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Picking Up a $170 Billion Tab

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Posted on Dec 12, 2012
The U.S. Army (CC BY 2.0)

By David Vine, TomDispatch

(Page 4)

When it comes to the general U.S. presence abroad, other costs are too difficult to estimate reliably, including the price of Pentagon offices in the United States, embassies, and other government agencies that support bases and troops overseas. So, too, U.S. training facilities, depots, hospitals, and even cemeteries allow overseas bases to function. Other spending includes currency-exchange costs, attorneys’ fees and damages won in lawsuits against military personnel abroad, short-term “temporary duty assignments,” U.S.-based troops participating in exercises overseas, and perhaps even some of NASA’s military functions, space-based weapons, a percentage of recruiting costs required to staff bases abroad, interest paid on the debt attributable to the past costs of overseas bases, and Veterans Administration costs and other retirement spending for military personnel who served abroad.

Beyond my conservative estimate, the true bill for garrisoning the planet might be closer to $200 billion a year.

“Spillover Costs”

Those, by the way, are just the costs in the U.S. government’s budget. The total economic costs to the U.S. economy are higher still. Consider where the taxpayer-funded salaries of the troops at those bases go when they eat or drink at a local restaurant or bar, shop for clothing, rent a local home, or pay local sales taxes in Germany, Italy, or Japan. These are what economists call “spillover” or “multiplier effects.” When I visited Okinawa in 2010, for example, Marine Corps representatives bragged about how their presence contributes $1.9 billion annually to the local economy through base contracts, jobs, local purchases, and other spending. Although the figures may be overstated, it’s no wonder members of Congress like Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison have called for a new “Build in America” policy to protect “the fiscal health of our nation.”

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And the costs are still broader when one considers the trade-offs, or opportunity costs, involved. Military spending creates fewer jobs per million dollars expended than the same million invested in education, health care, or energy efficiency—barely half as many as investing in schools. Even worse, while military spending clearly provides direct benefits to the Lockheed Martins and KBRs of the military-industrial complex, these investments don’t, as economist James Heintz says, boost the “long-run productivity of the rest of the private sector” the way infrastructure investments do.

To adapt a famous line from President Dwight Eisenhower: every base that is built signifies in the final sense a theft. Indeed, think about what Dal Molin’s half a billion dollars in infrastructure could have done if put to civilian uses. Again echoing Ike, the cost of one modern base is this: 260,000 low-income children getting health care for one year or 65,000 going to a year of Head Start or 65,000 veterans receiving VA care for a year.

A Different Kind of “Spillover”

Bases also create a different “spillover” in the financial and non-financial costs host countries bear. In 2004, for example, on top of direct “burden sharing” payments, host countries made in-kind contributions of $4.3 billion to support U.S. bases. In addition to agreeing to spend billions of dollars to move thousands of U.S. Marines and their families from Okinawa to Guam, the Japanese government has paid nearly $1 billion to soundproof civilian homes near U.S. air bases on Okinawa and millions in damages for successful noise pollution lawsuits. Similarly, as base expert Mark Gillem reports, between 1992 and 2003, the Korean and U.S. governments paid $27.3 million in damages because of crimes committed by U.S. troops stationed in Korea. In a single three-year period, U.S. personnel “committed 1,246 criminal acts, from misdemeanors to felonies.”

As these crimes indicate, costs for local communities extend far beyond the economic. Okinawans have recently been outraged by what appears to be another in a long series of rapes committed by U.S. troops. Which is just one example of how, from Japan to Italy, there are what Anita Dancs calls the “costs of rising hostility” over bases. Environmental damage pushes the financial and non-financial toll even higher. The creation of a base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean sent all of the local Chagossian people into exile.

So, too, U.S. troops and their families bear some of those nonfinancial costs due to frequent moves and separation during unaccompanied tours abroad, along with attendant high rates of divorce, domestic violence, substance abuse, sexual assault, and suicide.

“No one, no one likes it,” a stubbly-faced old man told me as I was leaving the construction site.  He remembered the Americans arriving in 1955 and now lives within sight of the Dal Molin base. “If it were for the good of the people, okay, but it’s not for the good of the people.”


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