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Guns or butter

Originally published in the Hamilton Spectator on May 15th, 2023.

Every student of economics is taught about choices. The classic question of what a government should spend on is described as a choice of “guns or butter” – either military spending or domestic programs. The phrase goes back to American policy as it entered the First World War, then infamously used by Nazi leader Hermann Göring in 1936 – “Guns will make us powerful; butter will only make us fat.” It has been highlighted in Economics 101 courses ever since to describe the assignment of resources based on political priorities.

Today, a growing chorus is demanding Canada dramatically increase military spending. The generals and defence ministers overseeing NATO arbitrarily set a target of every member country spending two per cent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on the military. When Stephen Harper was Prime Minister he eagerly agreed to that target. Now Justin Trudeau is being ridiculed for suggesting Canada won’t reach that level of spending any time soon. That’s a good thing – the quest for increased military spending must be carefully examined and challenged.

The debate has intensified with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the terrible human cost it has inflicted. Images of bombed-out buildings and civilian casualties are heart-breaking. So too are similar scenes in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia inflicted a scorched-earth policy with far higher fatality level than Ukraine. Twenty years ago we witnessed the “shock and awe” of the U.S. led invasion of Iraq and its devastating consequences. The massive public demonstrations and opposition to the invasion meant Canada didn’t join in formally, despite Steven Harper’s urging. The civilian death toll ultimately rose to over half a million from the invasion and civil war it unleashed.

Peace movements have a long history – a century ago there was a massive debate in every country that plunged into the First World War. Politicians and military leaders urged young men to enlist and fight for “King and Country,” while many viewed it as a war over empires and colonies where working men would be sent to die while businesses reaped huge profits. The largest industrial slaughter in human history unfolded over four years, even as its proponents promised it was to be the war to end all wars. But of course it wasn’t.

What did emerge in the following years was a political formation known as the “military-industrial complex” – a powerful network of business interests that lobbied relentlessly for hawkish foreign policies and massive arms investments. Fuelled by the cold war, the U.S. was spending more on “defence” than nearly every other country in the world combined, with active military bases in every corner of the globe.

A global peace movement responded, as people marched against wars in Vietnam and Africa, military coups in Latin America and Asia, and the threat of atomic weapons. Women’s groups, students and veterans spoke out against the nuclear arms race. Global heroes of non-violence emerged – from Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King to Jane Fonda and Canada’s own Ursula Franklin. They challenged the militarist narrative of their day, and often paid a price for their courage.

This is a different historical moment. The climate emergency is recognized as a “code red” for humanity. While world leaders make commitments to tackle climate change at the United Nations, they refuse to count emissions from their armed forces. The military is the largest institutional consumer of oil and largest single emitter of greenhouse gases, yet it is exempt from Canada’s national greenhouse gas emissions reductions plan.

The starting cost of new fighter jets and warships will be in the tens of billions. This is money that could be used to build social housing, lift boil water advisories on reserves, or tackle climate change. Ironically, the same Conservative politicians who demand a dramatic increase in arms spending are the strongest critics of investments into social programs that Canadians have just won – childcare, dental care, and hopefully soon a national public pharmacare plan. When it comes to guns or butter, their priority is clear. But the only winner in the arms race are those who profit from weapons sales.

Most Canadians want a better quality of life with a foundation of public services supporting every community. Expanding military spending cannot protect us from the ecological, social and economic crises we face. Seven generations from now people will question our decisions. Ramping up military spending is the wrong choice.

John Cartwright
Bianca Mugyenyi

John Cartwright and Bianca Mugyenyi

John Cartwright is the chairperson of the Council of Canadians. Bianca Mugyenyi is the director of the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute.

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