Defense Spending Myths

Talk is ramping up in Washington about the need to cut Federal government spending despite the facts that total government spending in the U.S. is already declining due to draconian cuts at the state and local levels. And the talks persists despite the presence of 10% unemployment (or near it) with no foreseeable decline given current policies.  The talks have even stretched to the idea of cutting Social Security despite the fact that Social Security is fiscally sound for the next 30-40 years on it’s own.

So if Social Security is in budget-cutter’s sights, so also should we consider military spending which is at least as great and arguably larger than Social Security.  I say at least as great since both the Dept of Defense and Social Security payments account for approximately 20% of total federal government spending.  Of course the tax source dedicated to Social Security also accounts for much, much more than 20% of federal revenue while the Dept of Defense has no dedicated tax source.  I say arguably greater than Social Security because the Dept of Defense budget doesn’t really capture what we spend on military and quasi-military spending.  Most other industrial nations account for military spending under a single budget entity or organization, but not the U.S.  The U.S. treats the costs of caring for veterans as something non-military related in the Dept of Veterans Affairs (as if veterans just descend from outer space unrelated to our history of paying them as soldiers). We don’t fully account for our nuclear weapons in the DOD – they’re in the Dept of Energy.  We don’t count Homeland Security – it’s another growing-like-topsy Department on it’s own. We don’t even count spending on war as part of the Dept of Defense – most of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars were funded by special acts of Congress that weren’t included in the DOD budget.

But the true size of the Defense Dept budget is only one myth.  There are many others.  The Washington Post highlights five of the most common in an article titled 5 Myths About Defense Spending.

Four Branches of Government

Students in the U.S. are taught about how the U.S. Constitution establishes three “co-equal” branches of government, Legislative, Executive, and Judicial, with transparency and accountability to voters being essential to each.  What we don’t get taught is how a fourth branch has grown and emerged in the 60+ years since World War II and the rise of the military-industrial complex.  That complex of which Eisenhower warned, has grown enormously since events of 9/11/01.  What now exists is essentially a fourth branch of government that is not only not accountable to the people, but is not even visible to them. We, the people, see only the tips of the complex in the physical pat-downs and naked-body scanners at airports. It is far more extensive than that. Any discussion of modern day political economy or government budget priorities must take this fourth branch into account. Unfortunately, in our political rhetoric it now appears that this top-secret security complex is the new “untouchable third rail” of politics, replacing Social Security.

The Washington Post has created an excellent mix of videos, articles, data, graphs, and maps describing this complex.  It is an excellent research resource for students.  You can find it here.

Eisenhower’s Distant Echo on “Making Hard Choices”

Last week marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most quoted, yet completely ignored Presidential addresses ever.  I am speaking of President Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation just prior to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy. Before I get into the speech itself and comment on it, let me set the stage for my younger students and readers for whom 50 years seems incomprehensibly long ago and irrelevant.  I can no longer rely on students’ high school history courses to  fill in the details.

Eisenhower was one of the greatest military generals in U.S. history – the commander of D-Day and U.S. forces in Europe during World War II. Seven years after the war he was persuaded to leave retirement to run for President in 1952 while we were engaged in another bloody war in Korea, a proxy war with the Soviet Union. Eisenhower proved to be a very popular and successful president as well. With exception of one particularly sharp recession, the nation prospered economically. He quickly achieved peace in Korea.

Yet despite his preferences, politics and public anti-Soviet sentiment during the emerging Cold War era meant that the U.S. pursued a policy that was new in U.S. history. The U.S. supported and provided a war-ready large military during peace time.  Before World War II, the U.S. always de-mobilized and shrunk it’s military following the conclusion of any war. Instead, during the ’50s, despite the end of World War II and Korean Wars, the U.S. maintained a very large military machine consisting of both direct military staffing and a large complex of private industry dedicated to production of weapons.

It is in this setting that Eisenhower warns the nation of the long-run costs and risks to the nation of such a constant-military readiness strategy. His speech gives us one of the most-quoted phrases from any modern-era president: the military industrial complex.  Yet the essence of his message has clearly been ignored.  On this anniversary of the speech, Eisenhower’s grand daughter, Susan Eisenhower has written an excellent piece for the Washington Post here. I quote part here (the bold emphasis is mine):

Of course, the speech will forever be remembered for Eisenhower’s concerns about a rising “military-industrial complex,” which he described as “a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” with the potential to acquire – whether sought or unsought – “unwarranted influence” in the halls of government.

The notion captured the imagination of scholars, politicians and veterans; the military-industrial complex has been studied, investigated and revisited countless times, including now, at its 50th anniversary. Looking back, it is easy to see the parallels to our era, especially how the complex has expanded since Sept. 11, 2001. In less than 10 years, our military and security expenditures have increased by 119 percent. Even after subtracting the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the budget has grown by 68 percent since 2001. In 2010, the United States is projected to spend at least $700 billion on its defense and security, the most, in real terms, that we’ve spent in any year since World War II.

However, at this time of increased concerns over our fiscal deficit and the national debt, Eisenhower’s farewell words and legacy take on added significance.

Throughout his presidency, Eisenhower continually connected the country’s security to its economic strength, underscoring that our fiscal health and our military might are equal pillars of our national defense. This meant that a responsible government would have to make hard choices. The question Eisenhower continued to pose about defense spending was clear and practical: How much is enough?

Later in the article, Susan quotes from an earlier Eisenhower speech:

“This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. . . . We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”

“There is a reoccurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties,” he warned in his final speech as president. “. . . But each proposal must be weighed in light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs . . . balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.”

Ten years into the so-called “War on Terror” and the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. has built an incredible military-industrial-security complex. It is as costly as World War II, but has no defined end point. It is costing literally trillions of dollars. Dollars that could have been used to strengthen our economy, improve our physical infrastructure, and invest our human capital. These opportunity costs do not enter our political debates, yet they should.  As Eisenhower asks, How much is enough?

For those who have never seen it, here is Eisenhower’s farewell speech in it’s entirety as broadcast to the nation in 1960: