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Shocker: America Spends $2.16 Trillion on Violence Annually

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From the Wisconsin shooting to the war in Afghanistan, we all know that violence costs our society, whether it's domestic violence, a homicide, a war, or something as simple as a security system. We also know that there are direct and indirect costs associated with violence, whether it's the immediate medical, court and police costs that stem from violent crime, or the long-term loss of economic productivity that stems from the loss of an American worker's life.

What we don't know, however, is how much that violence costs our society -- in total. A new report out this week, by the Institute for Economics and Peace, shows just how much, and it is an overwhelming amount. So what do we spend on violence, on violence-related medical expenses, incarceration, police, the military, insurance, and even the private security industry?

The total U.S. public and private expenditure containing violence on our lands and overseas is $2.16 trillion. That equates to roughly $15,000 that each American taxpayer spends annually on violence or more than 15 percent of America's gross domestic product. Break that figure down by sector and you have public sector spending on violence accounting for 10.8 percent of GDP and private sector spending on violence accounting for 4.2 percent of U.S. GDP (and these are conservative figures).

That means 1 out of every 7 dollars spent in the U.S. is spent containing violence. Is this really how we want to measure America's success, how we want to develop as a society, and how we want to leave the world for our children and our children's children? We're increasingly spending more on violence, not less.

For some context on how much money that is in comparison to other U.S. expenditures: if violence containment were classified as an industry, it would be the largest industry in the U.S. That's more than any other industry, be it real estate, professional and business services, manufacturing, healthcare, financial, retail and wholesale trade or construction.

Put another way, what America spends on containing violence annually is equal to the entire GDP of the United Kingdom. In fact, in 2010, America's violence containment spending would've represented the sixth largest GDP in the world (removing U.S. GDP from the list), after China, Japan, Germany, France and the UK.

So what's the problem with these numbers? Some people in Washington would argue that this is a good thing, that it's creating jobs, and that it's boosting the economy. This is certainly the argument being proffered by anyone in Washington keen to protect the defense industry from sequestration cuts.

It's the argument coming from the loudest of defense industry allies in the Senate -- notably Lindsay Graham and John McCain -- with erroneous claims of massive job cuts resulting from the sequester, never minding the fact that these defense contractors were laying off thousands earlier this year before hint of sequestration reality set in.

But the real problem -- and complete fallacy -- with the thinking that defense-related, or violence-containing, jobs are good jobs that we should keep for the mere fact of retaining job numbers (as some in Congress have argued), is that compared to other areas of federal investment, military spending is a poor source of job creation.

According to the Political Economy Research Institute, investing $1 billion in education resulted in 138 percent more jobs than the same amount of spending on the military. Investing in health care created 54 percent more jobs. Investing $1 billion in clean energy technology generated 50 percent more jobs. Thus, if federal investment in the military creates fewer jobs than other federal spending, then cutting the military will cost fewer jobs than cuts to other programs.

The real question, then, at the end of the day, is what kind of world do we want to live in, and are we spending on the right security priorities?

I want to live in a world where we're prioritizing economic security by ensuring that our kids are globally competitive in reading, science and math (instead of scoring consistently near the bottom of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Programme on International Student Assessment rankings).

I want to live in a world where we're prioritizing energy and climate security by ensuring that America has sustainable and renewable sources of power and is living on a carbon neutral diet (instead of continuing to rely on dirty fossil fuels and carbon-rich diets that make for the hottest year on record and extreme weather patterns).

I want to live in a world where we're prioritizing food security (in an age of crop devastation), religious security (in an age of intolerance, hate crimes, and violent protest), and health security (in age of pandemics and viruses).

That's exactly where we should be spending our time, energy and money. This is how you build real security. It's not done through drones, joint strike fighters or nuclear weapons. This latest report shows that there are 2.1 trillion reasons why our economy needs us to realize that, and soon, before our violence containment industry grows out of our control.

Representative Michael Honda (D-CA) represents Silicon Valley and is a member of the House Budget and Appropriations Committees.

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