Defense Spending

Defense Cuts Are Not the End of the World

It's a little rich to hear conservative Republicans treat national security as if it were a federal jobs program

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Say you run a business in a bad neighborhood. You've been paying a security company to keep your employees and property safe. You're deeply in debt. Now the neighborhood has gotten better. You don't need as much security anymore – so you plan to cut back. The security service says if you do that, some guards could lose their jobs. It needs you to keep spending what you have so they can stay employed.

Is this a good argument for you to keep paying what you always have? Of course not. Yet that's the case being made by politicians in Virginia and across the nation about defense spending and sequestration.

Sequestration refers to automatic cuts that will kick in Jan. 2 as a result of last year's Budget Control Act. In a piece published last week in The Virginian-Pilot, Republican House Majority Whip Eric Cantor warned of impending calamity. If sequestration occurs, Cantor said, "America's ability to defend freedom around the world will be severely diminished." The cuts would do "incredible damage," "devastate the economy," "threaten nearly a million jobs," "cause catastrophic damage," and so on.

Gov. Bob McDonnell has joined in the chorus, appearing at a "Stop Sequestration" rally in Northern Virginia. Tim Kaine, Democratic candidate for Senate, warns that an "all-cuts strategy" would slash "critical spending on defense" and other programs. Kaine's opponent, George Allen, warns that "our military readiness is at risk and so are more than 200,000 jobs in Virginia."

Let's stipulate that Virginia, the No. 2 recipient of federal defense dollars, has a lot at stake in the federal budget fight. Let's also stipulate that cuts from sequestration could be different in kind from changes in force structure caused by shifting strategic priorities.

Still. It's a little rich to hear conservative Republicans treat national security as if it were a federal jobs program. For decades, conservatives have denounced government as inherently bloated, bureaucratic, inefficient, and wasteful – a parasite that sucks the lifeblood out of the private sector. What's changed?

When he was sworn in as governor, Allen insisted the "cost of big government . . . is measured not in material terms alone, but in the toll it takes on the human spirit." He quickly empaneled a Blue Ribbon Strike Force to right-size state operations, and warned its members that "entrenched special interests" would try to block its progress. Don't let them, he said.

Now conservative Republicans insist trimming government spending will devastate the private sector, rather than free it to allocate resources to more productive uses.

This seems a stretch. For starters, ask yourself if either Virginia or the nation was economically or militarily prostrate in 2007. No? Of course they weren't. Yet if sequestration occurs, military spending will be cut less than 12 percent – reverting to 2007 levels.

True, some studies paint a grim picture. One that was released last month, written by a professor at George Mason along with Richmond-based Chmura Economics, was prepared for the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) – or what the old George Allen might have called an "entrenched special interest." It finds that a one-year sequestration cut of $56.7 billion would "reduce U.S. gross domestic product by $94.5 billion" and "result in the loss of 325,693 jobs."

Sounds awfully high. Benjamin Zycher, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, came up with a different perspective (along with the private-security analogy at the start of this column) in a new Policy Analysis for the Cato Institute. He says the AIA paper wildly overstates the multiplier effect of defense spending.

"Changes in the growth rate of real defense outlays," he argues, "have little or no effect on changes in GDP growth." He points out that "real defense expenditures grew every year from 1981 through 1989 and then fell in eight of the subsequent 11 years." If defense spending is so crucial to the economy, then you would expect GDP to rise and fall accordingly. It didn't. The economy grew steadily every year in that period except for 1982 and 1991.

True, defense spending now makes up a smaller share of the overall federal budget than at any time since WWII. That is largely owing to spending increases elsewhere. But as Cato's David Boaz points out, to suggest that defense's share of the pie should remain unchanged means that any time Congress enacts an expensive new social program, it should give an equivalent sum to the Pentagon just to keep the ratios steady. This is not an argument made gracefully by those claiming to be fiscal conservatives.

Cantor also complains that sequestration would give us "the smallest ground force since 1940." And? Five bucks says a few of today's volunteer soldiers in Interceptor body armor,  carrying M16s, night-visionmonoculars,  an M-249 SAW and a few other modern toys would have a field day against a platoon of WWII-eraG.I.s toting M1 Garands.

The U.S. already spends 46 cents of every military dollar worldwide. Asking how defense spending will affect jobs or the economy is not the right question. The right question is: How much do we need to spend to keepAmerica safe?

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

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  1. We were the preeminent force of military might in the world in 1992. I think we can handle cutting back to 2001 spending levels, fuck 2007.

    And why is it that the first place the politicians go to to cut military spending is personnel? Common sense tells you that the first thing you cut are the massive boondoggles and overseas bases. Not to mention those pesky little skirmishes everyone in DC is so eager to get us into.

    1. Aw, c’mon – it’s like the local pols cutting bussing and cops, firefighters and teachers, but never the Assistant Vice Deputy Manager of Catering or contracting out garbage collecting and custodial services.

