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Peter G. Peterson Foundation: What About Military Bases?

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On Wednesday the Peter G. Peterson Foundation held a conference to "bring together hundreds of stakeholders from across the political spectrum with diverse ideas on how to address critical fiscal issues while continuing to meet the priorities of the American people." They apparently did not consider $1.7 trillion in tax cuts to be a critical fiscal issue, nor spending a trillion dollars off the books for the military, nor the general mismanagement that caused the surpluses bequeathed by Democrats to Republicans to become huge deficits, but never mind. I am sure they were greatly alarmed in their own quiet way by these developments.

While New Deal 2.0 offered an entire counter conference, I would like to offer my own one paragraph plan: A 70% marginal income tax for the ultra rich (say $5 million per year) along with Pete DeFazio’s quarter cent stock transaction tax, which we can only hope will do as its critics claim and "Destroy High-Frequency Trading [HFT] and Liquidity." There has been no demonstrated value to HFT and in this context the opposite of liquidity is friction, which would be a brake on speculative excess. It is a win-win, buffering the market from extreme volatility and easing the deficit at the same time.

If Peterson still is looking for ways to get our finances back in order, here is another win-win: Aggressively shuttering our foreign military bases. Chalmers Johnson examined the issue closely in chapters 4 and 5 of his book Nemesis, and has included much of that research in various online posts as well. The fiscal argument for closing them is that they cost us over $100 billion per year, which incidentally is more than the new health care law.

While there is certainly room for debate on how much Americans’ health care will improve based on what was essentially health insurance reform, I have not seen any arguments that the new law is actually worse than the status quo. While one person’s half a loaf may be another’s hyper-incrementalist bullshit, everyone seems to agree that there will be some tangible benefit to ordinary Americans for the money spent. Can the same be said of our bases?

Their benefits are dubious and vague at best. They give the US a presence abroad, which may serve as a reminder – potentially comforting or menacing – that Uncle Sam is nearby. Any upside to that is almost impossible to quantify; while it almost surely has deterred aggression from enemies at times in the past, specific examples are unknowable.

Drawbacks can also be hard to measure; how do you quantify the local level of unease with a quasi-imperial ("America’s version of the colony is the military base") presence? Sometimes the disadvantages are unmistakable though. Johnson’s article here – see his "The Three Rapes" section in particular – illustrates the problems we have had in Okinawa trying to reconcile two different legal systems, and sets of expectations, by a Status of Forces Agreement.

A review of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma there is underway now, and local residents want it off the island entirely. Unsurprisingly, no other islands in Japan have volunteered to host it. The US wants to move Futenma to a new part of Okinawa, where our history is ambivalent at best (pdf). One proposal is to build a new one on a landfill, but Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama objected it "would defile nature." (This is hardly the best time to brag on our offshore structures, either.) Futenma is so unpopular it may bring down Hatoyama’s government. What exactly is the benefit to the American taxpayer?

Futenma is in the news (the Japanese news, anyway) at the moment because of its status, not because some incident made it a flash point. Now is the perfect time to ask some fundamental questions. Sure, there are possible drawbacks to leaving. It could lead to military tensions with China. In a worst case scenario we could see nuclear proliferation and a "mutual assured destruction" security model. There are plenty of other scary possibilities.

What is the price we are paying now, though? We ought to assume our presence in a foreign country is unpopular by default, and only believe otherwise in the face of substantial evidence. In Japan the opposite is clearly true – citizens are marching in the streets to get us out of there. Couldn’t regional peace and stability be largely achieved with robust diplomacy, and wouldn’t that be a much less objectionable way to exert our influence? And as for Peterson and our other newly minted paragons of fiscal probity, wouldn’t that also be an enormous cost savings in the years and decades to come?

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