The Costs of Being an Empire

Part I: The Monstrous Defense Budget IS Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.


Here is the sad truth about the defense Budget that just passed the Senate:

The REAL defense budget is a lot worse than what you think (or what you see). That’s the truth we can’t talk about, the one our elected representatives are not allowed to speak about (bar a few; very few).

So how large is it really?

Well, for that we have to dig a little deeper and catch all the ‘bits and pieces’ that are cleverly scattered all across the different government agencies/departments and are hidden in the fine print. So, here is a start to help add it all up (see Footnote 1):

First, the bottom line:

The actual total US Military and Defense spending for the 2019 Fiscal year is not that “measly” $674 B you read about in the senate bill link . Heck, no! it is actually closer to $ 900 B, once we add all the components, as listed here:

  • 1. $616.9 B base budget for the Department of Defense.
  • 2. $69 B in overseas contingency operations (OCO) for DoD (to fight ISIS!)
  • 3. $188.1 B total for other agencies that “protect the nation”: These expenses comprise:
a) 83.1 B for Department of Veterans Affairs
b) $28.3 B or the State Department
c) $46 B for Homeland Security
d) $8.8 B for FBI and Cybersecurity in the Department of Justice
e) $21.9 B for National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) in the Department of Energy
  • 4. $18.7 B in special OCO funds allocated to the State Department and Homeland Security (yes, they too are fighting ISIS; ostensibly).

This comes to $ 892.7 B !

Again, we can quibble about the details for the actually passed Defense Appropriation Bill . (from which I gleamed “only” $ 674. 7 B for items 1 and 2, ie, about $11 B less than the same items as added above). Since I have not yet reconciled all the different sets of #’s, let’s just say the total defense budget is somewhere around $890B +/- $10B either way. This is consistent with a raise of around $ 18-22 B over the 2018 budget of $ 868 B (see link below).

An upper limit of $900 B is not unreasonable given that there may actually be more authorizations for “black’ programs hidden under any number of departments, and not just under DoD or Homeland security, that have not been fully captured by the list above (one can find still larger numbers for the estimated 2019 budget numbers, as in this example which cites $949,9B, which is not clearly sourced).

The important part is this:

This $890 +/- $10B represents just over 2/3 (!!) of the total Discretionary Budget, which I take to be around $1.305 T (again, there may have been some recent adjustments to this and if anyone has the most reliable recent numbers I’d be much obliged to have them). What is left in the discretionary budget for everything else is a mere $ 410–420 B, or under 1/3 of the total discretionary amount as allocated for 2019. And just what are those other expenditures that this $410–420 B supposed to cover? They include Education, Housing and urban Development (HUD), Health and Human Services (HHS), Energy and EPA, State Department and Foreign Aid, Science/NASA, transportation, Infrastructure, Food and Agriculture, Welfare, Labor and FEMA/Emergency allocations. In other words, every other discretionary spending that the federal government has to expend on domestic programs as well as any foreign aid (see Footnote 2).

Alas, a mere $400 B + for all these critical services for a country with the size, population and challenges of the US is, indeed, far from impressive. One could even call it paltry, especially by comparison with other developed countries.

Now, if you run your numbers by your conservative friends they’ll no doubt point out that the actual federal budget, which includes non-discretionary spending, is much larger (it is just upward of $ 4.4 T) though even then the defense budget is a monstrous 20–21% of total, similar to the 2018 budget as shown in the pie chart below (representing actual expenditures). Also see Footnote 3.

This is just barely behind overall health spending (Medicare, Medicaid, etc,) which is close to 28%, if we go by 2018 figures (see pie chart above ).

Any way one chooses to look at this, the defense budget is larger by a factor of almost 10 than the amounts next 9 countries combined (including Russia and China) spend on their defense budgets. Needless to say those other countries spend a considerably larger portion of their budgets on services that benefit their domestic population (which will be discussed in Part II of this series).

The hunger of defense component of the budget is insatiable.

With the kind of infrastructure built around this gargantuan budget, given the current political climate, it seems the arrow points in only one direction — more of the same, and ever larger. What with the need to sustain the hundreds of military bases scattered across more than 50 countries around the world, and the entrenched lobbies that feed both the military industrial complex (MIC) and the states that rely on these industries to prop up their economies, the chances for any reductions in future years seem rather slim.

Future parts of this series will argue that the common wisdom (if wisdom it is) intractably ties the country’s economic fortunes to its defense infrastructure. Which, in turn, underlies and structurally props up the Empire, by design as much as inertia. That while undermining the country’s economic health and the welfare and prosperity of the vast majority of its citizens.

