In the rarified world of economics and industrial engineering, there was never anyone like Columbia University professor Seymour Melman. I grew up reading and listening to the prophetic, factual and hard-nosed arguments he made for his anti-war and worldwide disarmament causes in the specialized and, occasionally, the major media as well.
There were Seymour Melman’s op-eds and letters to the editor in the New York Times starting in his twenties. There were his cogent Congressional testimonies about the permanent war economy and its damage to our civilian economy and necessities of the American people. His economic conversion plans and his advocacy for a muscular peace agreement with the Soviet Union illuminated what kind of economy, innovation and prosperity could be ours in the U.S.A.
Melman’s work was detailed and he challenged what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” like that of no other academic. He would show how talented scientific and engineering skills were sucked into this permanent war economy to the detriment of civilian jobs and economic development as if people’s well-being mattered. “To eliminate hunger in America = $4-5 billion = C-5A aircraft program,” he would say, referring to Lockheed Martin’s chronically bungled, defective and costly contract.
Melman’s consulting services were in great demand. His numerous books made such sense to people for whom foresight was a valued attitude. He advised citizen groups, unions, legislators and the United Nations. For years he was chairman of the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament.
Into his eighties, Mr. Melman probed the arcane regions of weapons systems. He meticulously took apart the wrong ways the corporate-dominated Pentagon priced the corporate cost of subs, ships, planes and other modern weaponry, by way of explaining the staggering spiral of weapon budgets.
The titles of his books spoke to his concerns — “Our Depleted Society,” “Pentagon Capitalism” and “Profits Without Production”. As a World War II veteran, he knew the difference between an adequate defense and weaponry “overkill”. He calculated that US nuclear weapons had the power to destroy the Soviet Union 1,250 times over. He asked, how much is too much of a drain on our economy and well-being?
With the demise of the Soviet Union and the agreement on dismantling many of those nuclear warheads on both sides, Mr. Melman looked forward to the “peace dividends” and the economic conversion or retooling he so long urged. It was not to happen. The military budget now consumes half of the entire federal government’s operating expenditures.
In his later years, Melman promoted the idea of self-management as an alternative to giant corporations. For the last twenty years the media blacked him out. He could scarcely get an article published in the newspapers or even in the progressive magazines. On frenetic radio and television, he did not qualify because he spoke in paragraphs and was elderly — an electronic bigotry that is keeping many wise, older Americans from communicating with their younger generations.
It was precisely because he had been so right again and again that print media tired of his research even though it was up to date. How many Americans know, for example, that 90% of the products sold in the 2002 L.L. Bean catalogue were imported? He counted them, to make his point about the de-industrialization of America.
How many people would want to know that a recent New York City contract for mass transit vehicles received only foreign bidders? Not one American company was there to compete and provide the jobs for the $3 billion dollar project.
Before he passed away this month, Seymour Melman had completed a concise book manuscript titled, “Wars, Ltd.: The Rise and Fall of America’s Permanent War Economy”. He was having trouble finding a good publisher, when I spoke with him earlier this summer. But he will leave a legacy of wisdom, insight, humanity, consistency, and diligence. In a society whose rulers and corporatists seal the people off from such magnificent minds and inundate them with trivia, distraction and the hot air artists daily bellowing their lucrative ignorance, sagacious Americans like Seymour Melman will not receive the attention the citizenry deserves unless we the people, who own the public airwaves, begin to control and use our own media.