The US Military Kills a Million Americans (written March 2020)

The numbers will be refined by, (alas), far more data soon, but the model that convinced Boris Johnson and Trump (sort of) to turn on a dime were that the difference between 500,000-ish and 20,000-ish deaths in the UK, for maximalist and minimalist distancing efforts, respectively. The former number for the US was 2.2 million, and the latter not given, but presumably the same 25:1 reduction, down to 100,000 (ish). The explanation is mostly the survival rates between with and without medical help from oxygen, respirators, and ECMO machines.

Every paper today has some variation on the "tall and short bell curves" graph at right. The difference between a good response and a bad one could mean that millions of infections happen at a time when the system is overwhelmed, and a far higher percentage die that would have made it if they could have gotten hospital care.

That is not, however, much of the explanation. If you need medical help at all, your mortality odds are still bad. Mostly, the second model assumed that most people never caught it to start with before a vaccine was available. (I believe that was the outcome in the movie "Contagion", though the 25% mortality of the movie virus still meant 7 million dead.) Having most people not catch it depends on vigorous early response and special medical services throughout that period.

Much of the news this week is focused not just on Trump's personal confusion and incompetent messaging about the response, but about his administration's policy mistakes in cutting the budget of the Centre for Disease Control, including the Infectious Diseases Rapid Response Reserve Fund, and his closing the White House pandemic office. That's all pathetically easy to criticize, as easy as pointing out that a man is smacking himself in the head with a hammer.

One can go a layer deeper, though, and ask if the American pandemic-response system is grossly underfunded by comparison to their readiness for other threats to American lives.

Nobody on the planet spends money to protect their citizens from military threats than Americans do. Again, that requires little elaboration; just google "American Military Budget" and pick your article. When you really add it all up, not just the "regular" Pentagon budget, then the "special contingency" budgets, meaning wars that are now 18 years old, the Veterans Affairs budget caused by their injuries, the other security services like the CIA and NSA, and the proportionate share of national debt payments - it's over a trillion dollars per year, over $7,000 per American household.

This is the most important journalism done in the last year, if you ask me, is from the father of the model in the Avon ad at left, showing actress Olivia Wilde.Her Dad, Andrew Cockburn, is the author, and the Washington correspondent for Harper's magazine. I am using the pretty picture shamelessly to get you to click on her Dad's article, because it's just six pages long and yet summarizes some 70 years of the military's depredations on the American federal budget.

Olivia's pop brings out work I'd been aware of because of the book, Jim Burton's "The Pentagon Wars" a few decades back.

Burton was friends with the great Chuck Spinney, and Pierre Frey, aircraft designers who spotted the ever-increasing military procurement costs in the 1970s and called attention to the $600 toilet seats and so forth. They highlighted this economic fact about the Pentagon procurement, decade after decade, as described by Cockburn in the article:

...although the U.S. defense budget clearly increased and decreased over the sixty years following the end of the Korean War, the decreases never dipped below where the budget would have been if it had simply grown at 5 percent per year from 1954 on (with one minor exception in the 1960s). "Amazingly," emphasized Spinney,
this behavior even held true for the large budget reductions that occurred after the end of the Vietnam War and, more significantly, after the end of the Cold War. It is as if there is a rising floor of resistance, below which the defense budget does not penetrate.
Only during Obama's second term did it first dip below this level with any degree of significance. Even more interestingly, every single time the growth rate had bumped against that floor, there had been an immediate and forceful reaction in the form of high-volume public outcry regarding a supposedly imminent military threat. Such bouts of threat inflation invariably induced a prompt remedial increase in budget growth, regardless of whether the proclaimed threat actually existed. As General Douglas MacArthur remarked, as far back as 1957: "Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant sums demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters never seem to have happened, never seem to have been quite real."

Note that's Doug MacArthur - near the height of the Cold War - calling the threats "not quite real". Kennedy got elected on claims of a "missile gap" where the Soviet Union had more missiles; they had, in fact, only one-tenth as many as the United States at the time. So much for all the money spent on military intelligence.

After all those trillions spent to protect Americans from Communists and Rogue States and Terrorists, it turns out the Real Enemy that has waltzed past every border and checkpoint (and wall) and invaded the nation to slay, literally, millions of Americans, is less than a micron wide and best fought with soap.

