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Dec 11 2012

The Pentagon should be pushed over the fiscal cliff

The Atlantic‘s Robert Wright says what I have been thinking too, that if there is one entity that can survive a drop over the ‘fiscal cliff’ because its existing bloat will cushion the fall, it is the defense budget. He argues that the money it will lose will not harm America’s national security in the least.

I mean, what actual threat to America’s security is the military currently fending off? Are there any countries that would invade the United States if the Pentagon’s budget were 10 percent smaller than it is–which is roughly what $500 billion in cuts over 10 years would amount to?

The main threat to national security you hear about is terrorism. And, so far as I can tell, a big chunk of the money spent by the military to address that problem has made the problem worse. The invasion and occupation of Iraq provided massive propaganda for terrorist recruiters (and the consequent regime change created a new ally for Iran, which is said to be our nemesis and a backer of terrorists). The war in Afghanistan has also been a Godsend for Jihadist propagandists–while, in the bargain, destabilizing Pakistan and making its nuclear weapons more likely to fall into the hands of extremists.

And even if you believe that drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, etc., are making us safer from terrorists (I personally think the opposite), they don’t account for that much of the military budget–and in fact many of them are conducted by the CIA, not the Pentagon.

As for the navy: What threat to America are American ships half a world away from our shores fending off? If the navy were 90 percent–or even 80 or 70 percent–of its size, who exactly would attack us? What vital interest would be threatened?

Even after the cuts mandated by the sequestration process if the fiscal cliff is not avoided, the US defense would only drop from 40% to 38% of the entire world’s spending, as these charts from Time magazine illustrate.

The problem is that the ‘defense’ budget has little to do with defense. A true defense budget would be comparable to those of other major countries. Even at 20% of current spending, the US would be way ahead of any other country. What we have instead are two things: a ‘war’ budget that actually encourages military adventurism around the globe; and a huge parasitic industry, the real ‘moochers’ and ‘looters’, that contributes little to actual defense but leeches off this budget to enrich itself.

19 comments

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  1. 1
    Kevin K

    While I agree that our military-industrial complex is orders of magnitude larger than it needs to be in order to serve a security purpose, let’s not forget that defense contractors represent an enormous employment pool. 4.7% of the US gross domestic product in 2011. Every dollar slashed is quite literally a dollar taken out of a worker’s pocket. … What, you don’t think the company CEOs are going to take a pay cut, do you?

    They’re going to lay off workers, cut pay and benefits for the rest, and pocket the vig, just like they always do. Hell, I bet the company that cuts the most workers will have the CEO who gets the biggest bonus.

    So, while cutbacks in defense spending are clearly in order, shouldn’t we also be encouraging those contractors to diversify into other fields so that job loss is kept at a minimum? Like alternative energy? Or infrastructure?

  2. 2
    Reginald Selkirk

    I agree with Kevin K. The impact of a 10% defense cut would not be on our ability to militarily defend ourselves (or to offend others, even). The impact would be on the economy. The U.S. military has ~ 1.5 million active personnel (Wikipedia). Suppose even merely 5% of them were to suddenly join the ranks of the unemployed. The entire military-industrial complex would suffer a blow.

  3. 3
    Jasper of Maine

    The entire military-industrial complex would suffer a blow.

    That’s kind of the point. The military industrial complex was something we were supposed to avoid having.

    If we had an entire industry and economic engine based around beating babies, citing job losses wouldn’t be a factor in deciding to discontinue.

    I’m afraid the professional baby beaters would have to find real work.

  4. 4
    Marcus Ranum

    We could put our military/defense/industrial complex to work repairing our infrastructure. Of course they’d have to compete against less expensive products from other countries like China. Gosh, it sounds like a tea party dream-come-true!

  5. 5
    Marcus Ranum

    The personnel are not the bulk of the cost of the military. What costs is the high-tech gimcracks like the B2 bombers and littoral assault ships, which we basically don’t need. The DoD could endure a radical slashing to its toy budget – which is the real issue – without impacting troop levels at all. The problem with that scenario, of course, is that the congressional/contractor/corporate sector would be seriously inconvenienced if their welfare stopped.

  6. 6
    Marcus Ranum

    shouldn’t we also be encouraging those contractors to diversify into other fields so that job loss is kept at a minimum?

    Like the USSR, the US attempted to encourage its military/defense/industrial complex to branch out and attempt to compete in the open market. And like the USSR’s MICC, ours attempted to interest consumers in titanium shovels and gimcracks that were 1/4 as good as what the Japanese and Chinese make, at only 10x the price.

