There were so many encouraging signs for liberals in the election results this year that one of the most significant has been overlooked. For the first time in my memory, a Democratic candidate for President argued for less military spending against a Republican candidate who called for great increases -- and the Democrat won. George McGovern was the last Democratic candidate to talk about spending less on the military. Subsequently, every Democratic presidential candidate was told that he had better look sufficiently tough on national security because a perception that Democrats were too weak vis-à-vis the Soviet Union was a major point of vulnerability. That is why Michael Dukakis, a public official with an extremely distinguished record, and a man of great dignity and integrity, staged an ill-conceived photo-op of himself wearing a helmet and riding in a tank, which became a negative factor in his campaign.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 reduced this pressure to some degree. Indeed, Bill Clinton was able to follow George H.W. Bush in beginning to reverse the enormous buildup in military spending dating to the Reagan Administration. The restraint on military spending that occurred was a significant factor in Clinton's ability to reach balanced budgets in his last years.
And then came September 11, which had two significant -- and very adverse -- budgetary impacts. First, we entered two wars -- financed, in a novel economic approach, by several large tax cuts -- which led to upwards of $150 billion a year over and above the base military budget. (The public does not fully understand that the defense budget is paid for to a certain extent as people pay lawyers who are on retainer, but who then get extra funds if they have to go into court.)
Secondly, the base budget itself was sharply inflated, and the moderating trends implemented by George H.W. Bush and Clinton were reversed as terrorism was cleverly used by the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration to substitute for the Soviet Union as an existential threat to the United States. Under President George W. Bush, the base budget steadily rose from $287 billion in fiscal year 2001 to $513 billion in fiscal year 2009, and this increase continued in President Obama's first term, reaching $530 billion in fiscal year 2012. The combination of the two -- the base budget and "emergency" war spending -- led at the height of the "surge" in Afghanistan in fiscal years 2010 and 2011 to yearly military spending totaling about $700 billion, far more than Medicare outlays, which totaled $452 billion in 2010 and $486 billion in 2011.
In fact, of course, the terrorists are murderous thugs whom we must combat, but who do not remotely present the kind of threat to our national security that came first from Hitler and then Stalin and his successors -- the reason historically that America got in the position of being by far the world's major military power. I have been greatly frustrated in the conversation about the need to do long-term deficit reduction by the extent to which establishment opinion focuses on "entitlements" -- namely efforts to provide decent means of support for Americans in our retirement years -- as a major cause of the deficit, and ignores the extremely large contribution made to this problem by military expenditures that are far beyond any rational assessment of our national security.
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