As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society." It costs money to make this country hum. Anyone can see that it would be impossible to have roads crisscrossing the country, federal jails and courts, national parks and monuments, environmental protection that has no boundaries, and a whole raft of other essential services without a nationwide system in which we all have a stake.
Right now, our debt, the deficit and the spectacle of a narrowly averted government shutdown have focused attention on federal spending of tax dollars. To that, I say hooray. I hate looking at my own spending budget, but I know what my priorities are, and what money I have to use, save or borrow against. When we examine our personal finances, we recognize our personal values. Such a magnifying glass aimed at the federal budget will expose priorities of our "civilized" society.
So what are our federal values? We have two sides to the spending budget; one non-discretionary (required spending by law or interest on the debt), and the other discretionary. The discretionary side is where our priorities are displayed full frontal. The current budget allows for 56 percent on the Pentagon, wars and nuclear weapons.
Yes, that's right. Not to confuse the issue, but that 56 percent does not include veterans' benefits, or the interest we pay on the debt of past wars, or homeland security. We spend a lot on war, war planning, defense, offense, outdated weapons, overspending on weapons systems, cost overruns and more.
It brings to mind the old adage: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If we have the "stuff" to make war, we use it. If we shifted priorities, we could spend more on international development to help countries survive and thrive so they might not be ripe for conflagration. If we had plentiful, well-trained and professional conflict resolution teams, we could rely on them more and boots on the ground less.
Our troops do a masterful job. The outpouring of support for what they have handled in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now in Libya, is appropriate. However, many in Congress are saying it's time to look at the military budget. The Pentagon does not pass audits. Weapons manufacturers routinely have cost overruns that would not be tolerated anywhere else in the budget. Weapons systems made in various congressional districts are reauthorized even if the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs don't want them.
As you look at what you pay in federal income taxes, take a few minutes to think of our country's values in spending your hard-earned dollars. Last year, in a nonpartisan town meeting effort sponsored by America Speaks in 60 cities across the country, 85 percent of all participants wanted defense spending cut by at least 10 percent, with a majority of participants, 51 percent, supporting a 15 percent cut.
We can have the defense we want and need, plus the security of jobs, health care, education and a clean environment by adjusting our spending priorities to meet our values. It's time.
Shaer is executive director of the national women's peace and security organization, WAND, Women's Action for New Directions