Tag: defense spending

Cuts, Slashes, and Savings at the Pentagon

Although the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission has come up short of the 14 votes among its members that it needs to force Congress to vote up-or-down vote on implementing its recommendations, the debate over ways to cut spending will certainly continue. Of particular note is the emerging consensus that military spending cannot be held sacrosanct in the search for savings.

Over at The National Interest Online, I try to shed some light on the actual scale of the cuts proposed by various deficit reduction reports. Kim Holmes and others affiliated with the Defending Defense alliance claim that the cuts are deep, indisciminate, and dangerous. I show that the proposed cuts, even if they were to materialize, would bring U.S. military spending back to 2006 or 2007 levels, and this would still be more than we spent on average during most of the Cold War.

But the more relevant point pertains to why military spending can safely be cut, not merely in Washington’s “slower growth” terms, but in real terms; historically, military spending comes down when our perceptions of threats change.

I predict a similar scenario playing out in the next decade. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan draw to a close (and that should move more swiftly than currently planned), recent increases in the ground forces could be rolled back to pre-9/11 levels. Additional savings can be realized if the United States were to terminate its outdated deployments in Europe. We could also revisit the role played by U.S. troops in South Korea and Japan. The Pentagon’s civilian workforce could be cut, chiefly through attrition, and save tens of billions of dollars. Finally, tighter scrutiny over the Pentagon’s spending, beginning with an audit, would allow taxpayers to realize additional savings, while ensuring that our men and women in uniform are provided with the highest quality equipment at the lowest possible price.

You can read the rest here.

Deficit Reduction Commission Says Military Spending Can and Must be Cut

President Obama’s Fiscal Commission’s report is out and they have wisely kept military spending on the table. Having not seen the accompanying list of specific cuts, it seems that rather than micromanage DoD’s decisions with respect to which weapons systems to cut or keep, the commissioners have laid down a different marker: find the cuts that make sense, but understand that the business-as-usual of the past decade is over.

The report fixes on a number of spending cuts and reforms that Benjamin Friedman and I call for in the Cato Policy Analysis “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint” including cuts to the civilian workforce (see recommendation 1.10.4). They also hold fast to the proposition that all spending must be on the table, and reject out of hand the notion that military spending must be held sacrosanct. This is bad news for the “defending defense” crowd.

I am not going to comment on the Commission’s other proposals with respect to taxes, social security, health care, etc.  As for specific military spending cuts, this report is less detailed than the preliminary report issued a few weeks ago by Co-chairs Bowles and Simpson. It is appropriate, however, to task the Department of Defense with identifying additional savings (as they do in recommendation 1.11). Responsible cuts can be made if the Pentagon and the White House adopt a strategy of restraint, one that husbands American resources, focuses on a few core missions vital to U.S. national security, and requires other countries to take primary responsibility for their defense.

The Deficit Commission: A Good Try That Falls Short

My colleagues, Dan Mitchell, Jagadeesh Gokhale, Michael Cannon and Chris Edwards have already provided their thoughts on the chairman’s mark released yesterday by the bipartisan deficit reduction commission.  A few additional thoughts:

The commission provides a good-faith look at the magnitude of the problem we face, and the magnitude of cuts necessary to bring spending down to even 21 percent of GDP (and it really should be far lower).  In doing so they show just how unserious Republicans are in proposing a paltry $100 billion in spending cuts.  And the commission makes it clear, unlike Republicans, that both entitlements and defense spending must be on the table.

The commission also starts the debate in a useful direction by implicitly acknowledging that their need to be some limits to government spending—that government cannot consume an ever-increasing proportion of GDP.  (Without a change in policy, the federal government will consume 43 percent of GDP by 2050.)

But ultimately the report falls short because it fails to address the proper role of government.  In fact, it tacitly accepts the idea that government should be doing everything it is doing now.  It even acquiesces to the new health care law.  As a result, it fails to reduce the size of government sufficiently to avoid tax hikes, let alone permit tax cuts in the future.

Moreover, because the commission leaves the basic structure and role of government intact, it raises questions about the future viability of its proposed mix of spending cuts and tax increases.  History demonstrates that it is far too likely that tax hikes will be permanent, while spending cuts will last as long as the next year-end emergency appropriations bill.

