Tag: defense spending

Looking for a Free Ride

The Harris Poll finds that most Americans favor cuts in foreign  economic  aid, foreign  military  aid, spending by  the  regulatory agencies generally, space  programs, subsidies  to  business, and federal  welfare  spending. All good stuff.

On the other hand, a significant plurality opposes cuts in defense spending. Fewer than one in four favor cuts in federal education spending or health care. 11 percent favor cutting Social Security payments. Over one-third favor spending more on education, health care, and Social Security.

How seriously should we take these results?

Simple observation of Congress suggests that most Americans are not willing to pay more taxes. The Obama administration found that in focus groups Democrats were not willing to raise taxes on anyone except individuals making more the $200,000 annually or families above $250,000 each year (now you know why the Obamacare taxes are the way they are). Taxpayers evidently are not willing to pay for current spending since the annual public deficit runs into the trillions.

I conclude that survey respondents want to sustain or increase public spending at a cost to someone else, perhaps “the rich” or future citizens who will repay public debt. These survey respondents, in other words, want a free ride. A more charitable interpretation would be that respondents have not thought much about the cause and effect relationship between spending and taxes, at least with regard to the abstractions posed in a survey. Neither interpretation flatters the respondents.

I recall James Madison’s remark in Federalist no. 10 that majorities tend toward policies antagonistic to “the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” Policymakers have little reason to take seriously these fantasies. Whether they will have the courage to ignore them is another question.

Defending Defense Badly

Monday was budget day, where the President sends Congress the budget he would like it to pass and reporters and analysts scurry around reacting, as if the he were issuing stunning edicts rather than predictable suggestions . Due to a Healy-esque aversion to this species of DC pageantry, I was not planning to comment.

Then I read this oped in Politico where James Fly and John Noonan of the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative flack for the President’s defense budget.  It demonstrates the intellectual poverty of the case for current defense spending so well that I decided to discuss it.

Fly and Noonan first claim that the White House wants to cut defense spending by $78 billion over five years, repeating the President’s talking point and labeling the reduction “deep and far-reaching.” But as Chris Preble wrote earlier, the cut is to the rate of spending growth. Neither Obama nor Secretary Gates has ever proposed cutting actual defense spending. In the unlikely event that the administration’s new five-year spending plan holds up, the non-war portion of Pentagon spending will cost taxpayers $2.918 trillion from fiscal year 2012 to 2016, rather than last year’s proposed $2.994 trillion, a reduction of 2.5 percent. We will still spend more on the non-war Pentagon budget, even adjusting for inflation, than we did in the prior five years, which was the most ever. Some cut.

The oped dutifully repeats Gates’ claim that he canceled procurement programs worth more than $300 billion in 2009. It does not say that that’s a speculative lifetime spending estimate, that new programs replaced those canceled, and that other Pentagon spending categories, like personnel, have grown more rapidly than procurement, eating any savings.

When they try their own arguments, Fly and Noonan do even worse. They write that “it is worth asking whether other federal agencies or domestic entitlement programs have been forced to reduce their budgets to the same extent that the Pentagon has over the past two years.” Though they mean to imply otherwise, the answer, since they asked, is yes, more. As they could have figured out by looking at OMB’s historical outlay table, total non-defense discretionary spending has not grown over the last two years. Defense has.

It gets worse. Fly and Noonan complain that we lack a military that can handle “any unanticipated contingency, which cancould [sic] emerge at any time.” We could triple defense spending, reinstitute the draft, and still not meet that standard. What if we had to occupy India? And why is instability anywhere always our problem?

Of course they also mention China, noting that it wants to use its military to assert “its long-term interests” and recently tested a stealth fighter. Given that we spend almost as much researching, developing and testing new weapons as China spends on its whole military, that we have far more advanced stealth and surveillance technology, that we have eleven carriers while China has one that they can’t really operate, and that we have no good reason for war with China, the Chinese’s effort to build a military that can protect their interests is unalarming, reasonable and a terrible argument for our current defense budget.

