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The Paradox of History’s Wealthiest Nation

The U.S. spends $716 billion on empire while half its population lives in or near poverty

President Johnson’s “poverty tour,” 1964 (Wikimedia Commons)
American ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley recently expressed outrage over a report calling attention to the desolate conditions of her glorious homeland.
“It is patently ridiculous for the United Nations to examine poverty in America,” Haley wrote to Senator Bernie Sanders in response to his call to uphold international human rights treaty obligations regarding the alleviation of poverty.

The U.N. report in question “highlights the contrast between the few Americans with immense wealth and the more than 40 million people living in poverty, including millions living in what the report describes as ‘Third World conditions of absolute poverty.’”

Senator Sanders responded by clarifying his belief that “it is totally appropriate for the U.N. Special Rapporteur to focus on poverty in the United States.” As the senator further explained, “poverty in America […] takes place in the richest county in the history of the world and at a time when wealth and income inequality is worse than at any time since the 1920s.”

Sanders certainly makes a powerful point when discussing American poverty by juxtaposing this widespread tragedy with the extreme wealth accumulation that exists simultaneously. But it is also important to recognize the limits of our conventional standards for defining poverty.

The official poverty line was established during President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, and this measure has never been updated to reflect our current economic realities. When medical expenses, child care, college tuition, increasing housing costs, and other common expenditures are taken into account, about half the U.S. population is now struggling to survive.

As a once-robust social safety net was dismantled over the course of four decades of neoliberalism, our “defense” spending continued to rise. Congress recently passed a bill that would increase Pentagon allowances by about $82 billion each year. Enjoying popular bipartisan support, H.R. 5515 (the “2019 National Defense Authorization Act”) has resulted in an overall annual military budget of $716 billion.

The bloated U.S. war machine spends more than the next eight countries combined to police the globe. We have roughly 700 military bases in 130 different countries and have bombed at least seven nations in the last decade. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. now drops an average of one bomb every 12 minutes. Moreover, the American military and intelligence agencies have a long history of horrific conquests, including support for dozens of dictatorships, death squads, and terrorist organizations. It is therefore understandable that the United States is largely perceived as the greatest threat to world peace.

The results of this tenacious military aggression include millions of deaths, unfathomable trauma and suffering, failed states, and blowback. The U.S. federal government is evidently unconcerned with protecting actual American national security (e.g. food security); its primary obsession is to dominate the planet by any means necessary.

In their book The Rich and the Rest of Us, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West wrote:

“As America became more prosperous and powerful, the visionary goals of comforting the poor were drowned out by the bombastic drumbeat for war and the seemingly irresistible cadence of the pursuit of materialistic reward.”

What we are currently witnessing is something comparable to the decline of the Roman Empire. Beyond the profound moral implications, this trend needs to be reversed as soon as possible to avoid a catastrophic collapse. I believe the leftward progressive political shift taking place is promising (including the rise of organizations like DSA), but we have a long road ahead of us.

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Written by Matthew Dolezal

Matthew Dolezal

After receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2007, Matthew Dolezal joined AmeriCorps and served as VISTA for one year. He moved to Austin, TX in 2015 with his fiancee, where he became a full-time coffee roaster and a member of Democratic Socialists of America. His work has also been published by The Hampton Institute. You can follow him on Twitter and find his work on Medium.

Matthew Dolezal is a Guest Contributor to Progressive Army.

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The Paradox of History’s Wealthiest Nation