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Military Exemptions

ON the left-hand side of the page, a newspaper headline announces that the United States House has passed an amendment vowing to balance the budget. On the right-hand side, another headline reports that Defense Secretary William Perry, under pressure from the Pentagon, is slowing down the scheduled closing of 70 military bases, an economy that had promised to save more than $4 billion a year.

This sense of living in two worlds - one where belts are tightened, one where the binge still goes on - leaves taxpayers understandably confused.

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``Welfare reform'' is a popular war cry among congressional economizers. But many of these advocates of frugality on food programs, for example, are responding favorably to a proposal that 20 more B-2 ``Stealth'' bombers should be built at a cost of $26 billion, according to the estimate of the Congressional Budget Office.

Such largess with guns and stinginess with butter is a contradiction hard to grasp in the 1990s. The B-2 has not exactly been a huge success, even in the eyes of its advocates; as far as its critics are concerned, it deserves the nickname ``Flying Boondoggle.'' And in any case, its original justification as a super weapon against the Soviets no longer applies.

When the cold war ended and the Pentagon could no longer drop the word ``communism'' to a congressional committee and get all the appropriations it wanted, it was assumed that guns would no longer have the advantage over butter in competition for federal funds. Not so. In the case of the Stealth bomber, seven former defense secretaries have supported the call for more billions to be added to the estimated $65 billion already spent on B-1s and B-2s in the past 15 years, arguing that ``the end of the cold war was neither the end of history nor the end of danger.''

The ``military-industrial complex'' President Eisenhower warned against obviously still lives on, playing on the double apprehension that the security of the nation and its prosperity both depend upon defense contracts.

Nobody would argue for dismantling the nation's military strength - any more than one would argue for dismantling the nation's social safety nets. But for the moment, it seems, the compassion that motivates the funding of low-tech soup kitchens is no match for the fear that motivates the funding of high-tech weapons systems. Such an imbalance affects more than just the budget.

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