Between the Lines: Speeter's Priorities

The National Priorities Project’s mission sounds simple enough: to make “complex federal budget information transparent and accessible so people can prioritize and influence how their tax dollars are spent.”

Easier said than done. The federal budget is, in short, a beast—a complex, seemingly impenetrable $3.7 trillion beast that, one suspects, is as befuddling to some of the very people who have a hand in creating it as it is to the general public. The National Priorities Project translates that daunting document into real, practical information for use by activists, students, government watchdogs—and, I must say quite gratefully, reporters.

NPP was founded in 1983 by Greg Speeter. Earlier this month, Speeter died, at the age of 68, of cancer.

Over the years, Speeter and his colleagues brought the small, Northampton-based nonprofit to national prominence, providing important data to activists and organizers working on a range of crucial issues, from energy and the environment to housing and education. And it did so brilliantly, through accessible information and hands-on tools that allow users to engage with those staggering numbers themselves.

NPP’s “Trade-Offs” program, for example, shows how money spent by the government in areas as diverse as the military and the arts could otherwise be spent.

One example: the $15.8 billion dollars that Massachusetts taxpayers contributed this year to the Department of Defense could have, alternatively, paid for 1.8 million kids to enroll in Head Start, covered the salaries of 202,004 elementary school teachers, or provided healthcare for 4.8 million low-income children. The $4.5 million the state’s taxpayers contributed to the National Endowment for the Arts would pay for 505 Head Start slots, 56 teacher salaries, and healthcare for 1,342 kids.

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Not long before his death, Speeter contributed an essay to a new book called Dream of a Nation: Inspiring Ideas for a Better America.

Dream of a Nation is published by SEE Innovation, a national nonprofit group that works, in its own words, to “build awareness, capacity and structures for social and environmental transformation.” The book is a sort of activists’ handbook, more than 400 pages of essays intended to provide both information and inspiration to people and groups working for change on some of the most pressing issues of our day.

Bob Edgar, CEO of Common Cause, writes about the corrupting influence of money in our political system, and suggests reforms that would give more voice to ordinary people. Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, contributes an essay outlining how the U.S. could move to an economy fueled by clean energy.

Speeter’s contribution focuses on one of the topics NPP is best known for: military spending. In his essay, “Redefining Security for Strong Communities and a Safer World,” Speeter examined the staggering amount we spend on the military—more than $690 billion in 2010—and suggested better ways that money might be used. In 2011, he noted, the U.S. spent twice as much on the military as it did on education, science, the environment, housing and transportation combined.

Speeter’s essay begins with a quote from a speech made by Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, shortly after he took office. In that speech, called “The Chance for Peace,” the president said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

Almost 60 years later, that unfortunate tradeoff persists, Speeter wrote—but it doesn’t have to. In his essay, Speeter called for a rethinking of our definition of “national security” to include safety and opportunities for individuals and communities. “A national mandate for a broadened definition of security calls for decent jobs, strong communities, a strong economy and an end to war,” he wrote. “To achieve that security will mean a paradigm shift in spending priorities away from the military and toward our communities.”

Like all the essays in Dream of a Nation, Speeter’s doesn’t stop at describing the problem; it also offers concrete ideas for making change, including helping the general public see the very real effects military spending has on their daily lives—in short, the kind of work that NPP has done for nearly 30 years, and that will be part of Speeter’s significant legacy.

A memorial service for Speeter will be held at Haydenville Congregational Church at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 3 (see http://www.nationalpriorities.org).

Author: Maureen Turner

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