Tag: defense spending

No Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Secretary of Defense gave a good speech over the weekend at the Eisenhower library.  Gates used the occasion to evoke Eisenhower and call for discipline in defense spending. But he didn’t really mean it.

The speech makes excellent points about how our military’s size long ago ceased to have anything to do with our potential enemies. He pointed out that the non-war defense budget has grown by about half since September 11 and that country’s current fiscal circumstance means that that growth has got to slow.

But the speech shows no indication that Gates wants to cut defense spending. It isn’t even clear that he has changed his view that defense spending should grow by about 2% annually no matter what happens in the world. He claims that while defense secretary he has canceled programs worth $330 billion in their lifetime. True, but they were replaced by other programs, and the budgets Gates has sent to the Hill have been bigger each year in real terms. A cynical take is that Gates is trying to preempt calls for defense cuts by acting as if roughly flat budgets require great discipline.

What’s really going on here is that the cost of the current defense program is growing so fast that you need large annual increases just to keep what you have. The main cause is rapid growth in the cost of operations and maintenance and personnel. Those accounts are squeezing others (research, development and procurement) needed for new vehicles and weapons. Last year, Gates responded to that pressure by proposing cuts in procurement spending. People treated him like a revolutionary for doing so, but he was just balancing his books. Now that the worst white elephant programs are gone (with several glaring exceptions), Gates is pushing the services to cut overhead costs and shift the saving into procurement. And he is telling them to buy more cheap platforms by controlling requirements creep.  Same price, better product. End of story.

The point Gates missed about Eisenhower is that he used strategy to limit spending. The New Look was an air force-first strategy that limited army and navy spending, much to the chagrin of those services. Gates’ enthusiasm for counter-insurgency wars has not lead him to propose cutting the navy and air force budgets to fund the super-sized ground forces one needs for such missions. His official strategy shows little inclination for hard choices.

Real reductions in military spending require reductions in the ambitions it serves. A cheaper military means doing less. This administration has shown no interest in that. Maybe the fiscal situation will force them to reconsider.

“Good Federal Spending” versus Bad Federal Spending

Washington, DC is a company town, and the company is the federal government.  Between the executive branch, the Congress, the Supreme Court and all the rent-seekers and hangers-on that come to court power, the city is a veritable petri dish that breeds and nurtures the worst human impulses.  Some Cato people live here, too.

Local politics in DC is so dominated by Democrats that the Republican Party in DC is a perennial butt of jokes.  Between its role as the seat of the federal government and the Democratic Party’s Turkmenbashi-level control of local government, it is a city that conservatives love to hate.

Across the river in Virginia, by contrast, there are lots of Republicans, and they are still able to compete against the Democrats statewide.  Lots of Republican politicians in Virginia sing sweet songs about the dangers of big government and hold themselves out as the true holders of the limited government faith.  But it sure would be nice if they could spit the teat out of their own mouths while they warble:

Ten cents of every federal procurement dollar spent anywhere on Earth is spent in Virginia. More than 15,000 Virginia companies hold federal contracts, a number that has almost tripled since 2001. Total federal spending – from salaries to outsourced contracts – has more than doubled, to $118 billion, since 2000, as homeland security and defense spending skyrocketed in response to the 2001 terrorist attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By 2008, it accounted for about 30 percent of Virginia’s entire economy.

Federal dollars have filtered through the rest of the economy, too, helping to build the high-tech Dulles corridor and funding new homes and cars for federal workers and contractors and meals at local restaurants. The billions have helped fuel the economic boom cycles of the past decade and have cushioned the blow of the recent recession, particularly in Northern Virginia, where the unemployment rate has stayed stubbornly below 6 percent, less than the state and national rates.

[…]

Good Spending

In an interview, [Governor Bob] McDonnell acknowledged last week that federal per-capital spending is high in Virginia. And it is true, he said, that most of Northrop Grumman’s business comes from the government. But he said the company’s business is largely defense-related, including shipbuilding in the Newport News area.

“I call that good investment and good federal spending,” he said.

He said the government must restrain spending in other areas – entitlements, earmarks and “other kinds of pork projects.”

Note that McDonnell’s definition of “good” versus “bad” spending seems either to be determined by potential lethality or by location in his state.  As the article points out, “defense spending accounts for 900,000 Virginia jobs, close to one in five in the state.”  Moreover, McDonnell makes no argument about why we need to prepare to fight China, which makes up the bulk of the justification for the Northrop project in Newport News.  (Which, by the way, is an awesome sight, in a literal sense, but also terribly wasteful.)

