04/06/2012 08:28 am ET Updated Jun 06, 2012

Fiscal Affairs: The Impossibility of Defense Cuts

Apparently the thing we need to keep ourselves safe is a fast, lightweight ship that can sweep mines, launch helicopters, fight submarines, and perform other assorted duties -- but can't withstand heavy combat. I don't claim to know if we really need the Littoral Combat Ship to ensure our national security. According to an article in the Times, John McCain -- the Republican Party's last presidential nominee and one of the Navy's more famous veterans -- is critical, although other Republicans and the administration are in favor of it.

I do know that the Littoral Combat Ship is a classic example of why it's so hard to reduce budget deficits. You have local politicians who want the jobs. You have a large group of representatives who are reflexively pro-military and will vote for anything the Pentagon wants, and even things the Pentagon doesn't want. (You have Mitt Romney, who bemoans the fact that the Navy has only 285 ships, the fewest since 1917. Would he rather have the Royal Navy of 1812, which had 1,000 ships, or our navy, with eleven aircraft carrier groups -- while no other country has more than one?) You have a procurement and development process that stretches on for years so that even when a weapons system turns out to be a dud, it has to be kept alive because it's too big to fail -- there is no other alternative. Both the Center for American Progress and the Project on Governmental Oversight have recommended cutbacks in the Littoral program. Yet there is no practical way to check its momentum.

An even better example is the V-22 Osprey vertical-takeoff plane, which the Times profiled late last year. Even renowned insider Dick Cheney opposed the Osprey when he was Secretary of Defense, to no avail. Not only CAP and the Project on Governmental Oversight called for Osprey cutbacks, but so did Simpson-Bowles and the arch-conservative (and generally principled) Senator Tom Coburn. In short, just about anyone who cares about the budget wants to cut back on the Osprey. Will it happen? Well, the Paul Ryan budget reverses the automatic defense spending cuts, so we know what he thinks about it. And I'm sure the Osprey has plenty of fans in the administration and the Democratic caucus as well.

In the end, defense spending plays out the same way as Social Security. If you want to reduce government spending, you obviously have to reduce defense spending: it's basically the second biggest part of the budget after Social Security. But it's almost impossible to cut any actual defense spending. Apparently politicians don't realize that a whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Or they do realize it, and they hope that we don't.

One of our core political problems, as we discuss in White House Burning, is that it pays for politicians to take noisy stands against the whole while protecting (or increasing) each individual part. It seems so easy to get away with it -- why would they ever stop?

James Kwak is the co-author of White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt, and Why It Matters To You, available from April 3rd. This post is cross-posted from The Baseline Scenario. Read more from the Fiscal Affairs series here.