In a nutshell, that is why we can’t have nice things.

As long as that enormous overhang of defense expenditures remains a sacred cow (as proven by the fact that nearly all senators — minus 7 — voted for that bill), any future proposal that seeks to revamp the budget, exacting some necessary adjustments in its defense bill, is doomed. All the more so when the country is already running a sizeable deficit, estimated to be upward of $ 23 T. An effort to enact any new program, no matter how beneficial to the citizens of the country, or how popular it is, will face an almost insurmountable uphill battle, should it add substantially to the budget, even under the best of circumstances (an argument that obviously does not apply to tax reforms that benefit mostly the top 1%).

And whatever you argue about the deficit or about the cost of the recently passed tax reforms that served to only increase the deficit, the truth is inescapable: a government that is willing to starve all of its discretionary domestic expenditures, keeping them at under 10% of the total ederal budget, is a government that does NOT put a premium on its own own domestic needs. With such a government, not even a new and enlightened president will be able to affect the much needed roll-backs in defense, unless he has a congress that’s supportive of such reforms for cost/benefit reasons. Which is just not likely to happen any time in the next few years.

Looking at the big picture, one is therefore forced to conclude that, as long as we have to feed a voracious and mostly wasteful Empire, it’ll be next to impossible to find the good will necessary to do what the people actually want and need, however much polls show them wanting it (yes, I mean those polls that show 70% support for Medicare-for-All).

Furthermore, let us remember that it is not the people who asked in the first place for the Empire to continue on its current destructive path. It is not even the military that’s demanding it continue in the present form, with bases spread around the world, resources already stretched to capacity and in face of a continuing difficulty in personnel needs (the Army just fell short of its recruitment goals — again). Many in the military are also quite cognizant of the great wastefulness that overly generous budgets engender, even as much of the equipment procured at such high costs fails to meet the needs of those actually in the field.

Ultimately, what we are up against is a mind-set that has infected the body politic, one that developed and got entrenched in DC, then spread across the country like a wild fire.

No wonder that even the best and smartest people commentating and discoursing out there, seem to see no way out of the trap that all Empires have found themselves locked into throughout history. And therein, buried in this mind-set that afflicts us all, is where I see the root of the problem we are confronting in trying to move the country to a better place, one that would benefit its own citizens. Possibly even the rest of the world.


Note: Part II of this series will address — qualitatively — the cost to the economy of the gargantuan defense industry, in terms of both compromised innovation, skewed technology developments and chronic shortage of skilled labor available to commerce and industry. In Part III I hope to return to the theme of domestic expenditures, contrasting the budgets in the US vs those other developed countries. In Part IV I will address a potential medicare-for-all (M4A) scenario and what I believe it’d take — politically and economically — to enact such a program, while still under the shadow of Empire.



  • (1) The link here is from earlier in September, reflecting the 2019 budget as it was in August 2018. The numbers provided were estimated at that time, with a couple of errors in addition fixed by yours truly. The bill that just passed the senate seems to differ by about $11–12 B, but that’s just “noise” given the overall size of the bill, and I account for it in adding an uncertainty bar of about $10 B)
  • (2) For those who wonder just where exactly does the $3.8B yearly aid to Israel fall, that’s not so easy to figure out. The huge support Israel receives from the US (no doubt for being part of (a very leading part) of the Empire) is distributed among several agencies. It was deliberately taken out of the foreign aid column (for obvious reasons — it exceeds by a substantial factor the entire foreign aid given to all other countries combined). The lion share is hidden in the defense budget for good reasons — Israel is expected to spend most of the money it receives from the US to buy its military hardware. This is an effective subsidy to the MIC, one out of several. Some of the “Aid to israel” is hidden elsewhere within the state Department and some is, well….your guess is a good as mine.
  • (3) Heck, the conservatives might choose to play an even trickier game of adding in the state and local expenditures then claiming the fraction of defense from total spending in the US is “only” around 12%. Of course, adding in the state and local expenditures (which greatly increases the amounts that go to education and healthcare) skews and complicates the picture because in that case we would also have to break out the subsidies, grants and other budgetary items that various states allocate to support the defense and military industries as reward for locating facilities there. Furthermore, including the state and local amounts should logically lead to another analysis of the budgetary items as fractions of the overall GDP. And that is decidedly beyond the scope of this modest post.