It was the Nazi’s in the 1930s, it seems, who first used the term “guns and butter” as metaphor for the choices a nation makes about how to use its scarce resources for defense versus domestic needs. The Nazis chose guns. “Butter only makes us fat,” the corpulent Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering told the German people.
The phrase reappeared in this country in the 1960s, in connection with the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson advanced the argument that, in paying for the war, we could afford both guns and butter. It turned out not to be true. Actually, the war was funded with deficit spending – a precedent President Bush followed forty years later with even more disastrous results for the nation’s fiscal condition.
Now it seems we are facing another guns and butter choice. Conservative politicians want to slash domestic spending but leave defense spending untouched, or even increase it. We already spend far more on defense (and homeland security) than all the rest of the major nations of the world combined. Meanwhile, a new study of social justice (including the income gap between the rich and the poor) in the 30 OECD countries ranked us close to the bottom, just ahead of Greece, Chile, Mexico and Turkey. Some 50million people in this country are living in poverty, and the current deficit reduction proposals will make this situation even worse. It seems we cannot after all afford both guns and butter.