Voters Recognize U.S. Military Spending Tops Other Countries

That is the headline of a press release announcing the results of a recent Rasmussen poll. The survey of likely voters finds that 58 percent recognize that the United States spends more on its military than any other country in the world.

The headline writers have obviously taken this as a positive. I think one can just as easily spin it in the other direction. It is deeply disturbing that 19 percent of Americans think that some country spends more than us, and that another 24 percent are unsure.

I don’t think this is just a reflection of my recent penchant for finding the dark lining in every silver cloud. If I were a professor teaching a course in U.S. military history, I’d be distressed if 19 percent of my students thought that Robert E. Lee was victorious at the battle of Gettysburg, and that another 24 percent weren’t sure. If 19 percent of students in a basic economics course thought that the price of something rises when demand falls and supply increases, and another 24 didn’t know, that would be a problem. Likely voters are presumably more interested in policy than registered voters or the generic American adult. Even among this modestly self-selected group, it would be unrealistic to expect that 100 percent would have a clear understanding of some basic facts. But 58 percent is a failing score, even by the most generous standards.

The respondents could be excused for their ignorance or confusion if someone was arguing the contrary. But no one is. The fact that we have an enormous military budget — far larger than any other country, or combination of countries — is the public policy equivalent of the sun rising in the east. Even the hawks calling for additional increases in Pentagon spending (on top of a DoD budget that has grown more than 86 percent in real terms over the past 13 years) don’t dispute the fact that we currently spend more than anyone else. On the contrary, all experts agree that we spend much more than number two (China), and most calculate that 300 million Americans spend nearly as much on our military as do all other citizens of the world combined. (More than 44 percent of the world total, according to conservative estimates that likely overstate China and Russia’s actual spending.)

So while some might be encouraged that only 19 percent of likely voters think that some country spends more than us, and that another 24 percent aren’t sure, I am not. It suggests that I have a lot more work to do.