I'm talking about the F-22 Raptor, an advanced stealth fighter that was originally designed to maintain American air superiority over the Soviet Union.
The Department of Defense has already bought 187 F-22s, in a program that has cost about $65 billion to date. (That's about $350 million per aircraft.) The planes have not been used in Iraq or Afghanistan, because they are primarily designed to fight advanced enemy air forces.
Now a defense bill is moving through Congress that will include at least $2 billion to buy more F-22s. The military does not want these planes, but Congress insists they take them. President Obama has threatened to veto the defense bill if it includes spending on F-22s, but Congress may have the votes to override a veto. Progressive Democrats like Senator Ted Kennedy as well as conservative Republicans like Senator Saxby Chambliss support billions more for F-22s.
What is this strange force compelling members of Congress to spend huge sums of money on useless hardware? Is it corporate lobbying? That's certainly a part of it. Lockheed Martin, the primary contractor for the F-22, spent $6.35 million lobbying Congress just between January and March of this year. But that's really nothing new.
The strange force hypnotizing Congress members is the desire to maintain jobs, specifically high-paying manufacturing jobs, in their home districts. Lockheed Martin was smart enough to spread out the F-22's production so that it's in as many congressmen's backyards as possible. All the various parts of the F-22 are made by about 1,000 suppliers in 44 states. Lockheed Martin and Congress have been arguing that continued spending on F-22s will maintain 100,000 jobs across the country.
That sounds great, but the military doesn't even want the planes. When it's all said and done, the F-22 program is a widely-supported federal jobs program producing an unneeded product. The F-22 proponents in Congress tout the jobs that it will create rather than argue for the aircraft's military utility. (It's hard to argue for its military utility when the military doesn't want any more.)
So here's my proposal: Build something useful instead. It's cool--and a little unusual--to see even conservative Republicans support federal spending for job creation. So let's run with this strange political consensus. But instead of building super fighter jets for an outdated mission, let's build something beneficial for the public at large. How about lots of wind turbines to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels?
How about solar panel fields? High-speed rail? How about retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient? There are lots of things we could build that would provide good jobs and benefit all of us.
We wouldn't have to limit it to manufacturing and construction either. For the $2 billion it would take to buy a few more F-22s, you could pay the starting salary for more than 44,000 teachers. Eliminate a couple of other useless defense projects, and you could make the teachers permanent.
The bottom line is that defense projects like the F-22 are basically federal jobs programs with tremendous support. Strangely, even "free market" conservatives support them. Progressives should use this opening to take the debate in a new direction. We should be saying:
"It's true that these projects provide a lot of good jobs. So imagine if our tax dollars bought not only those jobs but also beneficial products. Even better, imagine if we structured these public works programs so that every dollar of spending went to the jobs we want to create and the work we want to do, instead of being siphoned off for corporate profits, advertising, lobbying, and political donations. Then we'd be on to something."