Recalculating Eisenhower

In April 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech entitled “The Chance for Peace” before a group of journalists and newspaper editors.  In that speech, he said the following: 

“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 in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road. the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

Coming across this quotation several days ago, and thinking back to my previous post on the federal budget, I wondered how Ike’s comparisons would hold up in 2010.  As I alluded to in that post, American defense spending sums to more than half of all the defense spending worldwide.  That means that the United States alone spends more on its defense and military than all the other nations of the world…combined.  Let’s take a look at the numbers:

  • “One modern heavy bomber”- Northrup Grumman B-2 Spirit (the “stealth bomber”)- total program cost (avg./aircraft) – $2.87 billion in 2010 dollars.
  • “Modern brick school”- average cost to build a high school in 2008- ~$20 million.  Furnishing and staffing the school would cost about half this again, so we’ll work with a figure of $30 million.  That works out to 95.67 modern high schools for each stealth bomber, of which the United States has 20 in active service.  That works out to nearly 2,000 brand new schools merely for those bombers currently in active service.
  • “Electric power plants”- recent estimates from different parts of the country put the cost of a new coal power plant generating sufficient energy to power 150,000 homes would cost $1 billion.  So instead of 120,000 homes in Ike’s day, two modern coal plants would power over 300,000 (per plane).  It should be said that nuclear plants cost considerably more, equivalent to 3 or 4 such bombers.
  • “Fully equipped hospitals”- a recently constructed modern hospital in Waco, Texas cost approximately $32 million to build.  Staffing and equipping a modern hospital obviously costs a great deal more than the school, but even assuming a total cost of $100 million, a single B-2 bomber would buy nearly 30 such hospitals.
  • “Concrete highway”- to build a six-lane Interstate freeway costs between $7-$12 million per mile (less extensive roads can cost less than $1 million per mile in some states).  Even taking the high estimate, you could build almost 240 miles of interstate highway.  Perhaps more importantly, the average cost to construct a mile of light rail in the United states is $35 million.  That’s 80 miles of light rail, or the length of my daily commute to and from Houston twice over.
  • “Fighter plane”- the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter costs approximately $89 million.
  • “Bushels of wheat”- worldwide, wheat prices are about $6 per bushel.  That works out to about $3 million for Eisenhower’s half million bushels.  For $6, that gets us about 500 million bushels of wheat.  To make this a more useful figure, for each F-35, of which the military plans to buy more than 2,000, we could buy every man, woman, and child in America one and a half Big Mac extra value meals.
  • “Destroyer”- each of the Navy’s new Zumwalt-class destroyers is estimated to cost about $3.3 billion.
  • “New home”- For the price of the average new home sold in the United States in October 2010 (cost $248,000), that means we could build over 13,000 such new homes.  For an average family, that means housing nearly 40,000 people, a fivefold increase from Eisenhower’s day.

Obviously, none of the above makes the United States’ amount of military spending self-evidently excessive, nor establishes that the alternative expenditure is more worthwhile.  But, as President Eisenhower pointed out,  every penny that we dedicate to building something for the military could have been spent in other ways.   Over the next few years as we hear the inevitable back-and-forth of deficit reduction, I expect that we will hear the words “non-defense discretionary spending.”  The implicit assertion behind this concept is that we spend Monopoly money on the military, but real dollars on everything else.  Nobody actually believes that, but it is not until we attempt to lay out the opportunity costs of all those planes, ships, and guns, that it becomes more clear what a “theft” it represents.

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