At a candidate forum this past summer, the Poor People’s Campaign, a national mobilization to amplify the voices of poor people, and the Institute for Policy Studies asked nine presidential candidates about their support for a series of ambitious programs, like a Green New Deal and universal health care. Generally, they supported them all.

That’s not surprising. Candidates promise lots of things – they’ll create jobs, fix the potholes, build new schools. And they are always asked how they would possibly pay for these things. Won’t it bankrupt the country? Yet seldom are candidates questioned about the high cost of war.

The United States has spent at least $6.4 trillion on wars since 2001, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project – wars that have killed more than 800,000 people. So we wanted to ask the candidates whether they would cut military spending, which could be a significant source of funds for these other programs.

Every candidate we asked said yes, they would cut these expenditures. So now, with primary season in full swing, moderators, journalists and voters need to ask: How much would they cut? $50 billion? How about $100 billion?

That’s real money, but it’s still less than one-seventh of the total. The new military budget – a stunning $738 billion, or about 54 cents of every federal discretionary tax dollar – is so huge that partial cuts would barely dent it.

The Moral Budget proposed by the Poor People’s Campaign and the Institute for Policy Studies identifies some $350 billion in military spending that could be safely cut – without even touching troops’ salaries.

After all, most of the money in the military budget doesn’t go to the troops.

Half of the military budget goes directly to private military corporations, whose CEOs and shareholders are making a killing on these endless, murderous wars. In 2018, Lockheed Martin alone won nearly $39 billion in Pentagon contracts – almost as much as the combined budgets of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.

And the troops? According to the Government Accountability Office, 23,000 active-duty service members are paid so little that they qualify for food stamps.

Clearly, huge reductions could come from the profits of those military contractors. Though perhaps the biggest single reduction could come from closing many of the U.S. military bases scattered across the world.

We have around 800 bases outside of our country, with about 170,000 troops deployed in more than 80 countries. The cost is about $150 billion – a figure that could drop if our military focused less on wars in the Middle East and beyond, and concentrated on defending our own shores.

It’s time to remind those presidential candidates of what they already said. Promising they will cut the military budget isn’t good enough. Journalists and debate moderators – and all of us voters – need to remind candidates of their commitment to reduce this spending, and to get specific on how they will do it.

We’ve debated the costs and benefits of spending on health, the environment, education and other investments that would improve the lives of millions. Now let’s do the same for the wars and weapons that have taken the lives of millions.


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