Looking across New York State, decaying milltown by decaying milltown, you see the same old, tired parochialism calling the shots – attempting to define the future with no sense of the economic past. Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse – everywhere budget deficits stalk public services, political infighting serves as entertainment, political grandstanders make vapid promises to attract capital and jobs, and media types offer solutions shallower than the Erie Canal after winter draw-down.
Not to undervalue the microcosm. Consider two Rochester-area news items: first, the Transit Authority’s cutting bus fares for longer runs (good for exurban riders) while slightly boosting the cost of typical urban commutes (bad for the poor) and significantly hiking some Lift Line fares (terrible for the disabled); and second, an official plan to close the Highland Branch library - my neighborhood branch - if the city budget deficit maxes out, per Mayor Bob Duffy’s projections. Such actions, multiplied over a metro region, add up to real suffering. And local solutions, whether you’re talking about cleaning up the generic city hall or diligently crunching the budget numbers, do make a difference.
But not enough of a difference. Such things don’t expose the roots – the “macro” that’s brought us to the brink.
Upstate New York’s troubles have little to do with how we market ourselves to capitalists; how efficient or virtuous our local governments are, relative to those of other states or regions; or, much less, our weather and recreational attractions. Our troubles are rooted in historic, massive shifts in demographics and national economic policies. And these shifts are painfully obvious: depopulation, corporate disinvestment, planned or unplanned technological obsolescence.
An annual publication from the New York City-based War Resisters League makes the point – in black and white, and between the lines.
The publication is a modest two-sided flier: on one side, “Where Your Income Tax Money Really Goes: the US Federal Budget 2007 Fiscal Year,” and on the other, “Paying for [the Iraq/Afghanistan] War: How Much and For How Long?” You can access the flier at www.warresisters.org.
According to WRL calculations – and they’ve honed their skills over the years - in 2007 the nation will spend, or throw away, $663 billion on the military. That includes the well-known Pentagon outlay of $429 billion, plus the increasingly familiar $100 billion “off-budget” expense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, plus often-overlooked items like the military portions of non-Pentagon federal agencies and departments (e.g. $17 billion for the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons activities) and interest on the military-related portion of the national debt (estimated at more than $350 billion for this one year).
That’s one impressive chunk of change. But what does it have to do with Upstate New York’s decline and eventual fall? Briefly, the military spending system – the dollars-and-cents elements of Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex – is a topographical map of national political and social priorities and a road map of the nation’s physical, material responses to ideologies and power politics.
The biggest chunk of our discretionary funding (i.e. not including trust funds like Social Security) goes to war production and military personnel, and most of that sector is located in the Sunbelt and West; and further, with industry and research so beholden to Pentagon outlays, the bulk of the US economic infrastructure has followed the money south and west.
It’s slash-and-burn capitalism. We’re once again a “Burned Over District.” The good news is, it can’t go on this way forever. But I think it will go on for a good long time – absent the revolution of values our contemporary prophets (and alas, rarely our pundits) have demanded of us.