Monday, July 25, 2011

If only defense spending had a domestic constituency! (UPDATED)

The tragic indifference of American political leaders, commentators, business executives, and senior military officers to the plight of the shrinking U.S. defense budget continues unabated today. Well, unless you read the op-ed pages of major American newspapers, watch cable news, use the internet, or have a conversation with any human being within 50 miles of the Pentagon.

Today in Politico, four Members of Congress go "On the offense over Defense cuts" -- Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Ft. Lee, JFCOM), Rep. Michael Turner (R-Wright-Patterson AFB), Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Hill AFB), and Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Goodfellow AFB):
The U.S. military confronts readiness shortfalls and a growing array of risks and security challenges. That is why I am deeply concerned about the avalanche of military spending cuts being discussed — from President Barack Obama’s $400 billion proposal to the Senate’s Gang of Six proposal that could cut up to $886 billion.
The time to draw a line in the sand, and go on the offense to support national security must be now.
Let’s be clear: Defense spending is not what put us in this position, and gutting the defense budget to pay the bills is unlikely to get us out of it. As a percentage of our gross domestic product, the defense budget remains just 3.6 percent. This figure is low by all historical standards.
Even if we start slashing major portions of the budget — say $50 billion each year over the next decade — that figure would still only add up to a fraction of the nation’s debt. Yet the additional risk to the nation could be substantial.
Surely the legislative interests of these honorable legislators have little to do with the location of major military facilities inside and alongside their Congressional districts. Such coincidences are inevitable when we consider such a large political body, right? The devoted advocacy of these men is no doubt motivated solely by a desire for "an open and objective review of the threats we face and the resources required to meet them."

Should we cut them a break for lying to us?

The defense budget does not represent "just 3.6 percent" of GDP. You get this artificially low number when you exclude from consideration funds being spent on current operations. Why would anyone choose to calculate defense spending without considering the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? This seems to me a lot like willfull disingenuity.

$749.75 billion. That's the total OMB gives for national defense outlays in FY 2011. (See page 132 of this pdf.) This includes money appropriated to the Energy Department for nuclear weapons, as well as a few other non-DoD incidentals, but the military-only figure still works out to more than $700 billion.

Four point nine percent. That's OMB's "national defense" outlays as a percentage of GDP for FY 11. Not 3.7%. 4.9%. That's a pretty big difference. Not only that, but 4.9% does not represent a "figure [that] is low by all historical standards"; in fact, it's only roughly a percentage point lower than the height of the Reagan defense buildup.

Nineteen point six percent. Here's the most important figure of the whole lot, and it's one that the good Congressmen left out altogether (they didn't even give us an artifically low alternative number, perhaps because even that one is distressingly high): the percentage of total U.S. government outlays that are devoted to national defense. Let's be clear about this, because the percent of GDP figures are bandied around all the time to mislead people (and apparently it works): about one in every five dollars the U.S. government spends goes to defense. (When President Reagan was patriotically defending America from peacenik budget-slashers, defense spending accounted for about one in four dollars spent.)

Ready for the most damning bit in the whole op-ed? Ok, here it is:
Even more concerning are the assessments from our Combatant Commanders in the unclassified portion of the Quarterly Readiness Report to Congress. This paints a distressing picture of a military stretched thin by nearly 10 years of war and a sustained lack of resources.
BREAKING NEWS: war erodes readiness. But you know what does NOT constitute "a sustained lack of resources"? A 150% increase in defense outlays over a ten-year period. (2001: $304.73 billion. 2011: $749.75 billion.) Defense accounts were bumped by approximately ten percent per year for a decade. This is what Forbes, Turner, Bishop, and Conaway call "a sustained lack of resources"? This is their definition of taking the strength of our armed forces for granted? This is their "growing readiness problems"?

If the wanton spending of the last ten years can't guarantee military readiness or national security, MAYBE YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

The Congressmen want us to base our national defense planning on "an open and objective review of the threats we face and the resources required to meet them," and complain about how "we now have that process in reverse." They're right, we do -- and it's because of nonsense rationalizations like the ones given in this article, where they try to pretend like the Army's failure to incorporate iPad-like technology has anything at all to do with the cancellation of Comanche, FCS, EFV, and DDG-1000.

They even give us a cute little analogy to highlight what they suggest is the irresponsible way the White House and the Defense Department go about determining the budget.
In many ways, it’s like a family who is about to purchase a new home. The correct course would be to have an inspector look at the house and tell the family what the problems are and what they will cost to fix. What if, instead, that family told the inspector that they only had $1,000, and they wanted the inspector to go through and identify only $1,000 worth of problems to fix?
What if, instead, that family had an inspector look at the house to find problems and estimate required costs, but also told him they'd already signed papers with a contractor committing to $2,000 worth of demolition and paint work? And then when the inspector found that the house had termite damage, the contractor and his buddies started writing letters to the family and the bank saying that the special kind of paint they were going to use helps to solidify building foundations and kill termites. Because that's a much more apt analogy.

Stop lying to people. Stop rationalizing wasteful spending. Stop pretending like the thing that accounts for 20% of USG spending has nothing at all to do with our deficit problems. Stop imagining the spending that benefits your constituents is sacrosanct, while everything else is politically-motivated profligacy.

The government spends much more than it takes in. One-fifth of this spending goes toward defense. Considering the fungibility of money and the statutory mandate for certain types of non-discretionary spending, it is a simple absurdity to say "defense spending is not what put us in this position." If your teenager ran up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt and said "I spent most of that money on food and rent and books! Only 20% of it was on hookers and blow! That's not what put me in this position!", you'd punch him in the face.

Punch yourself in the face, America.

UPDATE: More criticism of the Forbes-Turner-Bishop-Conaway piece from budget guru Gordon Adams, who also addresses the accounting gimmicks that go into making the end of the current wars look like a massive cut. He does so in considerably less shrill and aggressive fashion than I, it's worth noting.


  1. Hooker and drug dealers accept credit cards now? Kidding aside, as outlandish as the claims in that article are I'm not sure how shocked we should really be that Members of Congress who represent largely military districts will oppose cuts in defense spending. They have their constituents short term interests to protect and if we need to override those interests for the good of the country, well, that's why there are 435 House members. I think the "honorable legislators" who have the bigger problem are the ones who don't represent major military districts but choose to swallow swill like that Politico piece rather than doing their own research and drawing their own conclusions on defense spending.

  2. No, I'm not at all surprised that they oppose spending cuts. I'm disgusted that they would dissemble and mislead in order to prevent them.

  3. Gulliver,

    Honestly, I appreciate your rants or initial emotional outbursts to dumb things.


  4. Mike -- Somehow this doesn't strike me as a compliment.

  5. Can anyone explain what our regular Army will be doing over the next two decades other than serving as a bloated deterrent to (1)reinforcing Taiwan (assuming the Navy and Air Force can actually fight their way in) in the event of China invading them or (2) invading Iran or NK in the case either of them decide to nuke someone?

    I get what snake eaters and teachers will be doing. I get what the Navy and chAir Force will be contesting/policing/enforcing. The nation's 911 force in readiness will always have some fire to attend. But really, what if we just changed all but a couple Army divisions to reservists for the big(ger) one? Or is that too radical? Does ANYONE at DoD actually compare their force to our threats? Does anyone in Congress even care?

  6. Who the hell is noonanjo?