Contemporary Visionmakers - Seymour Melman

Seymour Melman is professor emeritus, Columbia University. Since the late 1960's, he has championed "the conversion project." The conversion project envisions the day that the world economy is converted from a military to a civilian economy.  

Melman suggests that the conventional wisdom that military spending is good economics may be running its course. He suggests that they are forces at work that have created a "less durable" war economy.


"As a war economy deindustrializes, part of the work goes into more military stuff, but the major part of the deindustrialization is simply the shutdown of civilian work in this country and its transfer elsewhere, mainly to countries that pay low wages and, very importantly, discourage the formation and operation of trade unions. The militarization of the economy then has two sides: the continuation and the expansion of the militarization in the U.S. and the cessation of all manner of civilian work and its transfer of the investments for this work, especially to China."


He suggests that there is massive damage being done to the American economy, damage that will become even more visible over time. Melman's solution?  As Bruce Mau and his collaborators report in a brilliant book called Massive Change, "go civilian or go broke."


Melman is passionate about the necessity of transforming the war economy to a civilian economy as soon as possible and in a planned and orderly way: 


"I don't see the prospect of a permanent war economy going on indefinitely.  I think the damage that is now in process to the American economy is very considerable, and is going to be more visible all the time. I see a prospect, though I can't put a timetable on it, for the idea of economic conversion and thereby not only the occupational transformation but also, very importantly, the industrial economic transformation."


Consider this spending comparison:


                           Military       or      Civilian


$5.3 Trillion: Cost of creating U.S. Nuclear Weapon Overkill Capacity... or ...more than twice the net value of the plant and equipment in U.S. manufacturing industries.


$99 Billion: F-22 Raptor Advanced Fighter program...or ...3,500 miles of Maglev train lines, running at         266 miles per hour.


$80 Billion: Navy SSN 774 Virginia Class Submarine program ($71 Billlion) and Navy Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle program ($8.7 Billion)... or... Investment needed to provide 20% of U.S. electricity supply from renewable and clean resources.


$59 Billion: Army Comanche Helicopter program ($48.1 Billion) and Navy Joint Standoff Weapon program ($11.2 Billion)...or... Cost of building housing for the 600,000 homeless families in the U.S.


$11 Billion: Total cost of the Navy's "Future Surface Combatant" program ...or... Annual shortfall to meet federal safe drinking water standards and replace aging facilities.


$11 Billion: Amphibious Assault Ship program...or ... Research program to develop zero emissions, coal gasification power plants.


$10 Billion: Two Navy CVN6-B Aircraft Carriers...or... Annual cost to provide sanitary water to 2.4 billion people worldwide.


$9.1 Billion: E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System program...or... Five years of funding for a global tuberculosis program.


$210 Million: One Global Hawk Unmanned Drone...or... Electrification of 50 miles of mainline railroad.


$7.9 Million: One "upgraded" Abrams Tank...or...Annual cost to enroll 1,100 children in Head Start preschool programs.*


As the world changes, our values must change as well. We have an opportunity to take advantage of Visionmaking to remake the world we want rather than uphold the world we inherited. Seymour Melman, along with others, provides a provocative vision for economic transformation.


We are up to the challenge.


* Massive Change, Bruce Mau and the Institute Without Borders,pg. 176


©Patrick O’Neill 2009. All rights reserved.

Posted on June 15, 2009 and filed under Contemporary Visionmakers, Crisis.