You know what we value most as a nation by what we are not allowed to take on without widespread hysteria. The illuminating metaphor is known as the "third rail" of politics. Lose your footing and step on something, we as Americans, hold dear and - ZAP!
Our most lethal third rails are cutting Medicare, cutting Social Security, cutting defense spending, and raising taxes. So, we can't cut anything and we can't ask citizens to pay for it. Our third rails have us painted into a mixed-metaphor corner.
This all could be a quaint ideological tug-o-war between Left and Right: Left wants to spend and tax. Right wants to cut and cut. If that were actually true, it would be as simple as choosing your side and making your case. Do you want to be taxed more or do you want the government to spend less?
What's clouded this question is what the dreaded government actually is. For example: the slogan often used by right-wingers, "We are a nation of laws," is singing the praise of the government. Who makes the laws? Enforces them? Alters them? The government. Private industry isn't deciding case law (not yet anyway). It's not bringing criminals to justice. It's certainly not regulating businesses to work for the public good. That's what government employees do. Or in the case of the banks, are supposed to do. Government makes us a nation AND makes our laws.
Saying you have a "legal right" is saying the government agrees with you that you're entitled to a said action. Legality is what the government decides based on the will of the people.
But you'll hear people confess they hate government and are exercising their legal right to say so. And they'll say it without irony. What do they think the government is?
The phrase "government spending" is always a pejorative. It's a nasty phrase for excess. According to conservatives, government spending is always "out of control," unless it's on the military. If it's the military: We support our troops. Wave flags. Apple pie. Debate over.
The military is the government. It's government funded and government run. Big military is big government. The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the military. You can't be against government and be pro-military. That's like being anti-rain but pro-precipitation.
"I'm for fiscal responsibility and a strong defense," is a weathered battle cry. The two concepts are at odds with each other. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2008, the U.S. spent 41.5 percent of the world's military expenditures. That's of the entire planet. The second on the list are the Chinese who spend 5.8 percent. So, what are we spending over $600-$800 billion a year on? Who are we protecting ourselves from? What enemy of ours has had a submarine in the past 20 years? Why do we still have those billion-dollar programs?
Going largely underreported, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke at the Eisenhower Library (named for the president who coined the term "military-industrial complex"), last week calling for cuts in the Pentagon's budget. Gates asked, "Does the number of warships we have and are building really put America at risk when the U.S. battle fleet is larger than the next 13 navies combined, 11 of which belong to allies and partners?"
Gates' speech highlights the fact that we're in a solo arms race. Every other nation quit the competition and we're still sprinting to be on top. For the first time, we disclosed the exact amount of nuclear warheads in our arsenal: 5,113. That enormous stockpile has to be maintained, and by some estimates we, spend $29 billion annually on it.
That's right, we spend $29 billion a year maintaining weapons we only have so we will hopefully never use them. But bring it up and you're a thumb-sucking pinko.
We have two current wars we are waging and we are still preparing for other wars our grandparents already won. Military spending is a third rail hopefully made less charged by Secretary Gates, but not likely. For American politicians, speaking about it is taboo. To incorporate the always colorful, currently incarcerated, former governor of Louisiana, Edwin Edwards, who said the only way he could lose the election against David Duke was to be caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. I'll add: or admit plans for defense spending cuts.
Tina Dupuy is an award-winning writer and editor, and can be reached at email@example.com.