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The World's Whimsical Spending Habits

By Daniel Schorr / September 20, 1996



It is approaching the time to look back at the 20th century - something that Ruth Leger Sivard has been doing in an unusual way. Her research organization, operating from her Georgetown home, has been comparing the resources that humanity has devoted to both its survival and its destruction. And the results are not exhilarating.

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So far, this century has seen 250 wars, resulting in almost 110 million deaths - more than two-thirds of them civilians. More than half the countries of the world spend more on their military than on their health needs. Despite a decline since 1987 in global military spending, the world still spends $1.4 million a minute on weapons, led by the United States, with more military spending than the next 13 big spenders together. About $8 trillion has been spent on nuclear weapons by those who have them, and, despite arms-control cuts, the remaining nuclear stockpiles represent 700 times the explosive power of this century's three major wars, which killed about 44 million people.

Ms. Sivard calls her report "World Military and Social Expenditures," or WHIMSY. A onetime business analyst for Dun & Bradstreet, she started doing this comparison in the Arms Control Agency during the Nixon administration. When the administration decided that this comparison wasn't helping with defense appropriations, she was fired, but decided to go on doing her report single-handedly. In recent years she has gotten support from the MacArthur Foundation among others, but her number-crunching remains essentially a one-woman job.

Interested in a few more depressing comparisons about what Sivard calls "the most productive and the most destructive century on record"?

America is the most economically unequal country in the world. The richest one-fifth control more than 49 percent of the income, and the poorest one fifth less than 3.6 percent. In America, 60 percent of government research is defense-oriented. The comparable figure for Europe is 20 percent. In the past five years, three-quarters of American arms sales to the developing world went to countries whose people can't choose their own government.

Since mid-century, wars have become more frequent and more deadly. There have been six times as many deaths per war in this century than in the last. All this from a report called WHIMSY.

*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.