The New Mandate on Defense
No, it’s not to spend more—it’s to spend less, and liberals should not flinch from that position.
Getting the military budget down to that level—which would mean a reduction of about $250 billion from what it was in the first year of the Obama Administration—faced two obstacles at the beginning of this past year. First was the traditional political concern that the Republican presidential candidate would have an advantage over the Democrat on the question of who can better protect our national security. Fortunately, Obama understood that things have changed, and that the American people are ready for a reduction in military spending. Governor Romney, operating in the traditional conservative mode, missed it. One of the most important signs that the public was ready to support a rational—i.e., significantly reduced—military budget came during Clint Eastwood’s ramble at the Republican National Convention. One of the few coherent things he said in that memorable debate that he lost to a chair was that the President should have announced his willingness to pull out of Afghanistan altogether. This criticism of the President from an antiwar position elicited cheers from the Republican delegates.
As a result, one of the issues in the presidential campaign—explicitly pursued in one of the debates—was Romney’s criticism of what he believed to be inadequate military spending. Romney was intermittently critical both of the decision to withdraw from Iraq and of the decision to commit to a firm withdrawal date from Afghanistan. Also, he called for hundreds of billions of dollars in additional military spending over the President’s proposal for the next ten years. He memorably complained that we have fewer Navy ships now than we had in World War I—effectively riposted by the President’s reference to horses and bayonets. Romney’s positions mirrored the official congressional Republican position, reflected in the Paul Ryan budget, which calls for significant deficit reduction even as it increases the military budget in real terms.
So for the first time since 1972, we had a debate between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates in which the Democrat was for less spending on the military and the Republican for significantly more—and the Democrat won. Even in Virginia, where the appeal to increase military spending was considered to be extremely potent.
Romney’s decision to challenge the President on the grounds that he was spending inadequately on the military helps to establish the fact that the American public recognizes that we can reduce military spending below the levels that we needed when we faced the Nazis and the Communists. This realization should free President Obama from the pressure to spend more and allow him to go forward with the modest reductions that he has advocated.
But this leads to the second obstacle to reducing military spending to an appropriate level: the reluctance of the President himself to recognize that even further significant reductions—phased in to reach an annual level of 20 percent below the current year’s amount—is wholly consistent with our national security, and is in fact essential if we are to reduce our deficit in a socially responsible way.
Even with the revenue increase we can achieve by raising taxes on the wealthy, serious deficit reduction must come in part from reducing military spending beyond what the President proposes, unless we make very deep cuts in the nonmilitary parts of the budget. The argument against this approach is easily disposed of by noting the ironic conversion of many conservatives, who generally argue that government spending can make no significant contribution to the economy, to a form of “militarized Keynesianism” when it concerns the defense budget.
I once asked Alan Greenspan in a hearing what the economic impact would be of cutting military spending versus other types of spending. His answer was that to the extent that your national defense requirements allowed you to cut the military, it would almost certainly cause less of an economic impact than most other cuts in spending. He analogized this to being able to pay less for insurance if prudent. This is not true of all expenditure—for instance, some research and development has spillover effects, and such spending can and should be protected. Cuts in overseas bases, however, have no negative economic effect, nor does reducing nuclear stockpiles that exceed our current security needs.
The question regarding the economic impact of military expenditures is not whether spending on the military versus not spending at all will have a positive effect. If we are serious about long-term deficit reduction, then spending cuts have to come from somewhere, and the relevant question becomes whether cuts of the right sort in the military—excessive overseas basing, excessive military intervention, a nuclear weapons stock far greater than is needed—are more or less damaging to the economy than equal amounts of other federal spending.
Given the numbers involved, the major trade-off in putting together a total deficit reduction package is between the military and health care, by far the biggest nondefense spending item in our budget. Reductions in Medicare, Medicaid, grants from the National Institutes of Health, aid to hospitals, etc., clearly will have far worse social consequences than equivalent cuts in the military and, I believe, more damaging economic effects, because there is more of an economic multiplier from the health expenditures than from military spending.
The jobs argument, I acknowledge, is a more persuasive obstacle to cutting projects that have already been funded. It is a political truism that it’s easier to prevent an expenditure before it starts than cut it off once it’s already in effect. This means we can set a target of reduction, allow a number of current projects to go forward even if they lack sufficient military justification, and find savings by avoiding new commitments; this is much less likely to generate effective opposition. Weapon systems that have not yet been contracted for will not have nearly as many defenders as those on which the money is currently being spent.
The One Indispensable Nation?
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