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Living in exceptional times: uncritical defense spending starts to lose its luster June 3, 2010

Posted by Matthew Leatherman in Analysis.
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Conventional wisdom holds that the defense budget is sacrosanct, and for good reason.  Fully 91% of Gallup poll respondents in February of this year indicated that our military strength is ‘about right’ or ‘not strong enough’ relative to 7% that believe it is ‘stronger than it needs to be.’

Elected officials can read that writing on the wall – defense spending is manna from political heaven, an unqualified vote winner.  Defense spending consequently makes up more than half of the discretionary budget, and even that isn’t enough.  Unlike any other function of the federal budget, service chiefs are asked annually to list their ‘requirements’ that went unfunded in the budget submission so that Congress can increase the request to include them.

It is the exceptions that prove the rules, though.  It appears that we are entering one of those exceptional periods in which elected officials from across the aisle determine that the costs of increased defense spending outweigh its benefits.

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) wrote two weeks ago to the co-chairs of the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a panel of which he’s a member, that “America’s defenses have been decaying, despite – perhaps even because of – increasing budgets.” Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) cosigned a letter to the same commission with several colleagues from the House of Representatives – Congressmen Barney Frank (D-MA), Ron Paul (R-TX), and Walter Jones (R-NC) – which reached the same conclusion.  “It is not realistic for a nation with limited resources,” they determined, “to be expected to shoulder the defense burden of the entire planet.”

Public opinion leaders in the media have picked up the same tune in remarkable unison.

  • New York Times (16 May editorial): “Once the United States commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, Washington will have to consider trimming troop strength.”
  • USA Today (20 May editorial): “If Washington is ever going to get the federal deficit under control, Congress is going to have to change its attitude about a lot of budgetary sacred cows. That includes national defense.”
  • Washington Post (26 May editorial): Secretary Gates has “taken on a final mission: reforming Pentagon spending so that the United States will be able to maintain its military forces in an era of fiscal austerity. Though the outcome of a war isn’t at stake, it’s crucial that Mr. Gates succeed.”
  • Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, on the Daily Beast: Secretary Gates has concluded that “the Pentagon has to make tough decisions to help itself and the nation’s economy.  The defense secretary has the best facts and the best arguments on his side.”

A single theme weaves all these opinions together: defense spending today does not provide enough utility to the taxpayer to justify its historic highs in this momentously bad economy.  Gordon Adams and I argued the same point in a 27 April op-ed published in The Hill: “In an era of yawning deficits and debt, it is time for defense to be subjected to the same scrutiny and discipline as the rest of the federal budget.”

This is not a subtle finding.  It leaps out of just two data points: projections for U.S. debt and trends in U.S. defense spending since World War II.

As these charts show, our debt is high (61% of GDP) and getting far higher, exceeding GDP by 2019 and climbing to 181% of GDP by 2030.  FY2010 defense outlays, meanwhile, nearly double that from FY2001 and are greater than any year since WWII.  Neither the threat of Korean dominoes falling to Red China, of humbling loss of credibility in Vietnam, or of arms racing toward the Cold War finish line has pushed us to spend more than we have fighting Osama bin Laden and his network of ideologically and financially bankrupt cronies.

The conclusion is as simple as these facts are direct.  A fiscal tsunami is bearing down on the defense budget.  Our warning rings clear from the opinions expressed over the past month.  All concerned – the Defense Department, the administration, the Congress, and the American people – must heed the warning today in order to avoid being swamped tomorrow.

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