Minding the Checkbook

Posted: March 28, 2018 by Brian Johnston

I’ve often wondered if the American people could vote on the national agenda on a line-item basis, what the resulting policy would look like. Far be it from me to suggest this is any way to actually run a Democracy, but in a representative Republic like the United States, shouldn’t we be gut-checking our politicians and their plans with some say in how exactly our tax dollars are spent? Perhaps if we felt as a nation that we had even a modicum of control over the policies that are generally inflicted upon us, maybe then we’d have a different attitude about days like April 15th through a sense of contribution to the greater good of our society, rather than what most of us take from tax day—the feeling of getting fleeced.

When was the last time you felt like you had any say whatsoever in how the nation spends its tax dollars? Probably the day after never. I say this confidently because America is on the verge of investing $1.2 trillion on upgrading our ICBM force, a high-ticket expenditure that has absolutely zero practical utility.

If given a choice between new nuclear weapons or new bridges and roads, which would most people select? If given a choice between dial-a-yield SLBMs or an energy-efficient electrical grid that would be EMP resistant and impervious to cyberattack, which would have a bigger impact on your everyday life?

Heck, sometimes doing nothing at all is incredibly underrated. If you have the choice of tacking on another $1.2 trillion onto the existing $19 trillion national debt and having new nuclear weapons or simply retaining our old nukes and adding no debt, what might you choose?

Whenever the United States begins the discussion of investing in herself in any socially-positive manner (education, infrastructure, and environmental initiatives for example), the first retort from any skeptic is, ‘How do you expect to pay for it?’ Yet I haven’t heard one person ask that same question when it comes to a planned massive boost in military spending and potentially re-igniting the arms race. It is almost as if the American people think that there is no actual choice in the matter.

In his farewell address to the American people, Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a stark warning about the union between arms manufacturers and the military. He termed this alliance ‘the military industrial complex.’ Said Eisenhower, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist.”

If this doesn’t describe the current plan to modernize our nuclear forces, then I don’t know what does. In a nation with a crumbling infrastructure, a crushing national debt, a dwindling middle class, stagnant wages, cities that are rotting from the inside out, and a depleted and ineffective educational system, it behooves us to carefully consider every expenditure at this juncture. We need to spend our tax dollars with a focus on utility—what are we getting for our money?

Russia and China are on the verge of similar modernization programs—a direct response to American modernization plans. They are going to counter us lockstep, piece by piece, until we’re engaged in a full-on arms race once again. Both nations would rather do otherwise with their money.

China has maintained a very prudent nuclear policy of retaining only the minimum level of deterrent necessary to ensure their national sovereignty. They maintain a force of approximately 300 warheads with a variety of delivery systems that guarantee that they have a retaliatory capability to any potential aggressor. But as American modernization plans move forward, China has vowed to upgrade its capability proportionally. The stated position of the People’s Liberation Army is as follows, “In the roiling unpredictability of today’s world, to upgrade the capability of our country’s deterrence strategy, to support our great power position… we must strengthen the reliability and trustworthiness of our nuclear deterrence and nuclear counterstrike capabilities,”

Vladimir Putin is already in the middle of a modernization. He has boasted about his new hypersonic missiles that are supposed to be impervious to US missile defenses. But in the reality of a depressed petroleum market, finding the funds to complete such a task is complicated at best. While China has signaled that it is willing to move forward on their own hypersonic missiles and modernization program, it is clear that this is a deviation from their current policy of minimum deterrence and runs counter to their economic goal of maintaining seven percent annual growth. It is because of these economic concerns that diplomatic opportunities exist, should we opt to head down that path.

The question remains whether the United States is in any position to actually negotiate at this point in time. In the fourteen months of the Trump administration, 43 people have left positions within the administration. The two most notable of late are Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster—the two positions most critical to foreign policy. The revolving door on these significant positions leaves potential negotiations in a tenuous place—unless you are negotiating with President Trump himself, can you be certain that his proxies are on the same page and have a total vote of confidence from the President? Diplomacy thrives in consistency, and this administration has done nothing to foster consistency.

That said, it isn’t too late and all is far from lost. There can be no argument that this administration has seen more motion on the North Korean issue than in the past 35 years combined. Proposed talks between Washington and Pyongyang could still have breakthrough results. Any progress on denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula could potentially open up inroads to other diplomatic opportunities. Any potential harvest starts with the germination of a single seed. But questions still remain. Have we cultivated the soil well enough for progress to take root? Moreover, are we even interested in farming in the first place?

Brian Johnston
Author: Brian Johnston

Author, podcaster, optimist, guardian of The Proversation.


  1. Ike on the Military Industrial Complex--NPR
  2. Russian Military Upgrade
  3. China Military Upgrade
  4. Challenging Minimum Deterrence
  5. Trump Administration Departures
  6. Minimum Deterrence National Review
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1 Comment

  • David Beard Reply

    I had no idea that we were still upgrading nuclear. Somehow, I imagined our nuclear arsenal was being slowly decommissioned. I have no idea WHY I thought that, except that absent the Russians, nukes were of decreasing utility.

    Or maybe I lived in a nation with a conscience.

    I guess not. Thank you for informing me.

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