Dividing up the budget pie

As we all know, Republicans as a whole (with the possible exception of their small libertarian wing) get orgasmically enthused about spending money on the military. As mentioned in this article about the Romney/Ryan budget “vision,” the GOP in general, and this ticket in particular, wants to gut discretionary spending for things like food stamps, early education grants, etc. Playing on common notions of the “welfare queen” and people’s ideas of lazy undeserving poor people (though approximately half of food stamp recipients are children, and it is difficult to imagine how a child might not deserve food…), they are eager to remove giveaways to the poor while maintaining giveaways to the rich (for example, by eliminating taxes on capital gains, which can hardly be seen logically as a way to boost the economy; people invest in the market not because the capital gains tax rate is low, but because it brings the best rate of return). But the one discretionary budgetary item that always gets saved–indeed, augmented–is defense spending.

One can have an ideological debate about the extent to which the federal government should “promote the general welfare” versus “provide for the common defence” (though the fact that both concepts are enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution suggests that those ever-revered founding fathers certainly thought both were important). But I want to examine defense spending in a vacuum for a moment.

The proposed Republican increases in defense spending only make sense if one assumes that the military needs more money. To suggest holding the military’s budget steady (and thus cutting it in inflationary terms) or to reduce it in actual dollars is politically untenable, and is always met with accusations of jeopardizing our country’s safety. But how much money does the military need? I think we could all agree that spending nothing on the military would be foolish, and certainly put our national interests at risk. But, then, so would spending 100% of the discretionary budget on the military. Not only would that be far more money that the military would need, but it would undermine social stability, lead to many thousands of preventable deaths through poor healthcare and inadequate health sciences research, compromise our technological advantages through gutted R&D and education, etc. So there must be some optimal level of military spending that is both necessary and sufficient to “provide for the common defence.” For comparison’s sake, we currently spend about 7-fold more on defense than China, the next country on the list.

In 2011 inflation-adjusted dollars, the defense budget, including wars, has risen from about 400 billion in 1977 to about 650-700 billion today (a drop from about 750 billion to about 650 billion was seen with the conclusion of the Iraq war), an increase of about two-thirds. The non-defense discretionary budget has risen from about 400 billion in 1977 to about 500 billion today (the stimulus produced a transient blip in non-defense spending in 2009). So both expenditures have gone up (as one would expect, since GDP has gone up), but the military portion has gone up faster. (These figures are supported by this link, which brings up a pdf file)

We spend more on defense now than we did when the Soviet Union still existed and was still a threat–even, indeed, more than during the Reagan years (although the defense-to-non-defense ratio was worse then). We have no major geopolitical foe right now; our military is engaged in a series of small encounters (Afghanistan, Libya, anti-terrorism operations, etc.) that, while not insignificant, would seem to hardly necessitate the same level of spending as needed to fight massive infantry wars on the plains of eastern Europe. In Bill Clinton’s term,  expenditures on defense dropped, relative to non-defense spending, to levels similar to those before Reagan. Yet few would suggest that the U.S. military was ill-equipped to handle the challenges that arose during Clinton’s time (Bosnia) or immediately thereafter (Afghanistan, Iraq) (there were many reasons for the boondoggle in Iraq, and the current one in Afghanistan, but it would be specious to suggest that lack of military funding caused either one). Even if the military budget were to decline in real terms per budget sequestration, spending would be at 2007 levels in real terms, when no one suggested that our military was underfunded.

Now while all this unchallenged defense spending goes on, tens of thousands of Americans die every year as a direct consequence of not having health insurance (even a low-end estimate for this number is still about 20,000, which is more Americans than were killed on 9/11, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan combined, by more than two-fold).

The punchline: reasonable people can agree that there is an optimal level of military spending. And the evidence strongly suggests we are above it, not below it.



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