      “Hit ’em where it’ll scare ’em! Causing real pain is a bonus!”

      All fucking politicians are fucking assholes. ALL of them. That’s why.

      1. Reminds me of a joke I once heard from some stand up comedian. I can’t remember who, but it went like this:

        Stand up comedian: All politicians are assholes.

        Some guy in audience: Hey, that offends me!

        Stand up comedian: Why, you a politician?

        Some guy in audience: No, I’m an asshole.

      2. That practice is called “Firemen First” and is indeed how budgeting is done in government.

        My husband is a data analyst and we live in NoVa. Every.single.job. he has found in his current job search is either working for the government or for one of its many consultants/contractors. Nearly all require a security clearance or the ability to get one. If sequestration really occurs, so many people here would be royally effed.

  2. Maintaining an ascendant, cutting-edge military =/= spending the shit out of ourselves on adventurism and bloat.

    Why is this so difficult for neoconservative types to understand?

    1. Because neoconservatives are just semi-reformed Trotskyites who simply changed their allegiance from Perpetual Revolution in the name of Marxism to Perpetual War in the name of Democracy.

      1. Thank you Justin Raimondo.

        1. Even a squirrel as blind as Raimondo occasionally finds a nut.

          1. And to be fair, a few major neo-cons were Trotskyites.

  3. Sadly Eric Cantor prices once again that he believes America needs to be the police force of the world. This idea of spreading democracy is no where to be found in the constitution and therefore is just the pinnacle of American political imperialism backed by nation building…. all while her citizens suffer incomprehensible debt for generations to come. Leads one to wonder why intelligent people continue to elected these neocon war mongers…. hmm maybe intelligent is not the right word.

  4. “Why is this so difficult for neoconservative types to understand?”

    Conservatives are traditionalists and it has always been traditional (until recently) for the U.S. to go to war with inferior weaponry..
    [e.g the fighters and dive bombers we threw up to oppose the Japs, the
    Sherman tanks we put up against Panthers and Tigers.]

    1. Inferior training too. Buying new tanks and planes is easier than training a new division.

  5. If sequestration occurs, Cantor said, “America’s ability to defend freedom around the world will be severely diminished.”

    We can’t even defend freedom America (apparently the Congress had the brilliant idea to declare America a battlefield as concerns the War on TERRAH). Eyes, splinters, planks, that sort of thing.

    George Allen, warns that “our military readiness is at risk and so are more than 200,000 jobs in Virginia.”

    Oh noez! They the defense contractors will be turned out into the streets! The horror!

    It’s a little rich to hear conservative Republicans treat national security as if it were a federal jobs program.

    Because it is. It’s one of the unstated, but pleasantly statist side-effects of having a military-industrial complex in that it sweeps otherwise employable men who would be, especially in this economy, unemployed, off and away from the unemployment rolls.

  6. What is really bad that as a business much of our ‘defense’ spending is not spent defending us but defending our competitors so they can cut their own defense spending and use that money to out compete American business and labor.

    Does Ford Motor Company send security guards over to guard GM’s factories?

    1. Actually yes, since Ford is a net contributor in taxes and GM is a net taker.

  7. But, but… with all the cool new gadgets we can play with, you know, drones… how can we stop spending now? Libertarians are so boorish.

  8. As “bad” as things were in 1940 we still somehow managed to win WWII.

    1. In way too much treasure and blood – I hope you aren’t advocating a return to the joke our Army was at that point. We need to cut back, 10% off the top now, even more, in short order after that…. but not back to those farcical levels.

  9. Sequestration IS NOT the right way to cut military spending. Acquisition programs that are in the middle of development (i.e. huge sunk costs) will get turned off without any debate as to their necessity. No payback for money already spent. You will pay even more to turn them back on later.

    Cuts, sure, you could cut the military by half if you are willing to change your national strategy, but doing it this way IS going to cripple capability and cost you even more in the long run.

    Politicians may be the most ignorant form of life on earth.

    1. Well program audits don’t work. The kickbacks see to that.

    2. Acquisition programs that are in the middle of development (i.e. huge sunk costs) will get turned off without any debate as to their necessity. No payback for money already spent. You will pay even more to turn them back on later.

      Typically, that’s true, although not all of them will be.

      The real danger is that when sequestration happens, the ones whom the military’s backbone is actually made of–the troops–will be the ones to get cut in favor of boondoggles like the F-35.

      John Boyd always maintained that in the military, people come first, because they execute the mission. When you favor hardware over those who are supposed to make it work, all you do is weaken the organization they support.

      1. the troops–will be the ones to get cut in favor of boondoggles like the F-35.

