The Heritage Foundation has a chart up on its blog, showing defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product and declaring that “Obama plan cuts defense spending to pre-9/11 levels.”
This is a standard rhetorical device for defense hawks (see the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Mitt Romney and lots of others) so it’s worth pointing out that it’s misleading. The unfortunate truth is that Obama is increasing non-war defense spending this year and seems likely to increase it at least by inflation in the near future.
It’s true that defense spending will probably decline as a percentage of GDP, assuming the economy recovers. But that’s because GDP grows. Ours is more than six times bigger than it was in 1950. Meanwhile, we spend more on defense in real, inflation adjusted terms, than we did then, at the height of the Cold War. The denoninator has grown faster than the numerator.
By saying that defense spending needs to grow with GDP to be “level,” you are arguing for an annual increase in defense spending without saying so directly. That’s the point, of course.
To be straight with readers, charts that show defense spending as a percentage of GDP should either show GDP growth over time or include a line that shows defense spending in real terms. Otherwise they fail to demonstrate that the decline in defense spending as a percentage of GDP is a consequence of growing GDP, not lower spending.
Here’s a chart from the Congressional Budget Office’s report, “The Long Term Implications of the Current Defense Plans,” that does this.
The assumption in analysis like Heritage’s is that defense spending should be a function of economic growth, not enemies and strategies for defending against them. It’s easy to point out that this is strategically and fiscally foolish. And it’s worth noting, as I have on many occasions, that we face a benign threat environment and can cut defense spending massively as a result.
But there is something weirder going on here that warrants mention. Arguing that wealth creation should drive defense spending is to attempt to divorce the military from its strategic rationale. That’s an implicit acknowledgement that defense spending is not for safety. High military spending in this worldview is either an end in itself or a partisan or cultural tool. That’s not much of a revelation, I guess.