Perhaps you’ve heard of “Makin’ Thunderbirds,” a hard-bitten rock & roll song by Bob Seger that I listened to 30 years ago while in college. It’s about auto workers back in 1955 who were “young and proud” to be making Ford Thunderbirds. But in the early 1980s, Seger sings, “the plants have changed and you’re lucky if you work.” Seger caught the reality of an American manufacturing infrastructure that was seriously eroding as skilled and good-paying union jobs were cut or sent overseas, rarely to be seen again in these parts.
But today our manufacturing sector is famous for very different merchandise. Thunderbirds have become drones and predators and F14s and America supplies the world. Its our number one export.
Clearly, the U.S. has grabbed the brass ring of the global arms trade. When it comes to investing in militaries and weaponry, no country can match us. We are supreme. And despite talk of modest cuts to the Pentagon budget over the next decade, it will, according to President Obama, continue to grow, which means that in weapons terms the future remains bright. After all, Pentagon spending on research and development stands at $81.4 billion, accounting for an astonishing 55% of all federal spending on R&D and leaving plenty of opportunity to develop our next generation of wonder weapons.
But at what cost to ourselves and the rest of the world? We’ve become the suppliers of weaponry to the planet’s hotspots. And those weapons deliveries (and the training and support missions that go with them) tend to make those spots hotter still -- as in hot lead.
As a country, we seem to have a teenager’s fascination with military hardware, an addiction that’s driving us to bust our own national budgetary allowance. At the same time, we sell weapons the way teenage punks sell fireworks to younger kids: for profit and with little regard for how they might be used.
Sixty years ago, it was said that what’s good for General Motors is good for America. In 1955, as Bob Seger sang, we were young and strong and makin’ Thunderbirds. But today we’re playing a new tune with new lyrics: what’s good for Lockheed Martin or Boeing or [insert major-defense-contractor-of-your-choice here] is good for America.
How far we’ve come since the 1950s!