Moreover, you could zero out “pork” and earmarks tomorrow and while morally satisfying, it would not come even close to filling in the giant hole our rulers in Washington have dug.  And as for entitlements?  By all means, let’s take a scythe to them.  Except a recent Economist/YouGov poll asked the question “If government spending is reduced in order to cut the budget, which of the following government programs should receive lower federal funding than they currently do?”  Seven percent ticked the “Medicare” box, seven percent ticked “Social Security” and 11 percent ticked “Medicaid.”  In fairness to McDonnell, only 22 percent selected “national defense” and there was only one item, foreign aid, that won a majority.

If getting the deficit fixed means relying entirely on cutting pork, earmarks, and entitlements, the picture is grim.  Defense spending needs to be on the table.  Even the parts in Virginia.

Ed Morrissey on The Struggle to Limit Government

Ed Morrissey kindly mentioned The Struggle to Limit Government and responds to the advice for Tea Partiers in my video.

Morrissey says:

I don’t think it’s accurate to say that some Tea Partiers “like” big government; it’s more like some aren’t enthusiastic about dismantling as much of the federal government as others, especially the more doctrinaire libertarians.

In the video I noted that polls showed a majority of the people who identify with the Tea Party movement also thought the entitlement programs were worth their cost. My colleague, Jagadeesh Gokhale, has estimated that paying for current entitlements would require 9 percent of GNP in perpetuity. This is unlikely. Entitlements will have to be changed since too much has been promised. People who think the programs have been worth their cost are not likely initially to support reining in the entitlements. In saying that, I expressed a concern, not a prediction. It may be that Tea Party people will also come to recognize, as Ed Morrissey does, that the entitlement state cannot continue.

I said in the video that Tea Party people should recognize that “Democrats are not always the enemy.” Morrissey rightly says I should not talk about enemies in domestic politics. He adds that the current House Democratic caucus does not deserve support because its leaders favor expanding government. He’s right. Divided government is what we need now. However, I had in mind the more centrist Democrats that supported the tax and spending cuts of 1981 and the tax reform of 1986. I am urging Tea Party people to avoid becoming too partisan. Perhaps some of them will still be in Congress in 2011.

Then there’s the question of foreign policy and defense spending. In the video I said that a limited government movement like the Tea Party should start thinking outside the box on spending. I suggested rethinking America’s expansive commitments in foreign affairs as a way to reduce our military spending.  I did not deny – who could deny it? – that the Constitution entrusts the common defense to the federal government. I also recognize that the United States continues to have enemies. The question is: what should the government do to provide the common defense consistent with limited government?

In the past decade, we have spent enormous sums trying to transform two nations and the entire Middle East into liberal democracies. This was our “forward strategy” for dealing with terrorism. It reminded me of past Progressive crusades at home and abroad.   The strategy was a domestic political disaster, and we shall see whether our massive outlays eventually produce stability in Iraq or Afghanistan. For my part, I remain partial to the conservative virtues of realism, restraint, and prudence in dealing with other nations.

The United States is currently spending about half of all military spending in the world. We have some room for restraint without endangering American lives. We will still have a Navy that protects trade routes to the extent they are threatened. As I said in the video, we need to rethink our overall place in the world if we are to corral the big government beast. The Tea Party folks can lead the way here.

The Pentagon is not most of the federal budget. It is the only part historically, however, that can vary downward as well as upward. Sometime soon, the non-defense parts of the budget are going to have to vary downward rather than just upward.  Being serious about limiting government, however, requires that all spending be considered. Since I think the Tea Party movement is serious about cutting government, it would be better if they had a look at all spending from the start.

Kent Conrad and Fiscal Federalism

Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) has a reputation for being a “deficit hawk.” But the bar is apparently so low in Washington that merely paying lip service to “fiscal responsibility” is enough to earn you the hawk title in the press. In reality, Conrad is a tax and spender as a story in today’s Wall Street Journal demonstrates.

These examples illustrate Sen. Deficit Hawk’s commitment to deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility:

  • “Like many in Congress, he is conflicted. He boasts a 23-year record of looking after North Dakota voters with ample farm subsidies, aid for drought-hit ranchers, defense spending and scores of pet projects. He has done little to help rein in Medicare and Social Security expenses—the U.S.’s biggest budget busters.”
  • “He has been a defender of the state’s grain farmers ever since [his election to the Senate in 1986]. He voted last April against a proposal to cap federal payments to the nation’s farmers at $250,000 per farmer per year, a measure that Mr. Conrad criticized as disastrous but that supporters said would have saved $1 billion a year.”

