. We thus create enemies everywhere. We spend around $700 billion a year, and get very very little useful back, and create enormous negative value. And we create at home a huge secret anti-democratic military-“security”-industrial complex, with enormous financial and political power.

    Is this the “American Way” we are trying to protect? Suppose we set our eager workers to producing $700 billion worth of things and services that were truly durable, useful, beautiful, fun even? Suppose we rebuilt our schools, and our energy system and infrastructure? Suppose we had enough money to reform our courts? We could plant trees! No busy-work needed, there is plenty of good work to do!!

  4. Roger says

    Most of the statements made here are quite clearly true. The military has turned into a puppet to send funds to states. What I disagree with is the alternate spending “solution”. Really? Light Rail? How about we just move those funds to purchasing equipment that works better? Cause if you really value light rail then you would allow private entities to get in that business profitably(ie let them charge what they need to charge).

    What I can agree with is that Boeing and the like should have found clients on their own. Second,obsolete is obsolete. If it don’t work no more don’t buy.(sorry just had to write it in words that came out emotionally)

    In regards to the possible job loss: Can’t Boeing and other related businesses develop better stuff? I mean they are engineers for pete sake!; Second, even if they did not produce some new stuff and the jobs were lost,They are engineers! There are thousands of company’s looking for highly qualified individuals. It’s not as if they had no alternative source of employment.

    But what can you say. We are saddled with politicians that think that keeping things status quo will improve our nation.

    HELLO. Wake up America. Leaders help people move FORWARD not help them stay put. Staying put is how mosquitoes start to thrive (larvae in standing water!).

    Pardon the emotional outbursts. 😉

  5. bigbadjohn says

    what the author is talking about is eliminating unneeded, make work programs. what part of that dont you understand? first off, we dont really have a military protecting america. they are protecting other countries at the moment. what are we left with? the national gaurd? second, this country needs its infrastructure repaired or replaced like yesterday. our sewer and water systems are crumbling below our feet. there are cities that are ghost towns (detroit) that should either be rebuilt or bulldozed. i could go on but the main point is we do not need unesessary weapons being made for what? the military scrap yard almost as soon as they are produced.

  6. Joshua says

    Military spending not only creates good , skilled labour and proffesional jobs, it also protects this country and our allies.

    Spending money on what Leftists -THINK- we need, is throwing money down a rat hole.”Light rail” is just plain Laughable! What you -think- we need ,are luxuries, our military is not a luxury.

    Make Work jobs ,that have no other practical purpose, are a complete waste of time and money. They are a poor excuse for a band aid , and produce nothing of merit , only unskilled labour jobs that have no future.

    I nominate Mr. Reich for Mayor of Fantasy Land!

    • says


      I’m with you, man. I can’t tell you how much my expertise with an M-60 machinegun has helped me in my professional life.

      And tossing grenades? Well, at 62 I don’t have the arm strength to get air bursts anymore, but I’ve brought up my talents there in every job interview I’ve had for the past 40 years. I can always count on the interviewer’s eyes widening as he or she jots a little note on my resume. Dynamite approach, no doubt about it.

      After that, who would want a job building a light rail system? All you could do with a job like that is support a family — and you know we’d both rather be down at the VFW hall knocking back shots and pulling everybody’s leg about that last hot LZ we hit outside My Phouc Tay.

      Roger that, huh?

      — Dick

      • Donna says

        Right on, Dick!!! High Five! I’ve yet found a purpose for my expert rappelling skills and my exceptional marksmanship skills (statistically, females have a much better aim – Girl Power). However, to not be so hard on Joshua, I have found my photojournalism, writing, leadership and administrative skills quite worthwhile out here in the civilian world.

        Obviously, there are points to be made on both sides. That means we simply have to find an acceptable balance. Doesn’t that seem to be the answer for everything? Compromise!

  7. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says

    Defense of this country is one of the legitimate jobs of government. Unlike heathcare, which I can supply myself, citizens individually and even in groups cannot defend this nation against those who’s interests are different from ours. Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela come to mind. Two of these nations are technologically advanced and continue to develop new systems. Unless we want to pay tribute, we need to pay for defense. After all, if we lose, we lose our lives and our freedom. Healthcare will not do you much good then.

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