John Feffer is director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He is the author, most recently, of Aftershock: A Journey into Eastern Europe’s Broken Dreams (Zed Books). He is also the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands (Dispatch Books) and its soon-to-be-released sequel Frostlands. He is the author of several other books, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, USAToday, Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and many other publications. What follows is a transcript of Habililian’s interview with this proficient author and expert regarding Trump’s militarism and its impact on the health of U.S. citizens during the new coronavirus epidemic which is provided to the readers.
Habilian: By comparing coronavirus cases and deaths in the US (as of April 29, the US has more than 1,000,000 confirmed cases and the death toll from the virus has reached 60,000) and other countries in the world, one could see that US health infrastructure is not ready for the pandemic. In your opinion, how much does the Trump administration contribute to this systematic failure?
Feffer: The Trump administration has adhered to a philosophy of "deconstruction of the administrative state" -- as Steve Bannon put it -- when it comes to domestic welfare and the regulatory system. In other words, Trump's appointees were devoted to reducing the very programs they were supposed to be running. Budgets were slashed, staffing reduced, regulations eliminated. This was similar to the "small government" ethos of previous conservative governments, notably the Reagan administration. There was always, of course, a "national security exception" that exempted the Pentagon and intelligence agencies from this shrinking of the state.
When it came to health infrastructure, the Trump administration was not only committed to reducing the funding and functioning of key government agencies, like the Center for Disease Control (some of whose funding was restored by Congress). It was also singularly devoted to rolling back the Affordable Care Act which provided millions of uninsured Americans with access to health care.
Habilian: According to some experts and analysts, the Coronavirus has featured an urgent need to redefine U.S. national security. What changes do you think need to be made in the development of new U.S. national security, and what issues should be prioritized?
Feffer: U.S. national security has been predicated on very large military expenditures. The Pentagon budget is around $700 billion, but if you add other military spending, such as nuclear weapons in the Energy Department budget and military preparedness in Homeland Security, the figure is more than a trillion dollars.
Virtually none of that spending prepared the United States for a pandemic. Very little of that money is devoted to dealing with climate change. The United States spends comparatively little on food security.
Clearly, the United States has skewed budget priorities (as do many countries throughout the world). A "human security" approach is urgently needed that prioritizes access to quality health care, education, environment, employment, food and shelter.
Habilian: why does the United States allocate this large amount of budget to its military, especially military operations outside the United States, while it could prevent the formation of a major catastrophe like what we see today in the United States?
Feffer: The size of the military budget owes much to the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was some reduction in spending when the Soviet Union collapsed, but military hawks in Congress and representatives of the military-industrial complex simply found other "enemies" to replace Soviet communism (China, Islam, terrorism). According to numerous polls, the majority of Americans favor significant reductions in military spending. But unfortunately, producing military hardware is very profitable. Those companies argue that military production employs a lot of people. And that production takes place in every American state, which means that military lobbyists wield a lot of influence in Congress.
The case of military operations overseas is also often made from an economic point of view, particularly in the case of preserving access to natural resources like fossil-fuel energy. But there is a larger issue here: the preservation of U.S. power in the world. There is an expectation that if the United States loses this international status, it will also suffer a corresponding loss in its economic status.
Habilian: How likely is it that the United States face another Great Depression due to the pandemic?
Feffer: In some ways, the United States is already in a Great Depression. The spike in joblessness to 33 million people (roughly a 20 percent real unemployment rate) is approaching the 24 percent unemployment rate of the Great Depression. The GDP will contract by double digits for this quarter. Still, all of this could just be a bad recession, with the economy rebounding quickly once the quarantine is lifted. A depression is defined by not only its depths but its duration. So, if there is a sharp "V" of recovery, the United States will avoid a depression. The deciding factor may well be the amount of debt carried by the government, the private sector, and individual households. That may determine both the ability of the government to spend our way out of this problem without causing hyperinflation and whether the banks can provide enough credit to businesses to recover without the financial system imploding.
Habilian: How could trump’s decision to halt funding to the World Health Organization effect on the organization’s performance around the world, especially in this time?
Feffer: The United States is the largest funder of the WHO, providing $400 million of its $4.8 billion budget. So, yes, a reduction of that nature would be significant, though it could be made up by contributions by other states and even private efforts, like the recent Lady Gaga concert. Combined with Trump's other attacks on international organizations -- the withdrawal from the Paris Accord on climate, the withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, even the campaign against the World Trade Organization -- Trump's move against the WHO is part of his larger effort to deconstruct the international administrative state.
Trump's threat to defund the WHO, by the way, is illegal. Congress is responsible for making that decision, not the president.