A few weeks back I was talking to Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, a partner in the Norwegian architectural firm Snøhetta, when we were drowned out by the roar of a Eurofighter passing overhead. “One of those costs the same as a medium-sized opera house”, Kjetl observed drily.
Kjetl should know: he designed this medium-sized opera house in Oslo:
Kjetl’s throwaway comment prompted me to start looking for numbers comparing military versus cultural spending on a country-by-country basis.

Several hours later, I am suspending this project. I cannot find a neat comparison league table – and the numbers I *have* found look so insane that I repeat them here in the hope that someone will reassure me that I am not imagining things.
For example, an article in Counterpunch called Gargantua’s Mouth: The Pentagon and the Suckers states that “44 cents of every taxpayer’s dollar feeds the military budget – at a time when no nation has a military capable of challenging us.” Saul Landau and Nelson P Valdes write that “since 1988, as the Soviet Union neared collapse, and no major power threatened, the military has ingested some $5.1 trillion. Every two years since 2001, the military budget has grown by approximately $100 billion”.
OK, so Counterpunch is a radical magazine and they would say that. Looking for more impartial data, I found a chart in Aviation Week, which is almost a trade magazine of the military industrial complex, that included these numbers for per capita military spending:
U.S.: $545.3 billion, that’s roughly $45,500 per head of the population.
U.K.: $63.2 billion, or $34,800 per head.
France: $60.3 billion, or $32,100 per head.
Germany: $41.8 billion, or $33,800 per head.
Then I found a study that concludes that the United States spent $1,780 per head on education in 2001 (France, The Netherlands and Canada each spent more than $1,200 per capita). Hmmm.
Turning to culture and the arts, the best I could find is a perplexing web database that appears to show that cultural expenditure per capita in Spain is euro 135, compared to Germany which, in 2007, spent 99 euros per capita.
In round numbers, then, Germany appears to spend 25,000 euros per person on defence, versus about 100 euros per head on culture. I have to assume that the gap in the US and UK, were the numbers to be available, would be a good deal wider.
As I said: insane numbers.
I distract you (and myself) with these numbers mainly because, in the years ahead, spending on the things that we do care about – education, culture, sustainability – looks certain to plummet.
In the UK, for example, commentators are talking gravely about public spending cuts of 10, 15, or 20 percent. Insiders tell me that cuts will be 40 percent or more, in real terms, over the coming few years.
Large cultural and educational institutions will suck in what little public funding is available. Government funding for small, grassroots activities will dry up almost completely.
Time to despair? Not necessarily. The future, for me, belongs to ultra-light culture and education. I’ll write about light education at a later date – but for now, here are two cultural green shoots.
Located in the centre of Beijing on one of its old hutong alleyways, HomeShop [below] is a 25sqm store space turned sleeping-working-living studio.
HomeShop is “an open platform, working diversely via the realms of art, theory, community practice and urban research to explore the possibilities of the microaesthetic and the micropolitical”. HomeShop “begins within a shrinking neighbourhood of steadfast Beijingers and reexamines that which is embedded within the everyday: emerging communities, daily routes, minor practices and the spectacular banal. All pass by our window front, and it is right here that we can begin to engage the certain potentialities in our very midst”.
HomeShop reminds me of Galerie Zero in Berlin, which, at 20 square metres, is physically even smaller
But Galerie Zero’s cultural footprint is hundreds of times larger. Galerie Zero has produced 100 pioneering art shows, installations and events in the Kreusberg area of Berlin over a six year period.
Each of these 100 events cost less to produce than the price of a single door in an “iconic” art museum. For the price of one eurofighter, I’m sure Galerie Zero, or HomeShop, could stage 25,000 events. And it’s not just about quantity of output: their activities, being created in and by a community, have a quality that big ticket items can never equal. They are the future.