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Downsizing the Military

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Once the health care debate is resolved, we are going to hear a great deal about the need to reduce the federal budgetary deficit. Presently the dire straits of the economy have muted this discussion. But both Congress and the Obama Administration are preparing for a post-recession reduction in government spending in the name of narrowing the gap between government revenues and expenditures. This is where the next great political fight is going to occur.

Front and center in the debate will be the fate of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But absent from the agenda will be the military budget. In its most recent discussion, The Economist magazine writes that reducing the federal budget deficit will require some combination of faster growth, higher taxes, and lower spending, adding: "the defense budget is too small as a proportion of GDP to make a meaningful contribution to deficit reduction."

A quick look at the data shows just how misleading this statement is.

In the first place the Social Security program still is in surplus. According to the budget submitted by the Obama Administration for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2010, Social Security revenues will be $940 billion compared to outlays of $695 billion. Social Security is not contributing to the budget deficit: quite the contrary. Secondly, it is true that Medicare and Medicaid are indeed expensive programs and are rapidly becoming more so. The Obama budget estimates these two programs at $743 billion. And the health reform bill that Congress is about to pass is unlikely to reduce their future growth rates.

But to put these entitlement programs in context, President Obama recently signed the Congressional bill allocating $680.2 billion to military spending: $550.2 normal Department of Defense expenditures, and another $130 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan.

It simply is not credible that the military's $680.2 billion is too small to matter, while $743 billion represents a prime target for budget cutters.

What we face is an almost perfect illustration of the text-book choice between butter (health care) and guns. But posing our policy options in those terms is deceptive. The real problem is the need to rethink our foreign and military spending policies in the post-Cold War era.

At one level this is a matter of adaptability. The weapon systems developed and purchased to counter the Soviet Union are anachronistic; yet their purchase constitutes much of the Defense Department's spending. These big-ticket items are irrelevant with regard to the need to defeat the Middle East murderers who bomb and kill innocent civilians. Achieving that goal requires assisting the countries of the region to build infrastructure and provide basic services like health care and education. We are spending far too much money ineffectively. Much better results could be secured at less cost.

But at a more general level, the discussion that we need to have involves the role of the military in American society. The shear scale of this country's armed forces cannot be exaggerated. We spend more on the military than does the rest of the world combined. And we spend almost ten times as much as China, the country that comes in second. (1) There is an obvious case to be made that in an interdependent world of increasing economic parity among nations, this Lone-Ranger function is neither appropriate nor necessary.

Furthermore our swollen military spending exacts a cost here at home. Pressure to reduce Medicare and Medicaid would be lessened if some of the money spent on the military were made available to provide medical services for the elderly and the poor. The cost of the military thus should be measured not merely in dollars, but in the services like health care that will be given up as long as defense spending claims close to 20 percent of the total federal budget.

Given the economic importance of the military, however, a reduction in its scale would be wrenching. A downsizing would require a very large intervention by the government to avoid economic damage to many local communities. In the absence of such an effort, areas of the nation that are now dependent upon the military would be economically devastated.

In a society where government policy is driven by the wealthy special interests who provide campaign funding, most people do not trust the government to protect their interests. The upshot is that for them a decrease in military spending would be unacceptably threatening.

Our bloated military establishment thus stands as an obstacle to a progressive agenda that would necessarily include a reduction in the role of the military in this country. Cynicism about government undermines the credibility of that agenda. It will not be easy to convince the American people that the government can serve their interests. And they will continue to doubt it so long as elected officials are in office because wealthy special interests pay for political campaigns.

(1) Data taken from Global Security.Org.