        What most cannot know, is that our hardware is on its last leg. Air Force has planes literally falling out of the sky. They’ve been used WELL beyond their design criteria (what you get when you fight useless wars). Half the aircraft in the AF inventory needs to be replaced. F-35 a boondoggle? Yep. But since it takes 20 years to develop and field a new fighter, we are pretty much stuck with it.

        People will argue to buy more 4th generation aircraft, but most of the production lines have been shut down for a long time. Retooling and spinning back up would cost more than fixing the boondoggle, and when you get done, you’d be outgunned by numerous countries fielding 5th gen shit. So while the manpower is obviously important, the AF is in a very bad place because half its shit is broken and obsolete.

        I’m sure the Army’s in the same boat.

        These are the “little” costs that the politicians never think of when they send us to fight bullshit wars.

        1. These are the “little” costs that the politicians never think of when they send us to fight bullshit wars.

          Bingo. I’m well aware of how beat-up our inventory is, particularly on the Air Force side. There’s C-130s that are threatening to fall out of the sky because their center-wing boxes are so worn out, not to mention the wear and tear on aircraft like the F-15s and F-16s that were originally designed to be nimble, low-hour dogfighters, not multi-role functionaries doing stuff like CAS that the A-10 is much better suited for.

          And ultimately the troops that keep those planes maintained (as well as the other service’s equipment) are the ones to suffer for it in the end, because it’s easier to downgrade personnel numbers than it is to cut procurement programs.

  10. One problem with the premise;
    “the neighborhood has gotten better.”

    It hasn’t gotten better.

    1. Yeah and one of the problems with the nieghborhood is there is a big vigilante hanging around that won’t mind his own damn business.

  11. For decades, conservatives have denounced government as inherently bloated, bureaucratic, inefficient, and wasteful ? a parasite that sucks the lifeblood out of the private sector. What’s changed?

    Coming soon the theaters: Dr. Strangerepub, or “How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love Big Government”

  12. “But, but, if the Mooslims hear that we’ve cut the defense budget by so much as a penny, they’ll know we’re weak! Then they’ll GET us!”

    Freepers will fall for that argument every time.

  13. While I don’t always agree with the Reason staff on matters military, I generally agree with the thrust of this article. If you want a very revealing (and at times quite ugly) inside look at the Pentagon design and procurement process, I recommend “Boyd”, the biography of John Boyd (more or less the Sun Tzu of the USAF). The extent to which a lot of the decisions are ego-driven rather than rational is borderline insane. As one USAF officer says, “The Soviets are our *adversaries*. Our *enemy* is the Navy.”

    Unfortunately, if you just cut the budget and leave it up to the generals to allocate a new, lower amount, they’re going to tend to cut useful things they don’t care about or actively want to be rid of, such as the A-10, while prioritizing their pet projects. What’s needed is someone like Rumsfeld to oversee things and set priorities. Much as anti-interventionists hate him, he had already embarked on a streamlining process along these lines (fx. cancelling the XM2001 Crusader howitzer) soon after he took office.

    1. If you haven’t read Chuck Spinney’s “Plans/Reality Mismatch” (a bit dated, but the principles are still relevant to any large, overly complex bureaucratic organization) or Jim Burton’s “The Pentagon Wars” yet, I highly recommend both. The latter is kind of hard to find at an affordable price, but I think I got the former used for about $25.

    2. I loved Rummy just for cutting that Crusader behomth boondoggle. God, what an #$%ing; waste of tax payers money that thing was. Dseigned to fight an adversary that had vanished…

  14. Sequestration- the one success for our most recent Congress. They all agreed to $1.2T in cuts.
    Don’t let them off the hook.
    Just ask them now that that is done, what’s next.

  15. “Asking how defense spending will affect jobs or the economy is not the right question. The right question is: How much do we need to spend to keep America safe?”

    Right – its like seeing how much insurance you can afford for the house, car and possessions. If your budget gets whacked, you trim down your coverage some. Right now the house is underwater and the credit card is maxxed out. Time to cut a few boondoggles like the Navy’s ever evolving DD-whatever the heck it is this mont (Littoral COmbat ship, speedy missle boat, whatever) the USAF has to make up their mind as to what #$%ing; plane they are going to use and the Army can try not keeping so much German real estate.

  16. WHY DO YOU HATE THE TROOPS A. BARTON HINKLE???

  17. Me encontr? su mensaje para la informaci?n y me vi obligado a visitar su blog una y otra vez. En aras de la pertinencia, sac coach quiero darle las gracias por sus esfuerzos en la difusi?n de informaci?n acad?mica.

  18. Still. It’s a little rich to hear conservative Republicans treat national security as if it were a federal jobs program. For decades, conservatives have denounced government as inherently bloated, bureaucratic, inefficient, and wasteful ? a parasite that sucks the lifeblood out of the private sector. What’s changed?

  19. Switzerland manages to defend their country with less than 1% of GDP. Why can’t we?

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