Defense Spending

The Right Is Wrong About Defense

Conservatives insist military outlays must remain high in order to sustain employment levels. Are they serious?


Old joke: A conservative is a liberal who's been mugged. New version: A liberal is a conservative confronted with defense cuts.

Thanks to sequestration, says House Armed Services committee chairman Buck McKeon, "our influence around the world" will diminish and "our enemies will feel emboldened." Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently laid out the ostensibly stark choices facing the Pentagon as a result of sequestration: A large, old-fashioned military or a small, modern one. This was supposed to strike fear into the hearts of every patriotic American.

Virginia Rep. Randy Forbes has spent the past year trying to stir up opposition to defense cuts. Despite those efforts, pro-defense fiscal conservatives "do not understand the repercussions" of the cuts they are making, he says. The numbskulls. Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor has warned that sequestering Pentagon funds would do "incredible damage," "devastate the economy," "threaten nearly a million jobs," and "cause catastrophic damage."

Well, fear not. Just about everything conservatives have been telling you is wildly overstated — and sometimes flat-out wrong. Here's why.

First, look at the big picture. From 2002 to 2011, inflation-adjusted defense spending rose 64 percent. In 2012, defense spending shrank 6 percent. Sequestration hacks real Pentagon spending levels all the way back to where they stood in … 2007. Was the U.S. military woefully undermanned and underarmed in 2007? Of course not.

If you include homeland security, intelligence and foreign aid, then national-security spending totals more than $840 billion. All individual income taxes total $1.1 trillion, just $260 billion more than that. True, defense spending has shrunk as a share of the overall budget — thanks to exploding outlays in social-welfare spending. The remedy for that is to cut the latter, not pointlessly inflate military spending just so it can keep up.

And speaking of catching up: At present, the U.S. accounts for 46 cents of every military dollar spent worldwide. America's military allies add another 22 cents. That means the rest of the nonaligned world spends only 32 percent of global outlays on arms, and America's potential enemies — such as China, Iran and Russia — spend only about half of that. They have a long way to go even to get within spitting distance of parity.

What's more, the U.S. is winding down the second of two wars. Reducing troop strength from a wartime high of more than half a million Army regulars to slightly less than half a million five years from now hardly qualifies as hollowing out the service. Yet many conservatives seem to think any reduction in troop strength is a disaster. That's like insisting food-stamp levels should remain steady even after the end of a recession.

Second, a grotesque amount of Pentagon spending goes to waste — as even conservatives will concede. According to the American Enterprise Institute, "most major weapons system development programs … have cost overruns of over 30 percent." The Heritage Foundation has identified $70 billion in annual savings. That's 40 percent more than the cuts imposed by sequestration. So contrary to what Hagel claims, deep spending cuts need not require the mothballing of carrier strike groups. They simply require doing the job right.

A 2011 report by the Government Accountability Office found that in just two years "management failures added at least $70 billion to the projected costs" of major weapons systems, The New York Times has reported. A single program — the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter — "accounted for $28 billion of that increase." And yet, as a piece in Roll Call noted last month, the F-35 "has been shielded from the sequester" even though it "is almost a decade behind schedule, expected to cost $1.5 trillion and yet critical systems still don't work. … The F-35 performs poorer than many legacy aircraft."

The principal reason for the GAO-identified cost overruns? "The Pentagon began building the systems before the designs were fully tested."

There's a similar story to be told about the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). The average cost per ship has doubled since the program's initiation; the Navy is buying more even though testing won't be finished for another six years — "we are purchasing first and testing second," says California Rep. Jackie Speier — and a recent GAO report says "current LCS weapon systems are underperforming and offer little chance of survival in a combat scenario." Little chance of survival – despite $40 billion in outlays. This helps defend America exactly how?

Matching the military to its peacetime mission and cutting out the waste would permit a substantially smaller budget without diminishingAmerica's ability to defend itself.

This leaves just one rationale for unbounded military spending: jobs. Conservatives insist military outlays must remain high in order to sustain employment levels. Are they serious? Then apparently all their critiques of the Obama stimulus were wrong, and government really is great at creating jobs. Who knew?

Except, of course, government isn't. Every dollar Washington spends comes from the private sector — which is far more efficient at allocating economic resources to their highest and best use. True, some economists defensibly claim deficit spending can stimulate the economy; does this give conservatives an escape route? Far from it.

Never mind their aversion to deficit financing generally. Those conservatives who believe in the power of government to stimulate the economy should support even deeper cuts in defense spending. That is because other kinds of spending would stimulate the economy even more, for several reasons. Example: Researchers at the University ofMassachusetts, Amherst, point out that the labor intensity in education is higher than the labor intensity of the military, which relies on machinery much more than schools do. So if job creation is the goal, Congress should shift funds from the Pentagon to education.

