What We Spend Is What We Are (...And We Were In Trouble Even Before COVID-19)

"But, for better or worse, numbers can help us to better understand how we got here. They can also help us to better understand how we’ll cope once the crisis has passed."
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Laicie Heeley and I first worked together over eight years ago, collaborating on current news reporting for an audience of millennial women. (We called it In The Know. Catchy, right?) We penned the digital column for nearly three years before parting ways. And, as I wasn't at all surprised, Laicie pivoted into something much-needed and meaningful in the journalism landscape. 

She's the brilliant founder and CEO behind Inkstick Media, a multi-platform news experience. Laicie brings us the podcast Things That Go Boom, where she hosts discussions about "the ins, outs, and whathaveyous of what keeps us safe". She also runs the foreign policy digital magazine, Inkstick. With an impressive roster of contributors, Inkstick tackles heavy-hitting subject matter with ease, brevity and expertise. (See a recent favorite: Fighting for a Feminist Foreign Policy.) She is also a partner with the Truman National Security Project (and mom of three!). Below, Laicie shares her policy-driven knowledge about what's going on with our current economy in light of the global pandemic...

As an editor and producer, I spend a lot of time with words. Reading them, listening to them, wrangling them into submission. As a policy expert, on the other hand, I spend a lot of time with numbers. Words are better than numbers. Words can be comforting, like a warm blanket on a cold day. Numbers? Numbers are almost always crushing, like a parking ticket on your windshield after you’ve just spent the last five hours breaking up with your boyfriend. Like the number I have to cough up at the end of every tax year.

I work with them every day, but I still hate numbers. And, I especially hate them right now. At home with my three children, trying to work and generally just keep my head straight in the middle of a crisis. If my brain felt like mush before, it really does now.

But, for better or worse, numbers can help us to better understand how we got here. They can also help us to better understand how we’ll cope once the crisis has passed.

You might’ve heard that in 2018, the CDC was forced to scale back its efforts to prevent epidemics in 39 of 49 countries, including China, because of budget cuts. These and other cuts to global health spending could mean we were less prepared to confront COVID-19 when it arrived at our door. And they could mean we’re less prepared for the future.

Our national debt has been growing for years, and it’s set to skyrocket. Even before this crisis hit, the Congressional Budget Office projected that held by the public would rise to $31.4 trillion from $23 trillion by the end of this decade — that’s 98% of our GDP and the highest level since the end of World War II.

This debt is a problem all on its own. When the country is generally safe, our debt creates an unsustainable drag on the economy. But we’ve been borrowing at a pace previously reserved for major wars and recessions – meaning we’ve entered this crisis with our cards already nearing their limit.

Eventually, after the dust has settled, it’s likely that we’ll have to raise taxes or cut benefits, or both. If you’re under 50 – that could suck. Under 35? You could be hit the hardest. That’s one reason some lawmakers have been arguing for the cancellation of student debt.

So what have we been buying, you ask?

In addition to paying interest on all of that debt (it’s a lot of interest) and mandatory spending on things like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, about 30% of our annual spending pays for… basically everything else. And more than half of that 30% goes to military spending. Which means that less than 15% of our budget pays for education, infrastructure, environmental protection, food safety, science and space programs, public housing, federal law enforcement, disaster assistance, and more.

The piece we spend on the military pays for things like the long-term health of our troops; big weapons like aircraft carriers, submarines, and fighter jets; overseas bases; and the wars. Which, okay, that’s all pretty expensive. But experts have also identified a fair amount of waste. In fact, the first-ever audit of the Department of Defense revealed that it failed to spend almost $28 billion from 2013 to 2018, all the while asking for more funding.

Strategically, some experts have suggested we could be spending a lot less – and that taking a harder look at our spending might actually make us stronger. Estimates for what we might save range from $20 billion to $200 billion per year. But, currently, the Pentagon budget is growing.

Consider that some estimates put the annual cost of eradicating homelessness in the United States at about $20 billion, and the cost of eradicating hunger in America at about $26 billion. At $740 billion a year, the Pentagon represents our greatest priority, as a country. Maybe that’s what we want. Maybe it’s not. But taking a hard look at we’re buying, and what we’re not, is a no-brainer. What we spend is what we are. And what we are, now, is heavily armed for a traditional war, but underprepared to confront threats like COVID-19.

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