Why The Black Political Establishment Should Take An Interest In Missile Defense

One of the great tragedies of the 1980s, for the Black electorate, was the manner in which its leadership was rolled over by Republicans and conservatives on the issue of welfare and the size and composition of the federal budget. Time after time, again and again, Black civil rights leaders seemed unable to respond to the charge that it was welfare recipients (of course that read Black people), who were the reason why this country’s budget deficit was growing.

Never mind the fact that because of inflation, cost-of-living-adjustments in federal entitlement programs were responsible for almost 1/3 of the increase in spending in these programs. And forget the fact that the combination of government waste and dubious spending in other programs dwarfed, in size, the price tag associated with America’s welfare program. Republicans, conservatives and libertarians, particularly of the White complexion unanimously indicted the poor and those on the dole, disproportionately in non-White communities, on the charge that they were creating an unjustified and unbearable burden for the rest of the supposedly “productive” society to carry.

The argument, though filled with enough holes to pass as Swiss cheese, stuck like glue to the Civil Rights establishment, the Democratic Party and the Black electorate. The Democrats did not have the stomach to muster an adequate defense of those on welfare, relatively speaking – in terms of the actual percentage of the budget their financial support represented. And Black Civil Rights leaders were often found to be making the wrong argument, as they are today.

We have always been dismayed at how Black Civil Rights leaders defend social programs by demonizing tax cuts, which are popular and often reasonable, as opposed to exposing the enormous and plentiful government waste that exists and which is virtually impossible to justify.

The argument is really not that difficult to make. As Nation of Islam Leader Minister Louis Farrakhan wrote in his 1993 book Torchlight For America:

“The total cost of AFDC and food stamps is about $40 billion annually, and about half of this $40 billion goes to poor blacks…This is not a real economic burden on the country in the way that entitlements for the wealthy, the military budget, health-care costs, and tax-evasion by the rich and the corporations impact the federal budget. We are a scapegoat and we are positioned as a burden on the taxpayer.”

Already, and not even two months into a Democratically-controlled Senate, the echoes of the hollow arguments made by Republicans are beginning to re-emerge. Returning to a message that worked almost to perfection during the Reagan, Bush and Gingrich eras, the GOP and their conservative and libertarian allies are preparing to resume their blistering but selective critique of Big government spending programs.

Interestingly, the vast majority of the aforementioned groups seem to have a blind spot when it comes to acknowledging the cavernous hole in the federal budget over the last two decades created by a missile defense program that has not produced anything near its advertised potential. In short, the program is a huge failure but somehow manages to fall off of the radar screen of some of the most vocal budget hawks, who seem to have no problem locating “wasteful spending” when it has a Black and Brown face to it.

But the numbers don’t lie. In the last 20 years, an estimated $75 billion has been spent on a nuclear defense program that has not produced a single operational system. Not one. Still, the principal architects of the proposal, Raytheon and Boeing reap billions for such fruitless experimentation. Where are the Republicans, Conservatives and Libertarians who were so vocally opposed to welfare and the Great Society programs,on missile defense? Isn't a waste of taxpayer money, a waste of taxpayer money,according to their "small government" logic, we ask?

And far from a project that is about to produce a dividend, the U.S. missile-defense program is so mired in ineptitude that it has yet to produce so much as a viable booster necessary for the success of any effective system. Reportedly glue and battery problems are responsible.

To get an idea of how frail the missile defense system is, one should consider how gingerly Defense Secretary Rumsfeld is approaching this Saturday’s test of a prototype missile defense interceptor in California. Already, it seems the Defense Department is prepared for the test to fail. And of course, there are rumblings that the test outcome has already been determined – that the fix is in and a “successful” test result will be forged.

Yet and still the Bush administration wants $8.3 billion for ballistic missile defense next year. Certainly the necessary glue and batteries can be found with that type of budget, one would think.

But far from simply requesting the items necessary to make the theoretical missile defense system work, we think that Black establishment leaders would be better served by thinking of what the impact of $8.3 billion would be if placed on the priorities championed by, for example, the Congressional Black Caucus. And then, the Black establishment should dare conservatives, libertarians and members of the GOP to argue that $8.3 billion on their priorities is anywhere near the waste that a non-working missile defense program is.
And finally, the Black political establishment should call the roll especially of the so-called fiscally conservative GOP, list the $15 billion in annual pork projects that is willfully funded by members of the United States Congress, and publicly ask which of the programs are more important or less wasteful than social spending on human capital- particularly in the areas of education and healthcare.

Although such arguments could have and should have been used over the last 20 years, they may have their best application today, as the U.S. government moves forward in what may be one of its most wasteful spending programs ever and as the economy moves in and out of recession and as the federal budget moves from surplus and closer to deficit.

The Black political establishment had better familiarize itself with the missile defense program if it hopes to avoid the outcome of the 80s and 90s budget battles.

Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, July 10, 2001