What's more, a lot of defense spending ends up overseas: "U.S.military personnel spend only 43 percent of their income on domestic goods and services … while the U.S. civilian population, on average, spends 78 percent of their income on domestic products." A sailor might blow his paycheck in Bangkok or Berlin, but a teacher is more likely to blow it in Baltimore or Brooklyn.

The truth is that the jobs argument is just plain wrong. Industry-funded studies may claim devastating harm from defense cuts, but they have a powerful motive to paint a grim picture: From 2001 to 2010, defense-industry profits quadrupled. You can't blame the industry for wanting to keep the spigot flowing.

Disinterested observers, however, find something rather different. The Pacific Research Institute's Benjamin Zycher points out that inflation-adjusted defense appropriations rose every year from 1981 to 1989, then fell in eight out of the next 11 years. If defense spending were as important to the economy as conservatives pretend, then GDP should have moved up and down in tandem with the Pentagon's budget. Nothing anywhere close to that happened. Except for two years — 1982 and 1991 — the economy grew steadily throughout the period.

To conservatives, government is a bloated bureaucracy in pursuit of an inflated mission that wastes untold billions with no accountability. They detest that sort of thing when it wears the name of the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Education. So why do they give it a pass whenever it puts on a uniform?

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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  1. Here is the first thing about any debate regarding defense spending. It will create or destroy jobs is not a relevant consideration. There may be good reasons to cut or increase defense spending. Jobs is not and can never be one of them.

    1. Here in Maine Susan Collins is very popular because she keeps BIW pumping out DDG destroyers as well as the Lockheed factory that makes jet engines for the F35. So long as she keeps the defense jobs, she’ll keep her job.

      1. Pratt makes the engines for the F35 – Lockheed makes the plane.

        1. We know what I meant.

    2. I’m all for destroying jobs in the public sector, or in sectors of private industry heavily reliant on public funding. I want their jobs destroyed, their buildings razed, their oxen gored, their crops burned, and their lands salted.

      1. Don’t raze the buildings though, sell them to private industry. Starting with all the IRS field offices.

    3. Absolutely. But people with jobs elect people to office…I saw it on House of Cards…haha

  2. It will create or destroy jobs is not a relevant consideration.

    And yet it is the first consideration the politicos take into account.

    1. No. It’s the last straw that they’re clutching at.

  3. cutting means cutting, not just cutting programs I don’t like. Any federal expenditure is the hobby horse of someone in Congress, even ones actually outlined in the Constitution. Defense is just as capable as any other agency of squandering money.

    1. Limit the size of government first, then you start to get things (like the budget) under control. Once that is accomplished, sniff out and eliminate fraud, waste, and abuse.

      Yes, less money needs to be spent, but focusing on a legitimate (according to the Constitution) part of the government is not where to start. Cut the fat, then refine the rest of the body.

  4. “So why do they (conservatives)give it a pass whenever it puts on a uniform?”
    Because Reagan did.

    1. Conservatives aren’t anti-gov. They love big gov as much as liberals they just want their big gov to do the things they like (border control, defense, WOD).

      1. I can’t see past all those glittering generalities.

    2. RAYGUN!!!one11!!eleventy!!

      You’re like 2 decades behind dude. It’s all BOOOOOOOSH!!11one!!eleventy!!1’s fault now. Throw out your old newsletters – the talking points come from Democratic Underground now.

      1. Ah PM, good to see that I still annoy you…makes my day.
        Your Republican epidermis is showing…best to cover it up.

        1. Ohhhhh, so close. We were looking for KOCHTOPUS!!! You keep screwing up like this and they’re going to revoke your login credentials.

  5. “devastate the economy,” “threaten nearly a million jobs,”

    So the military is just an incredibly wasteful union hiring hall?

  6. Bo told me that Reason never does stories on military spending.

    1. Aren’t they in the pocket of the Koch industrial ambit? Doesn’t Mr. Hinkle know who cuts his lavish checks?

    2. Oh, you noticed that as well?

      In all fairness though, after I linked him to roughly 15,000 references at to “military waste” he informed me that he was looking specifically for references only to Lockheed Martin. Turns out there’s only about 1,700 references on Reason to Lockheed. So joke’s on you!

  7. The best national defense that a country could have is an armed populace.

    1. A rifle behind every blade of grass, as someone once noted.

    2. Russia, Meet Finland

  8. I’m convinced we should just let the Chinese take over security for the Persian Gulf, since they get most of the oil out of there, anyway; they have the strength and resolve to keep the straits open, and the money to pay for it, too.