Unlike the "threats" touted by the defense community at every budget time, this one was always quite real, and fully acknowledged to be so, as a flat scientific truth. There was a nice interview yesterday with Scott Z. Burns, the screenwriter for the movie Contagion, in He waxed enthusiastic about the ability and dedication of the scientists he interviewed for his research, at the CDC. But, when queried about how "prescient" his movie script was, he shrugged, that every scientist he interviewed said "when, not if".

The military, on the other hand, deals with very big "ifs", like an utterly suicidal nuclear missile attack on Seattle by North Korea. Reagan's old "Star Wars" program - the need for an anti-missile missile - still gets $8 billion a year in funding. We've known for over 30 years that it would be useless in a major nuclear war with hundreds of missiles flying, because it wouldn't stop them all. The excuse for ages has been a "rogue state" attack, with North Korea and Seattle invariably given as an example. It's literally "crazy-unlikely" since it requires the leader of North Korea to be suicidally insane.

And was discussed seriously as recently as last fall. When the budget was being debated. The very realistic scenario in Contagion was not. By anybody.

But the $8 billion spent yearly on a wild fantasy scenario is just a crumb on the table, of course: the Pentagon got a $70B raise in the last budget, an increase far above inflation even as everybody talks about ending the endless wars and the challenge of deficits. The entire CDC budget is less than $12 billion.

Trump is being criticized for calling for even deeper cuts to the CDC, which has been struggling for funding for years. But consider not cuts but increases, as if Americans actually saw the CDC as part of the Department of Defense? They do defend American lives, after all, and defend them from very real threats that all science agrees to have a 100% chance of coming up! What if the CDC had received the $70B increase? It's difficult for people who don't spend money on military equipment to even understand what $70B would mean. Ten billion is enough to pay for 100,000 medical professionals an average of $100,000 per year each, to just practice their preparations and remain ready to help, the way firemen have to sit around the firehouse most of the time. (Scott Burns notes the similarity to firemen in the above interview; noting that Trump doesn't like people "sitting around", he wonders if Trump would like to build a firehall after the fire has started.)

That's just ten billion; we'd have sixty billion left to go. I don't need to point out that this would include whole test-kit factories and a test-kit distribution infrastructure. There would be whole mothballed care centres awaiting the surge of patients, the way there are huge military bases ready to fight invaders that have never come.

It could double the resources available to find the vaccine, perhaps shaving months off the time to develop and distribute it. It would mean community health investigators to track down all the contacts and contain spreads. It would "flatten the curve" above down to the flattest humanly possible. It would have leftover resources to help other countries and make America beloved around the world.

Seventy billion. The mind struggles to add up enough big jobs to use it all up. Except for the defense community, which swallowed it like an after-dinner thin mint, on top of the trillions they've consumed already. The CDC's $12B is too small to show on that pie chart; it's probably part of the little 7% wedge going to "health and human services". (Two left from the giant blue military 57% share of the whole pie.)

Those billions might have literally saved a million American lives. Suppose just an extra third of a percent of the population will be lost this year, when a better response could have spread out the infection rate enough to keep the hospital beds available for everybody. A third of 1% of 350 million is an extra million people.

We can still hope this won't happen, that the infection rate will never hit those levels anyway; but if the bullet is dodged, it will be dumb luck, not preparation and resources.

If it does happen, great rhetorical effort will be spent hanging all those deaths on Mr. Trump, since most of the dying will occur in the last four months before an election. Since America is rich enough (and willing to take on enough debt) to fund both the Pentagon and the CDC, it's fair enough to hang it on Trump and the Republicans who routinely vote down more money spent on government services. But it's easier to vote down spending when you've already spent too much on other things.

Make no mistake: by sucking all the money out of the room, the US "defense community" that do not lack for weapons, bases around the world, thousands of $50M war planes and a dozen $50B aircraft carrier groups, phone taps on all of us, helipcopters to fly them everywhere, have managed to help get a million Americans killed from their one enemy that was real and not exaggerated.

Text is COPYRIGHT, Roy Brander, 2020. All graphics are available Internet grabs that link to their source, and will be taken down upon request, to "roy.brander" at Google's mail system.