    We must not say the words “corporate welfare” We must not. Because. We must … not.

  7. 7
    Ryan Q

    The US could surely benefit from transitioning efforts from “nation-building” overseas to supporting domestic infrastructure needs, but I am curious to know more about the Pentagon’s stance on slashing the R&D ‘toys’ programs.

    Isn’t there a concern that if the US doesn’t fund, employ and control the cutting edge of military development, another country could take steps to fill in the space for innovation vacated by the US?

    When I look at this, I am trying to think about this from a perspective of global demand for military technology. If the U.S. was not supporting/subsidizing the military research to the same extent, how much could we expect that spending on military technology for the whole word would decline (the total pie)? Would it be a dollar for dollar reduction, or would some new equilibrium be reached amongst the investment by countries? Does this uncertainty keep the U.S. government from restraining military budgets?

    -Just a thought from a first time commenter on the blog; Have enjoyed the posts since I (re)discovered it a few months ago.

  8. 8
    Mano Singham

    Yes, it is true that part of the funding for the useless military gadgets results in technological spin-offs that have civilian, and even beneficial uses. But surely we can find a way to get that same value without having it accompanied by some much useless stuff.

  9. 9
    Reginald Selkirk

    I’m afraid the professional baby beaters would have to find real work

    As a long term goal that is fine, but you are talking about doing this very suddenly at a time when the unemployment rate has been hovering near or above 8% for several years. It would be easier to suggest they find other jobs if other jobs were actually available.

  10. 10
    Marcus Ranum

    My favorite fantasy scenario would be to spend – for 15 years – on fusion energy only 1/2 what we spend on “defense” Tell the whole world, “OK, leave us alone for a while, ‘cuz if we can solve this motherfucker we’re just going to buy y’all.”

  11. 11
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Pentagon should be pushed over the fiscal a physical cliff

    FIFY. ;)

  12. 12
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Ka….
    ching.

    Same bad argument used (teh jobs!) for maintaining production of nuclear (nukuler) weapons. It would be smarter to make 500,000 $1M smaller business loans. Or just give the money away.

    As for transformation, much of our industry is decidedly anti-agile, even on multi-decadal time scales. Mil-Ind-Com is the stick in the mud’s stick in the mud.

  13. 13
    Mano Singham

    The jobs may not be available right now but there is plenty of worthwhile work to be done, and could be done, if that defense money were re-allocated. We could do something on the lines of the the WPA program during the New Deal.

  14. 14
    baal

    I agree with the US military downsizing. The current behemoth has more to do with lining already rich peoples pockets than any rational consideration. I’d keep the navy sizable or trim ship numbers slowly, however. They serve a vital interest in protecting shipping lanes from pirates of all things. Ideally, local governments should stop such BS but failed, semi-failed, corrupt or antagonistic states have been turning a blind eye to the issue probably as long as there have been ships.

    Also, this from 1961-
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8y06NSBBRtY

    And for consideration:
    http://www.cfr.org/geoeconomics/trends-us-military-spending/p28855
    This page show the % of GDP on military spending in the US. We’re not out of line for historical numbers – we however are bizarrely over funding our military when you consider the rest of the world’s military spending.

  15. 15
    Lofty

    A nice cartoon on fiscal cliffs:
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/toles

  16. 16
    Dunc

    I find it really interesting that so many people are eager to make the argument that military spending supports jobs… Whilst it’s obviously true, it overlooks the matter of opportunity costs – all that money spent supporting military jobs could be spent in other ways, and practically all of those other ways would also support jobs. Different jobs, certainly, but jobs nonetheless. In fact, there’s a pretty good argument to be made that military spending is the least cost effective way to support jobs through government spending. Not only is it very expensive in terms of direct cost per job supported, it also has a lot of additional, hidden costs (such as the costs of healthcare for physically or psychologically damaged veterans, or clean-up costs for former military installations), and, perhaps most importantly, it sucks investment, resources and people out of the actual productive economy. For example, spending money on improving transport infrastructure not only employs people directly, but can have an indirect effect on the wider economy (for example, through reduced journey times) – and these indirect effects can be quite substantial.

  17. 17
    Reginald Selkirk

    if that defense money were re-allocated.

    Which is not what the “fiscal cliff” will do.

  18. 18
    Reginald Selkirk

    all that money spent supporting military jobs could be spent in other ways

    That is not what is currently on the table. The goal of the “fiscal cliff” is not to spend that money at all, in order to cut the deficit.

  19. 19
    Mano Singham

    That is precisely the problem, the wrong question is being discussed. We should be talking about how to increase employment.

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