  9. Ditch the standing Army, as the Constitution requires. Leave ground defense to the National Guard. Keep the Army Reserves command structure just in case. End Draft registration, since slavery is banned by the Constitution. Bring the US Navy back to defend our coasts.

    That should save a few hundred billion per year, at least.

    1. Yeah, the one question there is what to do with the Air Force?

    2. Even during the Revolution the navy took the fight to the other side of the ocean.

      The founders never had a problem with the navy. Congress is bound to provide one.

      The USAF should be returned to the army.

      1. The USAF should be returned to the army.

        Tricky, because it overlaps quite a bit with the navy as well. The air force doesn’t own all those aircraft carriers themselves…

        1. There isn’t an issue with current department structure …. The issue is the Department of Defense is actually a Department of War. Homeland Defense is something we should all fear since the behavior they espouse is the stuff that really impinges on freedom.

          Now, the projection of power is a different issue. I am not a huge fan of us still fighting the Cold War.

        2. Actually the Navy owns the planes that fly from their carriers. I thought you might want to know.

  10. I’ve seen waste in Pentagon contractors up-close and personal. These bastards are absolutely no better than that Jason Greenslate — the La Jolla surfer who appeared on the Fox News special about food stamp abuse.

    By the way, that guy is now my hero. “Since you want to give it to me, I’ll take it!”

  11. A sailor might blow his paycheck in Bangkok or Berlin, but a teacher is more likely to blow it in Baltimore or Brooklyn.

    If a US sailor is blowing his paycheck in a German city 150 miles from the nearest coast, then I assume he has a lot of free time on his hands while overseas.

    1. alliteration, bro. It had to be a “B” city.

      1. I guess he could’ve used Barcelona instead.

        1. “One night in Barcelona and the world’s your oyster” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

  12. If outrageous defense spending was going to save the economy you would think we would have noticed and improvement by now. I amazed at how people can hang onto this idiotic concept in the face of the evidence all around us.

    Hi Bart.

    1. The only response you will ever get is “then there obviously hasn’t been enough yet.”

      Krugmanite thinking, and to the statist the answer will not change no matter how many zeroes are in the budget number.

    2. Yeah, but just think how bad it *could* have been if we hadn’t spent all that money!


  13. The problem with defense spending is that our reps seem to think we need to be global nannies. If we went back to minding our own business, we wouldn’t spend so much. So cut the number of operations and bases we have around the world, mind our own business, and if someone gets out of line, we smash them, make them pay for the costs, and walk away.

    1. And lose much of our status as a superpower. Isolationism is great in theory, but in practice it causes us to lose leverage in other areas, like the global economy.

      1. Never fails to depress me how so many Americans think doing anything outside of playing World Police and projecting massive worldwide military force amounts to isolationism.

        By Neocon standards every single country in the world is isolationist except for the good ol’ USA.

        1. There are plenty of influential countries that don’t feel projecting power is their #1 priority. If the US was a middle school student in America it would be expelled for bullying.

          Dateline would have done three specials by now.

  14. It’s fine to highlight the overspend on new weapon systems. The F-35 and the LCS are certainly looking like very wobbly programs. But Hinkle is missing the point -or at least merely grazing it- when he fails to look into all of the rising personnel costs. In fact that is the major driver of increased defense spending over the last decade. About 15% of the defense budget is just a thinly veiled entitlement for military retirees whose share of medical costs is absurdly low compared to the private sector. Not to mention that congress routinely voted in pay raises in excess of what the DoD requested as well as fought every round of base closings. It would be nice if we could somehow restrict members of congress from voting on any defense spending that has a direct impact on their district, but I suspect the major defense contractors would just pull a NASA and locate a branch office in EVERY district… *sigh*

    1. It’s fine to highlight the overspend on new weapon systems… But Hinkle is missing the point -or at least merely grazing it- when he fails to look into all of the rising personnel costs.

      Meh, not really an either/or problem, IMO. If there’s overspending in weapons systems, cut it. If there’s overspending in personnel, cut it. If there’s overspending in administration, cut it.

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  16. The money allocated to the military should be spent on the personnel and the retaining of the competent personnel. While I agree that the budget is bloated, a modern military with the capabilities of a Cold War-era military is nearly as expensive as its predecessor. To be capable of fighting all different sorts of conflicts requires specialized training and equipment, as well as places to test it in combat. (Not a lab, combat.)

    Even so, I agree with your point about conservatives touting jobs for the military industrial complex, but argue that it is important to have at least part of a functioning military industrial complex because we should have the best gear. If we are buying military equipment from China, (well, a majority of it) we have lost the battle.

    It is unlikely that the U.S. will be taken by force, but we must use our military and diplomatic forces in turns to maintain our economic status in the world. Maybe not in the way it has been for the last…50 years, but we still need to do it nonetheless.

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