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Friday, 20 December 2013 00:00

Demilitarizing the Economy: A Movement is Underway

Written by  Miriam Pemberton | Institute for Policy Studies
Military vehicles (MRAPs) being produced in a Charleston, SC factory Military vehicles (MRAPs) being produced in a Charleston, SC factory Photo: New York Times

As we end the longest period of war in our history, we should be entering a period of postwar downsizing - but what about the communities dependent on the massive post-9/11 military budget?

End wars. Shrink the Pentagon budget. Reinvest the savings in neglected domestic priorities. It’s a logical progression. Right?

Yes, though we’d be fools to expect too much logic out of our current federal legislature.  As we end the longest period of war in our history, we should be entering a period of postwar downsizing—the first since the end of the Cold War. And we are, though it’s been driven as much by budget squeezing generally as by a sense of postwar possibility.

And it’s a shallower defense downsizing than the last one.  And the December 2013 budget deal will make it even shallower.

But communities that have been living off post-9/11 military budget surges are beginning to feel the effects of this (so far) modest shrinkage.  This is the moment to deepen the defense downsizing, and make it endure.  An essential piece of this task is to focus on helping communities and workers build alternatives to dependency on building weapon systems we don’t need.

Here is IPS’ comprehensive strategy for building this alternative economic foundation, linking action at the federal, state and local levels.

And here are two of the most exciting developments pushing this forward.  They look like the sturdy supports of a movement to me.

State commissions planning for diversification
Connecticut—one of the most defense-dependent states in the nation—is providing one new model for action.  In May of this year, peace, environmental and faith groups joined with labor unions to push the legislature to pass “An Act Concerning Connecticut’s Future.”  This vague-sounding law contains a visionary mandate: convene a broad-based Commission to come up with a plan to diversify Connecticut’s overly defense-dependent economy.  This commission—made up of state economic development directors, legislators, representatives of business groups, the state AFL-CIO, and representatives of peace and environmental organizations—is beginning to meet and will reveal its plan by the end of next year. 

Other states are following suit.  Maryland will vote on a similar bill in its next legislative session.  Wisconsin has one in the works.  Activists are pushing the process in Massachusetts, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota.  It’s a growing movement that can become a model for the kind of postwar planning that needs to happen on the federal level.

New federal supports for local transition planning
Since the 1980’s the Defense Department has housed a small office dedicated to helping communities plan an economic transition following a base closing or defense contract cancellation.  As the Pentagon budget soared during the post-9-11 years, this office focused almost exclusively on the base closings-half of its mission.  Now it is refocusing on helping communities adjust to defense contract losses with planning grants and technical assistance.  This is explained here.

The Obama administration is beginning to expand this Office of Economic Adjustment, as it’s called, and turn it into a gateway for assistance from other federal agencies, including programs in the Departments of Commerce, Energy and Transportation, for communities in transition.

Local activists can work with their local public officials to put together broad-based community coalitions and use these funds to build models of peace economy transition.  The more we do, the more lessons we learn about the best practices for doing it, and the stronger this foundation for a demilitarized economy becomes.

New Economy Transitions From the Bottom Up
In the face of federal legislative dysfunction, more and more progressive initiatives are coming from the state and local levels.  The effort to build a peace economy, following the longest period of war in our history, is taking its rightful place in this constellation of progress from the bottom up.

Link to original article from Institute for Policy Studies


Miriam Pemberton is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. She co-chairs the Task Force on a Unified Security Budget with Lawrence Korb of the Center for American Progress.

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