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Time to Cut the Military Pork
Posted on Dec 13, 2008
By Titus Levi
The U.S. budget is bleeding red ink by the buckets. Given the rate of the economic slowdown and the potential economic pain that Americans are likely to experience during a steep and protracted economic slump, substantial deficit spending makes sense as a way of stimulating economic activity. Still, deficits create economic problems; they drive up the cost of capital in the short run while locking in spending on debt servicing for years. So even as we take on deficits and debts, we should look for places to trim the budget. The incoming administration should start by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for those making over $250,000 a year and by putting the ax to the most sacred of sacred cows in the federal budget: the Department of Defense.
For fiscal year 2008, mandatory spending accounted for about 62 percent of the federal budget. These allocations include Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, unemployment aid, various welfare payments and interest payments. Of the remaining 38 percent of the budget, or $1.114 trillion, defense spending accounts for the single largest chunk, at $481.4 billion. However, this figure dramatically underestimates actual military spending since it omits the ongoing costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which total over $150 billion for the year, and “emergency and supplementary spending,” which tacks on more than $100 billion. Moreover, a number of defense and security expenditures fall outside of the DoD budget: various homeland security expenditures, Department of Energy outlays for nuclear weapons, services for veterans, and spending directed toward private security firms like Blackwater, which operate with little accountability and virtually no transparency. All told, this year we spent over $750 billion on military goods and services.
For 2010, the first budget that the incoming administration will craft, the total outlay on military and security spending will hover around $1 trillion, with baseline spending intended to be about $610 billion.
Since military expenditures make up most of the discretionary spending in the federal budget, any meaningful effort to reduce the deficit would require DoD cutbacks. This may strike many as counterintuitive, as we’re in the midst of two wars. Even so, do we actually need to spend almost $1 trillion on “defense”? Do we have that many enemies? Are we that afraid of what’s out there in the rest of the world? Aren’t we supposed to be the home of the brave? Fine, then let’s act like it.
While xenophobes, military contractors and many members of Congress will scream bloody murder at the prospect, cutting the military budget and redirecting these funds to other projects and deficit reduction make economic sense. Not only would we save money in the short run, we would deploy resources to more productive purposes in the midterm to long term. For example, putting a group of smart engineers on a project to make a 500-pound bomb land another few hundred feet closer to a target may present an interesting technical challenge, but putting these same minds onto building more efficient engines and motors produces an ongoing stream of benefits long after the initial technical breakthrough. In short, military spending produces a smaller multiplier effect and fewer spillover benefits in our economy. Cutting military spending does not rob Peter to pay Paul.
Square, Site wide
Tightening the DoD’s budget would help to snap the Pentagon and its contractors to attention on a variety of management issues. Too many systems run far over budget, require too much downtime for maintenance and underperform in the field. The DoD routinely wastes and misallocates resources largely because it has gotten a “blank check” from Congress; simply put, oversight has failed. While the DoD should conduct internal reviews to sort out this mess, we can hardly expect it to overcome decades of sloppiness without outside prodding and real enforcement from Congress. Therefore, Barack Obama as president should create a commission to assess the state of the military, including the efficiency of spending, and to investigate and even prosecute cases of fraud, corruption and other violations related to military spending. The DoD, Congress and contracting corporations would come under scrutiny. The commission might include a special prosecutor with subpoena powers and the authority to arrest individuals. Mechanisms to protect whistle-blowers could be developed and enforced by the commission. Such a commission should coordinate with the Office of Management and Budget, in particular its Federal Enterprise Architecture initiative.
The commission should include high-powered people with the moral authority and expertise necessary to get the job done, including former presidents, senators, representatives, diplomats, defense secretaries, judge advocate generals (JAG), governors, flag-rank military officers, academics, military historians and industrial leaders. By starting this work soon after the inauguration, the group could have a report on the president’s desk by late 2009. This timing would have two benefits: Input could influence midterm elections, and findings could be integrated into the next Quadrennial Defense Review, due out in 2010.
These adjustments would provide a solid rationale for beating swords into plowshares. However, more important, the need for cutting military spending is indicated by a more fundamental reason: The military instrument may well have outlived much of its usefulness.
I’m not a historian, but warfare’s last 60 years paints a damning picture of military effectiveness. This goes way beyond the DoD; this is a worldwide matter. Since the Red Army swept the Kuomintang army off the Chinese mainland, decisive and stable military victories have been scarce.
Postwar U.S. military engagements certainly fit the pattern of murky and unsatisfying results. The Korean War, which cost over 2 million lives, ended in a stalemate. The Vietnam War ended in an American retreat after more than 3 million lives had been sacrificed. Although the Persian Gulf War, which cost upward of 100,000 lives, was widely hailed as a military triumph at the time, continued instability in the region afterward dulled the luster of victory. The follow-up Iraq war has resulted in at least 90,000 deaths, and again the extent of political and resource gains is highly debatable. Smaller American incursions around the world have cost thousands of additional lives and untold injuries and familial and personal disruptions, with little benefit for the U.S.
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