As the commission moves toward a final report on December 1, members would be advised not to focus just on the details of these proposals, but to have a serious and deliberative discussion of what the federal government should and should not be doing.

Cutting Spending to 2008 Levels

Following last week’s electoral victory, the House Republican leadership has been talking up its pre-election pledge to return federal spending to 2008 levels. As I’ve previously discussed, the Republicans are only talking about non-security, discretionary spending. This category of spending represents a relatively small portion of the overall federal budget, and would only shave about $100 billion off of what the president wants to spend.

A better idea would be to cut total spending to 2008 levels. Excluding interest, the president has proposed spending $853 billion more in fiscal 2011 than the government spent in fiscal 2008. The following table shows the increases by department.

As the chart shows, federal spending for the Pentagon alone is set to increase by $126 billion, or more than the amount that the Republican leadership says it wants to cut. Therefore, if the Republicans want to get serious about cutting spending and reining in the growing federal debt, all categories of spending must be on the table.

Apologists for government spending will complain that returning spending levels to 2008 would be draconian. But compare the percentage increases in spending over three years under the president’s proposed budget.

President Obama and the Democrats told the American people that this spending explosion was needed to fix the economy. Unfortunately, it has only succeeded in transferring a tremendous amount of resources from the private sector to the less efficient government. Republicans were elected, in part, to help put the private sector back in the economic driver’s seat. To do so, Republicans need to be much more ambitious than trimming just $100 billion off of the president’s three-year $853 billion spending increase.

Bootleggers & Baptists, Sugary Soda Edition

Here’s a poor, unsuccessful letter that impressed the relevant New York Times reporters, but not their editorial overlords:

It may seem counter-intuitive that bleeding-heart anti-hunger groups and “Big Food and Big Beverage” would ally to oppose Mayor Bloomberg’s request to prevent New Yorkers from using food stamps to purchase sugary sodas [“Unlikely Allies in Food Stamp Debate,” October 16].  Yet the “bootleggers and Baptists” theory of regulation explains that this “strange bedfellows” phenomenon is actually the norm, rather than the exception.

Most laws have two types of supporters: the true believers and those who benefit financially.  Baptists don’t want you drinking on the Lord ’s Day, for example, while bootleggers profit from the above-market prices that Blue Laws enable them to charge on Sundays.  Consequently, both groups support politicians who support Blue Laws.

Baptists-and-bootleggers coalitions underlie almost all government activities. Defense spending: (neo)conservatives and defense contractors.  President Obama’s new health care law: the political left and the health care and insurance industries. Ethanol subsidies: environmentalists and agribusiness. Education: egalitarians and teachers’ unions. The list goes on.

It’s easier to illustrate the theory (and sexier) when the bootleggers are non-believers who cynically manipulate government solely for their own gain.  Yet one can be both a Baptist and a bootlegger. The Coca-Cola Company may sincerely believe that society benefits when the government subsidizes sugary sodas for poor people.  Even so, a bootlegger-cum-Baptist can still rip off taxpayers.

This morning, NPR reported on another bootleggers-and-Baptists coalition: anti-immigration zealots and the prison industry.

Actually We Aren’t Running the World

Bloggers have already noted the most glaring problems with Arthur Brooks, Edwin Feulner and Bill Kristol’s Monday Wall Street Journal op-ed, “Peace Doesn’t Keep Itself,” which worries that conservatives are figuring out that trying to run the world is not conservative.

The op-ed pretends that the fact that defense spending isn’t the largest cause of the deficit means it isn’t a cause of the deficit. It obscures the fact that we spend more on defense than we did in the Cold War by counting the defense budget as a portion of the economy without noting the latter has grown faster than the former.

So I can limit myself to less obvious angles. The first is that neoconservatives like Kristol are for increasing the defense budget no matter what. For them the military is basically an expression of national awesomeness (to use an academic term). Enemies and other details, like what we spend already, come up mainly in the justification phase.

In 2000, when U.S. defense spending was nearly $180 billion lower than today—excluding the wars and adjusting for inflation—Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan wanted to increase defense spending by $60 to $100 billion a year. After September 11, they called for a “large” and “substantial” increase. Having got that and then some, Kristol, at least, wants even more. The neoconservative appetite for military spending is insatiable because their militarism is.

