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.