Swords into Plowshares


"The Cold War is over. Let's increase federal spending!" Well, that's not quite what they're saying in Washington these days, but some people are coming mighty close to it.

As Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost spreads through Eastern Europe, defense planners in Washington are planning cuts in the size of U.S. armed forces. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney has promised a five-year, $180-billion reduction in defense spending.

Politicians are already finding ways to spend the money. A group of former bureaucrats calling itself the National Commission for Economic Conversion and Disarmament has come up with a list of items that it says the "peace dividend" should be spent on. At the top of the list: $17.5 billion to clean up nuclear waste and $100 billion for high-speed passenger trains. And Democrats on Capitol Hill are putting together their wish list. They want more money for day care, education, catastrophic health care, and the environment.

The feeling seems to be that these programs have noble goals, and therefore we should spend money on them. But this is pretty much the same reasoning used to justify CETA, the synthetic fuels program, the space shuttle, and hundreds of other federal projects that crashed in a fiery heap. Congress never learns that good intentions plus government money usually equal disaster.

President Bush, to his credit, is resisting efforts to use reforms in Eastern Europe as an excuse for new federal programs. He has promised to use the peace dividend to help reduce the federal deficit.

But the truth is that the peace dividend is just another one of those mass hallucinations that grip Washington from time to time. (Remember that just 10 years ago many of these same people thought stagflation and energy shortages would be permanent.) There is no "peace dividend."

The "cuts" that Cheney spoke of are from the $1.5 trillion that the Pentagon had planned to spend. Defense spending had been projected to grow by 20 percent over the next five years. After Cheney's cuts are made, it will still grow by 8 percent through 1996. For 1991, Cheney now wants $298 billion—$13 billion less than what had been planned for 1991, but still $7 billion more than the Pentagon will spend in fiscal 1990.

We could really slash military spending by withdrawing from NATO. After all, about 60 percent of Pentagon spending goes to the defense of Western Europe. But the cautious Bush administration won't do this. If Bush can't condemn the massacre in Tiananmen Square, he isn't likely to point out to the Europeans that we've been subsidizing their defense for the last 45 years.

Indeed, Cheney has given few examples of where he will cut spending. So far, he has indicated that he will just leave it up to the three branches to squeeze and trim within existing plans.

Congress may reduce defense spending more than Cheney has proposed, but not much more. Pork-barrel politics, not geopolitical strategy, determines most defense spending. Congressional micromanagement of the military budget has ensured that almost every congressional district has some facility that depends on the Pentagon for funding. No member of Congress wants to see the hometown military base or missile factory closed. And deep cuts in military spending would require just such closings.

There is something distasteful about the entire "peace dividend" debate, even beyond the budget chicanery that calls an increase in defense spending a reduction. All of the arguments of those who would spend whatever is finally "cut" from defense on other programs rest on the implicit assumption that this money belongs to the government.

Right now, the federal government takes about a fifth of all our income in taxes. The operative word is takes. This money doesn't just magically appear in federal coffers. It is paid by millions of Americans. Congress ought to be telling us, "Good news, folks. Looks like we can save you some money on defense. Now we'll start looking for other programs that can be eliminated. We'll get your taxes down as low as we can."

Instead, these weasels act as if they have some right to the money. "If we don't give it to the military, we'll just have to find something else to spend it on. After all, we can't leave all that cash lying around doing nothing, can we?" Of course, taxpayers couldn't find any way to spend that money on their own.

If the Cold War is truly over, then I'm afraid the taxpayers may have lost.