Beyond China, Fly and Noonan make no effort to justify military spending with specific threats. They just assert that the world is “volatile” and the “strategic landscape” grows “increasingly perilous.” Actually the world has been getting less volatile for several decades, if we measure volatility by the frequency and human cost of wars. And even if that were not true, why should our military aim, quixotically, at pacifying all war, rather than self-defense?  Strategy is a product of our making, not a landscape we passively confront.  National security threats to Americans are quite limited in historical context, and mostly avoidable. A less activist stance would avoid the peril we now increase by having defense commitments in so many unstable places.

The Pentagon’s Faux Cuts

President Obama might want it to appear as though he is reining in defense spending with his budget submission for FY 2012, but his approach to the Pentagon’s budget reveals the opposite.

Perhaps the president hopes that his adoption of the faux cuts that Secretary Gates put on the table last month will be seen as responsible. Perhaps he is taking a prudent first step and signaling to the military, and its suppliers and contractors, that the days of double-digit increases are over. That may be; but far deeper cuts are warranted. . If the president had truly wanted to send a signal, he would have followed the advice of his own deficit reduction commission and endorsed far deeper cuts in military spending.

The Department of Defense will spend $78 billion less over the next five years than previous projections. This amounts to a drop in the bucket – technically just over 2% – of total Pentagon spending over that period. Nonetheless, in Washington-ese, this constitutes a cut. But the base budget (excluding the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) will increase – from $549 billion to $553 billion, the largest budget in the department’s history. In the past 12 years, the budget that has doubled in real, inflation-adjusted terms.

Deeper cuts should be made along with an effort to lessen worldwide defense commitments, reducing the strain on the force. It will be up to outside pressure – either from Congress or from interested groups outside of government – to force Washington to cease acting as the world’s policeman, and forcing other countries to take responsibility for their own defense.

Eisenhower’s Lament

Spurred on by a new release of documents from the archives, the past few weeks have witnessed a renewed interest in the military-industrial complex (MIC), the term forever associated with Dwight David Eisenhower.

Or, at least, that should be the case. Eisenhower – the West Point graduate, career military officer, and hero of World War II – was one of the first to ever use the phrase, in a televised Farewell Address to the nation on January 17, 1961. Over the years, however, the MIC has become a mantra for progressives and left liberals, usually used in tandem with an assault on private enterprise, writ large, or as part of an elaborate conspiracy theory that equates crony capitalism with market economics. The left’s capture of the term has enabled too many on the right to dismiss it out of hand.

That is unfortunate. Dwight David Eisenhower was no liberal; far from it. And though the neoconservatives have attempted to expunge Ike from our collective memory, it is appropriate that his legacy is enjoying yet another revival. For what it’s worth, I’ll be doing my small part, at a half-day conference next month, and throughout 2011, to offer a perspective on the military-industrial complex that might appeal to devotees of limited, constitutional government.

This work will focus not just on Ike’s farewell address, but also on one of his first public addresses, the Chance for Peace Speech, delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors in April 1953. Taken together, the speeches highlight two of Eisenhower’s enduring concerns: opportunity costs, money spent on the military cannot be spent elsewhere; and the political and social costs of the United States becoming a garrison state, the creation of a permanent armaments industry, Ike feared, had already precipitated major changes in the nation’s economy, and threatened to change the nation itself.

Speaking in January 1961, during one of the darkest periods of the Cold War, Eisenhower viewed the MIC as a necessary evil. He viewed the threat posed by the Soviet Union and its sometime communist allies as sufficient justification for maintaining a large standing army, and a vast and technologically advanced Air Force and Navy. He also presided over a dramatic expansion of the nation’s nuclear arsenal, and realized (belatedly) that he had far too little control over those weapons and the men tasked with using them.

But I suspect that the permanence of the MIC would be most disturbing to President Eisenhower, were he with us now. Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans today spend more on the military than at any time since World War II, and more than twice as much – in inflation-adjusted dollars – than when Ike left office. The general-president clearly failed to convince his fellow Americans of the need to limit the military’s growth. For all practical purposes, the MIC won.

Here’s hoping that many Americans will rediscover Eisenhower, and take heed of his warning, starting in 2011. They could start by supporting efforts to refocus our military on a few core objectives and reduce the Pentagon’s budget.

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.