Second, I want to pick on one point the op-ed makes because it is both wrong and widely believed: “Global prosperity requires commerce and trade, and this requires peace. But the peace does not keep itself.”

There are really two theories there. First, commerce requires general peace in supplier nations and military protection of supply lines. Second, only the United States can provide both. There is some evidence for these claims in a long-running correlation. Since World War II, U.S. military hegemony has coincided with explosive growth in global trade. So it’s easy to see how people assume causation. But as Chris Preble and I argue in the Policy Analysis that we just released, “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint,” the causal logic here is weak. It overstates the U.S. military’s contribution to global stability and trade and the trouble that instability causes us.

The first theory is right in the sense that nations devastated by war ultimately lose purchasing power, which is bad for their trade partners. But in the meantime, warring countries typically need a lot of imports. They also generate capital for armies by selling goods abroad. For that reason, the Iranians and Iraqis kept pumping oil during their war. Wars do not simply shut down trade.

The argument for policing peacetime shipments is even worse, as I explain in a guest post I did yesterday for the Stimson Center’s revamped defense budget blog. As I note there, we do not really protect shipments now. A tiny minority get naval protection. Thus primacists tend to argue that what matters is not defending trade but the ability to do so, which deters malfeasants from harassing it or building capability to do so. But that argument gives the game away. You don’t need to do it in good times to do it in bad times.

What happens the day after we tell our Navy to stop sailing around in the name of protecting commerce? Who interrupts shipments? Would Iran start charging tolls at the Strait of Hormuz or China in the South China Sea? I say no because they know that we can force access and because there are plenty of ways to retaliate, including blockading those countries.

A more plausible claim is that some states would increase naval spending to police their own shipping. That seems like a good thing. Sometimes people say that such burden-sharing could set off a naval arms race that causes a war, say between India and China. I suppose that is possible, but naval arms races have caused few, if any, wars.

Let’s say our ability to buy some good from some area is cut off, either by instability at the source or en route. The likely outcome is supply adjustment, not supply failure. Generally another supplier takes the orders and prices adjust. That is particularly true as globalization links markets and increases supply options. It is when you have only one potential supplier that you really need to police delivery.

If you believe that military hegemony protects peacetime shipments, you could argue that it distorts price signals by shifting a portion of the good’s cost to federal taxes. Because I don’t believe that we are propping up prices in most cases, I say that what primacists are really selling is an attempted but failed subsidy to consumption of goods, including oil.

Oil is a special case because price shocks caused by supply disruption have in the past caused recessions. However, economists argue that the conditions that allowed for this problem have changed. One change is the reduced burden energy costs now impose on U.S. household income. Others disagree, but if they are right, that is why we have public and private reserves.

You can read more of what we think of about the idea that only we can keep the peace among states in the Policy Analysis or in the stuff Cato scholars have been pumping out for years. I will just say here that primacists ignore all the history contradicting the idea that only hegemons create a stable balance of power and the many rivals that formed stable balances of power without an hegemon taking a side.

International stability and world trade would be OK without our nation trying to use our military to provide them. If you don’t believe me, you might read one of these three papers by Eugene Gholz and Daryl Press. I took a lot of this from them.

The Financial Times on Robert Gates

Kudos to the Financial Times (subscription may be required) for figuring out what most other journalists and editorial writers haven’t seemed to grasp concerning Robert Gates’s economy initiative at the Pentagon.

[H]is aim is not to cut the overall budget radically; it is merely to achieve savings in the military bureaucracy and thus, against a background of broader fiscal constraint, protect spending on new weapons and other outlays.  (my emphasis)

The reforms in and of themselves are “commendable,” the FT notes, but they don’t amount to very much in the grand scheme, and they therefore do not go nearly far enough. Indeed, as I and others have noted, U.S. military spending will continue to rise if Bob Gates gets his way. This isn’t good enough.

The FT editors agree:

The US needs a much more searching review of its military spending, one that aims to do more than merely curb its growth.

Anyone interested in a comprehensive proposal (three, actually) for substantially reducing U.S. military spending by revisiting the roles, responsibilities, and missions that are currently assigned to Gates’s department can find it here.