US Defense Spending: There Used to Be a Debate

Yesterday I posted a brief discussion about conservatives (or the lack thereof) in academia, in response to a Facebook conversation I had gotten into with some friends. Nothing earth-shatteringly insightful, just some noodling with ideas on an old question (and an opportunity to plug the much better work of some friends of mine).

That blog post led to another FB exchange, which I reproduce here:

[Name Removed] As usual I enjoy reading your blog and admire your knowledge and reasoning skills. But I would contend that there is something inherently ideological in, for example, designing military hardware, bombs, or the circuitry that can operate a drone or deliver an intercontinental missile with a warhead attached, as opposed to designing an artificial limb or artificial womb for premature babies or a convection oven. Funding decisions get made and engineers decide to put themselves in the way of specific types of funding that come from a particular ideological position about the value of, for example, random strangers’ lives in comparison to personal or national objectives. We don’t tend to see these things as ideological because we have so deeply absorbed a belief system that says, of course the state can only enforce its will through violence. Physicists can imagine a death ray, engineers build it, business people figure out how to make a profit from it; but it takes the liberal arts to say, “Gee, is building a death ray a good idea?”

[Me] You make an excellent point. It takes a humanities perspective to see the fundamental ideological assumptions that underlie many of our systems, structures, and activities. At this point, there is little disagreement between “liberals” and “conservatives” about the military or militarization, which is a sad indication of how far our ideological goalposts have moved. Of course, that may be partly due to living next to a really big Air Force base…

There’s a broader political observation here that has gone almost totally unremarked upon. I don’t think this is just the result of living next to a massive AF base, in an area whose regional economy is substantially tied to defense spending. I think this is a national phenomenon.

The observation is this: we have long since ceased to talk about the defense budget. Once upon a time, there were significant policy differences and debates around the issue of defense spending as a component of both the US budget and US foreign policy. There were “hawks” and “doves” (and, to hear some tell it, “owls“) who had different preferences about how much money the US should spend on defense and what that money should go towards. This debate was a significant part of the American political landscape, regularly featured in Presidential addresses and press conferences and almost always a topic for debates in Presidential election years. Candidates were asked their opinion, not only of the defense budget as a whole, but of individual weapons systems.

Today, despite broad public interest in the US federal budget, there is no discussion of defense spending at all. Zip. Zero. Zilch. From an economic perspective, this is astounding – depending on whose numbers you use defense spending takes up between 19% and 25% of the US federal budget, roughly equal to the entire expenditure on Social Security and larger than all other discretionary spending put together. Politicians will talk about Medicare & Medicaid reform (23%) and even Social Security reform (20%). But nobody talks about possibly cutting defense spending.

This is also crazy given the state of the world. According to the latest data from SIPRI, the United States in 2014 spent a little more than $600 billion on military expenditures. That is almost 50% more than the entire continent of Asia (including both China and India), more than 50% greater than all of Europe put together, and more than three times the combined expenditures of every single country in the Middle East (friend and foe alike). It dwarfs Russian military spending by a factor of more than 7, and Chinese spending by more than 2.5. The entire world in 2014 spent about $1.7 trillion on military expenditures; the US accounted for more than 30% of that total.

Even in the waning days of the Cold War, when we were outspending the Soviets, the margin wasn’t this large. This isn’t just being out front or staying ahead of the competition; this is utter and complete domination in the category of buying weapons.

And yet, to hear our politicians tell it, the US has never been less secure militarily than it is today. Most of this criticism is coming from blowhards running for President who would criticize the current administration if it said the sky is blue, and so shouldn’t be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this is what the American people hear.

More importantly, there is no countervailing view. The Obama administration has shown no signs of suggesting that the US spend less, and there is no indication that anyone in Congress (Republican or Democrat) would be willing to vote that way anyway. There’s a lot of vague, one-sided language about “keeping America safe” and “supporting our troops”, but nothing like what you would call a discussion. It’s pretty much just radio silence.

I framed this on FB as part of a broader political shift to the right,

and I think that’s partly true. But closer to the truth is that this silence represents the ultimate triumph of the military-industrial complex which President Eisenhower warned us about back in 1960. Those structures – the businesses and government agencies which together make up the nation’s defense machine – have always done extremely well. But they used to have to at least compete for their share of public dollars in the public arena. Now, we just write them a (very large) check, quietly and without comment.

This goes far beyond liberal/conservative or Democrat/Republican (since all are now singing from the same page of the hymnal). This is what it looks like to be an empire, simultaneously fearful of the world and utterly unconcerned about how it responds to those fears. We the people have conceded somewhere between 1/5 and 1/4 of the entire US government to a system that, from an economic point of view, is largely pointless. A small fraction of that $600 billion could be spent in myriad ways that would have a far greater positive impact on the American people. But we say nothing.

I don’t expect this to change – not soon, not later, not in my lifetime. The systems that hold this in place have been decades in the making. They are powerful economically, politically, and (as my colleague pointed out above) philosophically. They are rooted in deep assumptions that have been developed over generations.

Because I don’t expect this to change, I don’t have any solutions to suggest. Really, I just find it sad that we have so abandoned one of the most fundamental questions of public policy. Maybe Mearsheimer had the right title, even if his argument was wrong – in this way, at least, I really do miss the Cold War.