  • “He also helped draft a five-year, $300 billion farm bill in 2008 that boosted overall farm subsidies. The bill created a $3.8 billion emergency ‘trust fund’ for farmers who lose crops or livestock to natural disasters, which was Mr. Conrad’s idea. Since 2008, North Dakota ranchers have received $23 million under the fund, second only to Texas.”
  • “Mr. Conrad also has used legislative earmarks—provisions inserted into bills by lawmakers to fund local projects—to deliver federal money to North Dakota businesses, cities and schools. He secured $3 million last year to build a new terminal at the Grand Forks airport, and $13 million more for a fire station at a nearby air base. Dickinson State University got $600,000 to build a Theodore Roosevelt Center, while a Navy research project got $1.2 million to develop a ‘chafing protection system.’ ”
  • “In 2003, Mr. Conrad joined most Democratic senators to support Mr. Bush’s plan to provide Medicare prescription-drug coverage to seniors, at a cost of around $40 billion a year. The plan required Congress to scrap the spending controls Mr. Conrad once championed. Republicans won the votes of Mr. Conrad and other rural senators by agreeing to expand the program by pumping $25 billion more into rural hospitals and doctors over 10 years.”
  • “Mr. Conrad helped negotiate the 2005 highway bill, which critics blasted as a bipartisan exercise in spending excess. The $286 billion bill contained 6,371 earmarks. Even before Mr. Bush signed it, Mr. Conrad told constituents that the bill would deliver $1.5 billion to North Dakota communities. ‘That equates to North Dakota receiving $2 for every $1 in gas tax collected in the state,’ Mr. Conrad said in a news release.”

It would appear that Conrad doesn’t really want to cut spending to rein in deficits. He wants to increase taxes. One might think a proponent of tax increases in a red state like North Dakota would struggle at the ballot box. However, the Wall Street Journal article cites Tax Foundation data showing that North Dakota receives $1.68 in federal spending for every $1 it sends to Washington in taxes. In other words, Conrad’s tax increases would allow him to buy more votes at the expense of taxpayers in other states.  A North Dakotan is quoted as saying, “The joke here is that we elect conservatives to state office because we don’t want them to spend our money, and liberals to national office because we want them to spend other people’s money.”

This is a precisely why a return to fiscal federalism is crucial to getting spending-driven deficits under control. In the meantime, let’s stop calling politicians who want to spend more money and increase taxes to pay for it “deficit hawks” or “fiscally responsible.”

Five Decades of Federal Spending

The chart below shows federal spending in three component parts over the last five decades. It includes Obama’s proposed spending in 2011. Here are a few thoughts on the recent spending trends:

Defense: In the post-9/11 years, defense spending bumped up to a higher plateau of around 4 percent of GDP. But now we have jumped to an even higher level of around 4.9 percent of GDP.

Interest: The Federal Reserve’s easy money policies reduced federal interest payments in recent years. That is coming to an end. Obama’s budget shows that interest payments will start rising rapidly next year and hit 3 percent of GDP by 2015. And that’s an optimistic projection.

Nondefense: This category includes all other federal spending. After a steady decline during the Clinton years to 12.9 percent of GDP, President Bush pushed up nondefense spending to a higher plateau of around 14.5 percent. Then came the recession and financial crisis, and the Bush-Obama tag team hiked spending to an even higher level of around 19 percent of GDP. That level of nondefense spending is almost double the level in 1970 measured as a share of the economy.

Buying Boomers

Trident LaunchTrident Launch

More hot defense news from InsideDefense – the Navy wants a bailout.

The Navy’s draft ship-building plan apparently warns of massive cuts in the size of its future fleet and consolidation of the ship-building industry unless Congress provides new funds for shipbuilding.  It wants $80 billion extra over the fourteen years starting in 2019 to cover the cost of buying twelve new boomers (SSBN or ballistic missile submarines) to replace the fourteen Trident SSBNs slated for retirement starting in 2029. Without the extra cash, the Navy says it will have to buy less of everything else, shrinking the fleet to roughly 237 ships rather than the planned 324. The bulk of cuts will come from large surface combatants; we will wind up with 53 rather than the planned 96. The number of amphibious ships and attack submarines will also decrease. With so few ships coming into the fleet, the document implies, we’ll have to close some shipyards.

