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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Tackling the defense budget and what it means for life in the US

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Gwenyfar Rohler breaks down the Trump administration’s budget plan for taxpayer dollars and quality-of-life programs that will suffer.

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Congressman David Rouzer, just a few weeks ago at his town hall meeting, justified the defunding of Planned Parenthood repeatedly on “people’s moral objection” for how their tax dollars were spent. An audience member voiced a litany of the items she objected to her tax dollars funding as well. It put me in mind of Joan Baez who refused to pay her income tax for years because she would not fund the war in Vietnam. This remains a question I wrestle with frequently. Even if I object to something on moral grounds, for example, a border wall or war, as a taxpayer I contribute financially to perpetuating the thing I object to—which makes me complicit. What do I do?


FEDERAL BUDGET OF THE PAST INTO THE FUTURE: Wikipedia’s pie charts of federal budget spending from 2014 (top) and  projected spending in 2045 (bottom) of nine countries worldwide.

FEDERAL BUDGET OF THE PAST INTO THE FUTURE: Wikipedia’s pie charts of federal budget spending from 2014 (top) and
projected spending in 2045 (bottom) of nine countries worldwide.


I have wrestled for much of my adult life with questions of pacifism. I do truly, deeply admire and agree with the teachings of Gandhi and Dr. King. I wish I had the strength of character and conviction their lives and work embraced. To that end I do not own a firearm, and I really do believe most conflicts can find a non-violent solution. However, how “violence” is defined is a subject which leaves me spinning for hours in philosophical debate.

“Poverty is the worst form of violence,” as Gandhi so candidly observed. He was referring to institutionalized poverty that kept generations of people in a state of subservience to another group of people. One of the tactics used in civil disobedience and non-violent resistance is to hinder the oppressor from doing business—to eat up profits and thereby make the status quo too expensive to maintain. Unfortunately, the civilian bystanders most affected by these strategies tend to be workers and families of workers who feel the impact long before the people at the top of the pyramid.

Three hours later I still won’t have an answer to the quandary—or one I can live with. I only can hope diplomacy and civility continue to be central for conflict resolution.  At the center, I am keenly aware all of this luxury I have just described is exactly that: luxury.  The luxury of not living in anarchism, of not living in a place devoid of rule of law and decency. Luxury is due largely to the long-term investment in various forms of infrastructure in the United States.

Perhaps it is all part of why I was so surprised to read of Reuters reporting 28-percent proposed cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid in Trump’s budget plan. It is a move CNN reports has motivated more than 120 retired generals and admirals to sign a letter, expressing their disagreement with the proposal and urging the Trump administration to avoid plans to gut funding for diplomacy and foreign aid.

The thing is we all relate to the budget personally—as in we hone in on items we feel impact us most directly. So the USAID budget was foremost in the minds of our household. Full Belly Project does a lot of work abroad in partnership with programs funded by USAID. According to the Washington Post, as it currently exists, foreign aid accounts for about 1 percent of the federal budget. One percent—yet 120 of our top military brass consider it essential to our foreign mission. By comparison, the Pentagon’s share of the federal budget is 15 percent. It sounds like the brass see a good return on investment (ROI) for the 1 percent.

As well—and of personal concern—is the proposed cut to the Environmental Protection Agency. I like clean drinking water. It is important to me to be able to turn on the tap, fill a glass of water, or fill the dogs’ bowls, and know I am not serving them cholera-infested hydration—or water tainted with toxic chemicals that cause long-term damage. If that sounds far-fetched, try asking the families at Camp LeJeune who are still grappling with the impacts of drinking contaminated water, which has led to cancer and ALS. The EPA’s regulations required testing to reveal the contamination and the EPA’s superfund review found the benzene in the water. There are things we should be able to trust in 21st century America. Tap water is one.

At present, a 24 percent cut to the EPA is on the table, which would result, among other things, in the lay off of about 20 percent of their workforce. At present, the EPA receives 0.2 percent (yes that is less than 1 percent) of all federal spending, according to Mother Jones independent news organization.

Right now the Trump administration wants a $54 billion increase in the defense budget. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, we currently spend $598 billion on defense. Fourteen countries put together—China, India, France, Japan, Germany, South Korea, Iraq, Italy, Australia, Brazil, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United Kingdom—collectively spend $664 billion. Somehow, politicians have invented the idea we are not a military power, and that we must retake the title and thereby command the world’s respect—and people believe them. Looking at how much we currently spend on the defense budget, I’m not sure how anyone would not see us as a military super power.

Southeastern North Carolina is an area that benefits greatly from and is quite dependent upon the economic activity driven by the multiple military institutions we house. As a small-business owner, I am keenly aware of the broad web of economic activity triggered by the presence of the bases here—from money spent by soldiers and their families who live here, their families visiting before and after deployment, and the people who build housing to meet the expanding needs of the communities around the bases.

When the budget was proposed, the administration made it clear the $54 billion would be cut from non-defense-related programs to fund an increase in defense spending. And then the news that Meals on Wheels was coming under the hammer hit the national discussion. As did the National Endowment for the Arts and PBS come into the spotlight (or target depending upon perspective). According to Mother Jones, the proposed defense increase would fund PBS’ annual budget 121 times.

Perhaps before we gut all of the quality-of-life programs that make the United States a place worth living, we could stop and take a deep breath and ask ourselves what are we fighting for? If we eliminate everything that makes a good life and even turned daily activities, like taking a bath or getting a drink of water, into a game of Russian Roulette, what is left that is worth defending? Yes, I disagree with a lot of the ways my tax dollars get spent; we all do. That’s part of the game of tax collection and distribution. But finding a diplomatic solution, rather than one dependent on a bullet to provide weight to the argument, is a luxury I like.

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