Nader’s New American Century

Three-fourths of the way into Ralph Nader’s new book, The Seventeen Solutions: Bold Ideas for Our American Future, Nader addresses the runaway militarism that is becoming an existential threat to American democracy.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school for more than 30 cities…. It is two fine fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with half a million barrels of wheat. We pay for a new destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people…. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

That is Eisenhower, not Nader. The stilted language and the outdated guns-to-butter exchange rate date the paragraph. But not the thinking. Eisenhower, whom many historians now include on the short list of great American presidents, anticipated the argument that Nader and other critics of metastasizing military spending (Danielle Bryant at the Project on Government Oversight comes to mind) have been making for years.

The 2012 federal budget allocates just under $806 billion to the military. That buys lot of horses and bayonets, and as we have tragically learned from two wars whose funding is included in that grand total, a lot of cannon fodder.

If we are to become something close to an equitable society and a functioning democracy, the military budget has to be reduced.

Nader cites the work of Lawrence Korb, an assistant defense secretary for Reagan who is now at the Center for American Progress. Korb itemizes $150 billion that can be cut from the military budget annually while still keeping spending at Reagan administration peak Cold War levels (which seems staggeringly excessive).

How to persuade the Congress to pass such cuts?

In a theme reiterated throughout The Seventeen Solutions, Nader quotes John Kenneth Galbraith, who asked in 1996 what national security purposes are served by allocating 55 percent of the federal operational budget against no known enemy, then concluded: “The key is to figure out how to get the process back under democratic control.”

Cutting military spending is part of Nader’s larger discussion about rebuilding a country. I would have flipped chapters 10 and 11, with “Reinvest in Public Works” after “Reduce our Bloated Military Budget”—the latter the obvious predicate to the former. Money from the military budget would fund nation building at home, and the public works chapter includes an inventory of domestic nation-building projects.

The American Society of Civil Engineers, for example, estimates that $322 billion is needed to repair the nation’s public schools and $930 billion required to repair roads and bridges.

That gets you beyond $1 trillion, less than what reasonable Keynesians such as Paul Krugman believed should have been pumped into the economy in 2009. When Congress devoted $775 billion to the stimulus package, allotting one-third of it to tax cuts to appease unappeasable Republicans, the nation was left with protracted high unemployment and stagnant growth. Proof, say Republicans, that the money was wasted.

Yet stimulus stimulates. The National Council of Mayors has found that “each one dollar of water and sewer investment increases private output (Gross Domestic Product, GDP) in the long run by $6.35.”

In a book intended as an agenda for progressives (corporate crime, the tax code, civil liberties, and sustainable communities), Nader also tackles subjects less obvious than defense spending and public works.

Reclaiming science and technology is not a part of the public discourse. Yet Nader describes “a transfer of taxpayer assets—the commons—to universities and then in turn to corporations through patent licenses or through outright giveaways….” As a counterweight, he proposes a civic movement that will liberate science from corporate influence.

“Family values” is a topic often conceded to the right, yet Nader’s critical examination of child welfare might even appeal to thinking conservatives. Particularly compelling are sobering illustrations of children lost to commercially marketed virtual realities that effectively remove them from the real world. One source he cites is Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, a former West Point psychology professor who persuasively “links first-person shooter video games (in which the player holds a gun or gunlike controller)” to school shootings.

This is also a book about institutional failure. The failure of government, in particular its failure to regulate near-omnipotent corporations; the failure of journalism, which today does much less of the urgent work that informs this book, such as the corporate watch-dogging of Pulitzer prizemen Donald Barlett and James Steele; the failure or perhaps paucity of popular movements.

But Nader’s tenth book is prescriptive as well as descriptive, proposing solutions and directing readers to organizations already engaged in the hard work of creating a democratic and equitable society.

It recalls what the country’s finest historian of populist movements, Lawrence Goodwyn, tells activists and organizers: “If you want to achieve something, first you have to imagine it.”

Also in this issue: Ralph Nader on Corporate Taxes.