Sometimes a physical object is better than words at conveying an idea, even better than a photograph. Years ago, Rex Ziak sent a parcel to a bigwig at an insurance company that owned a patch of old growth forest in Pacific County, hoping to convince the company not to log.
Ziak photographed one of the big trees, then encircled it with a rope and cut the rope just long enough to represent the tree's circumference. He sent the rope, photo and a letter asking the executive to lay out the rope in a circle on his office floor so he could see exactly how big that tree was. The long-distance show and tell worked; that part of the forest became the Ellsworth Creek Preserve.
Similarly I want to do a show and tell with you. First, create a strip of paper 36 inches long and two and a half inches wide.
Next, the art part: measure 20-1/2 inches from one end of the strip; draw a red line across the strip at that point. Measuring two and one eighth inches further on from the first line, make a colored line, again across the strip. Make another line two and an eighth inches further on. Then make a series of lines across the strip in the following increments: four lines so you have four sections one and 7/16 inches wide, then one that is one and 1/16 wide, then three that are 11/16 wide and finally make five lines 5/16 inches apart, creating the last six sections on the strip.
Now write these numbers in each section: 57 percent in the first big section of the strip, 6 percent in the second section, 4 percent in the next four sections, three percent in the next one, 2 percent each in the next three hunks, and 1 percent in the final six sections. Now you should have one long strip sectioned into 17 segments, each one labeled with a percentage.
Ready to put this on your refrigerator, like an elementary student's artwork? Ready to contact your member of Congress? Ready to tell the Deficit Reduction Commission and the Obama administration where to find cuts?
The strip you just created represents the 2010 Recommended Discretionary Spending portion of the federal budget, the part of the budget controlled by Congress. It doesn't include entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. These percentages probably changed a bit when the budget was finalized but the strip gives you the basic idea of what portion of our tax dollars goes where.
And where does that big section, that 57 percent go? The military, including the Department of Defense, Veterans Affairs and wars (except for the invasion of Iraq, which George W. Bush conducted "off budget," contributing directly to the deficit). The next sections, with 6 percent each, are for Health and Human Services and transportation, then 4 percent each for state and other international programs, Housing and Urban Development, education and other agencies. Homeland Security gets 3 percent and Energy, Agriculture and Justice get 2 percent each. All the rest, each getting 1 percent, are EPA, NASA, Commerce, Labor, Treasury and Interior.
Whenever there's talk of budget cutting, Congress members who want the federal government to spend less always look at those puny portions of the budget that get a measly one, or two, or four percent. Now that the U.S. is heading, at least in some people's minds, toward fiscal insolvency, we're noticing that military spending is actually the lion's share of our budget. "No bid" military contracts - meaning outfits like Haliburton and Brown and Root didn't have to compete for work they did in Iraq - have contributed to bloated military spending. Building and maintaining roughly 750 military bases around the world, including approximately 200 military golf courses, also contributed to our deficit. Finally, do we need to spend more than the next 45 countries combined?
The American Friends Service Committee estimates that one minute of military spending is $1.9 million. If we took a break from military spending for four days - Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, New Year's and Memorial Day - that would be $10,944,000,000 saved. Roughly $11 billion would have a real impact on the budget. We might stop paying for weapons systems the military doesn't even want, but members of Congress insist on having them because the stuff is built in their districts. Or, instead of exempting uniformed military personnel, Congress, defense contractors, postal workers and judges from Obama's proposed two-year salary freeze, they could live within their current means just like the rest of us.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer who lives frugally and wishes the military/industrial complex would do the same; you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.