As the four people who read my recent book chapter on naval politics know, that is not going to happen, and Navy knows it. Defense production facilities are like hungry children that politicians feed by extracting work from the Pentagon. The six major and several minor shipyards that sell to the government in this country are largely jobs programs. They offer far more production capacity than the Navy and Coast Guard need. Even though General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman now own all six major yards, the firms have no interest in achieving economies of scale by closing yards. Politicians protect work for the yards as long as they stay open. Maintaining extra yards means that the Navy pays a large overhead premium for its ships, but doing so widens its base of Congressional support.

The Navy has been is playing a bit of chicken with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, leaving the cost of boomers out of its last shipbuilding plan in the hope that OSD would find the money elsewhere. OSD may do so yet, but in the meantime the Navy is trying to bring around Congress, taking “hostages” that powerful congressmen will have to free. Big surface combatants are made in Bath, Maine by General Dynamics and Pascagoula, Mississippi by Northrop. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) are on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gene Taylor (R-MS) chairs the House Armed Services subcommittee that oversees the Navy. Chellie Pingree (R-ME) sits on it. By targeting surface combatants, the Navy is pushing those members to go find some money for it to save local jobs.

The most likely outcome here is that the Navy shipbuilding account will get a slight planned boost but far from what the service requests. Meanwhile the fleet will continue to  shrink, because the ships’ complexity keeps their cost high. No shipyard will close, so each will get enough work to stay afloat, adding cost.

In a more austere and competitive budget environment, we would see more hard choices.  The other services would start asking the White House whether it is worth aiming for a three hundred ship Navy with no obvious enemy to justify it. The Navy might tell the White House that carriers do what the Air Force’s fighters do, so cut their budget. Congressional leaders looking for savings might ask why we still need to deliver nuclear weapons three ways, by submarine-launched ballistic missile, intercontinental ballistic missile and bomber. A monad with twelve boomers is all the survivable nuclear deterrent we need.

Defending Obama…Again

I caught a lot of flack from my Republican friends for my post blaming the FY2009 deficit on Bush instead of Obama. Well, I must be a glutton for punishment because I can’t resist jumping (albeit reluctantly) to Obama’s defense again. I’m venting my spleen for two reason. First, FoxNews.com posted a story headlined “Obama Shatters Spending Record for First-Year Presidents” and noted that:

President Obama has shattered the budget record for first-year presidents – spending nearly double what his predecessor did when he came into office and far exceeding the first-year tabs for any other U.S. president in history. In fiscal 2009 the federal government spent $3.52 trillion …That fiscal year covered the last three-and-a-half months of George W. Bush’s term and the first eight-and-a-half months of Obama’s.

This story was featured on the Drudge Report, so it has received a lot of attention. Second, Bush’s former Senior Adviser wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal eviscerating Obama for big budget deficits. Given Bush’s track record, this took considerable chutzpah, but what really nauseated me was this passage:

When Mr. Obama was sworn into office the federal deficit for this year stood at $422 billion. At the end of October, it stood at $1.42 trillion.

I’m a big fan of criticizing Obama’s profligacy, but it is inaccurate and/or dishonest to blame him for Bush’s mistakes. At the risk of repeating my earlier post, the 2009 fiscal year began on October 1, 2008, and the vast majority of the spending for that year was the result of Bush Administration policies. Yes, Obama did add to the waste with the so-called stimulus, the omnibus appropriation, the CHIP bill, and the cash-for-clunkers nonsense, but as the chart illustrates, these boondoggles only amounted to just a tiny percentage of the FY2009 total – about $140 billion out of a $3.5 trillion budget.

There are some subjective aspects to this estimate, to be sure. Supplemental defense spending could boost Obama’s share by another $25 billion, but Bush surely would have asked for at least that much extra spending, so I didn’t count that money but individual readers can adjust the number if they wish. Also, Obama used some bailout money for the car companies, but I did not count that as a net increase in spending since the bailout funds were approved under Bush and I strongly suspect the previous Administration also would have funneled money to GM and Chrysler. In any event, I did not give Obama credit for the substantial amount of TARP funds that were repaid after January 20, so the net effect of all the judgment calls certainly is not to Bush’s disadvantage.

Let’s use an analogy. Obama’s FY2009 performance is like a relief pitcher who enters a game in the fourth inning trailing 19-0 and allows another run to score. The extra run is nothing to cheer about, of course, but fans should be far more angry with the starting pitcher. That having been said, Obama since that point has been serving up meatballs to the special interests in Washington, so his earned run average may actually wind up being worse than his predecessor’s. He promised change, but it appears that Obama wants to be Bush on steroids.