Thursday, July 21, 2011

Kagan: "defense has no domestic constituency"

No, this is not a joke.

Jennifer Rubin, writing on conservative criticism of the "Gang of Six" deficit-reduction proposal, quotes an email she received from alleged defense expert Robert Kagan:
[The proposed cuts are] utterly irresponsible and dangerous to national security. Also cowardly, since defense has no domestic constituency, while entitlements — the real source of our fiscal crisis — do.
It is simply remarkable that anyone could hold this view, especially someone even remotely acquainted with defense politics. (It may be even more remarkable that a second person would unquestioningly reproduce such a patently absurd statement.) So for Kagan and Rubin's benefit, let's go ahead and draw up an inclusive (but not exhaustive) list of those people and organizations that make up defense spending's domestic constituency.

1. The U.S. and global defense industry. Higher defense budgets means more spending on materiel and weapon systems. More money for weapon systems means more profit for the companies who manufacture them, higher stock prices, and pleased shareholders. This linkage is so simple that the requirement to explain it strains credulity.

2. Communities dependent on defense dollars. This group consists of people and governments across the country that are dependent for their economic and social health on defense-related funds. That could mean military bases that provide jobs and fuel local economies, or the facilities of armaments and materiel manufacturers that do the same. If these dollars go away, people lose jobs. And they get pissed about it. There's a reason defense contractors ensure the widest possible geographic distribution of essential work on major acquisition programs.

3. Members of Congress. Guess who starts getting phone calls when the ol' jet-engine factory closes down? Defense pork is the tastiest and most pervasive kind, and legislators benefit in more ways than one from the flow of defense dollars: they're able to maintain constituent support by bringing job-creating industrial facilities and economically stimulating military bases to their districts and keeping them there, and they often reap significant financial rewards in the form of defense industry campaign contributions. And we haven't even mentioned the way that politicians get almost consequence-free "strong on defense" cred just from lending rhetorical support to defense budget increases.

4. The Defense Department and the military services. Executive branch organizations can't expressly lobby Congress, of course, but don't believe for a second that they're objective and disinterested participants in the budgeting process. The significant majority of the "strategic thinking" generated by the Pentagon (some in the form of Congressionally-mandated reports) serve to justify major extant acquisition programs and rationalize force structure rather than informing capabilities-development, as strategy ought to do. Defense senior leaders are often caught in a double-bind: they have significant incentives to support the priorities of the defense industry, which will later offer opportunities for a comfortable and leisurely post-retirement career, while simultaneously recognizing that collaboration with those in Congress and industry whose interests align may be the best way to ensure plentiful resourcing of their statutory mission.

5. Commentators, advocates, and pseudo-scholars. A lot of people in this town make a living talking about defense (COUGHCOUGHROBERTKAGANCOUGH). Some of those people are financially supported by the defense industry. Some of them work for organizations that are ideologically committed to "strong defense," which as we've discussed always equates to more defense spending. Some of them simply find it impossible to consider challenging the conventional wisdom of their friends and colleagues, and come by their rabid support for MORE MORE MORE SPENDING NOW AND ALWAYS MORE totally honestly. But let's not pretend like most these people are indifferent to the defense budget, or that their professional and personal incentive structures don't mitigate in favor of advocacy for higher budgets.

These various constituencies so often work in concert with one another that we've almost ceased to find it noteworthy when the front men for such collaborations lie, dissemble, misrepresent, bullshit, and scheme to protect every last dollar in defense accounts. We're not even surprised when they conspire to shame their critics and ruin careers.

All of which leads me to wonder whether Robert Kagan and Jennifer Rubin understand precisely what is meant by the term "constituency," at least in the sense of budgets. Sure, entitlements have a clear domestic constituency: the citizens who get checks in the mail, the representatives they elect, and the businesses and organiziations that are supported by the dissemination of those funds. Does Kagan really fail to see that defense dollars seep into society and influence people in the same way?

Is he sweetly, charmingly ignorant of all this, or a disingenuous, self-aware participant in the whole scheme? Well, I suppose I'll leave it up to you to decide.


  1. I honestly cannot believe that you actually had to write this post...

  2. I honestly cannot believe that you actually had to write this post...

    You and me both, dude.

  3. Nicely done.


  4. Jennifer Rubin has to be the biggest embarrassment in the Washington Post op-ed section - right after Fred Hiatt and Michael Gerson.

  5. Gulliver

    I agree with what you wrote, but think I may know what accounts for the author's statement. National security is sometimes held up (I think) as the canonical public good. Accordingly, it's perceived as relatively interest-group free.

    (I think Amy Zegart's "Flawed by Design" reiterates or expands on this idea, although I could well be wrong. See also "Policy Design and Implementation," Peter J May, "Handbook of Public Administration," 2002, the section entitled "Policies without Politics," page 227, although irritatingly as I read it I don't see him list national security/defense as a policy without a public. I think James Q. Wilson, "Bureaucracy," may have a section that advances similar ideas as well.)

    As you point out quite well, it is not interest-group free, but some might distinguish it (national security) from other policy systems. Again, there clearly are distributional politics in the area of national security and defense, but the author may have been proceeding from the idea that as a public good, this area is different.

    Just wanted to add a thought or two or more that might provide some context.

    Maybe the lesson that stems from all of this is that a public good is an ideal type abstraction, rather than something one ever encounters in real life?


  6. uh, veterans organizations--Legion, VFW, etc.?

  7. When I interned on the Hill for Barbara Kennelly, a liberal Democratic congresswoman from a safe Democratic district without any military bases in the summer of 1995, when the GOP had just taken over and produced a military appropriations bill that significantly increased military spending (while simultaneously slashing food stamps, etc.), I thought for sure we'd be opposing this (in vain, I realize, but I thought we'd stand on principle). But no, I was informed - there were defense SUBCONTRACTORS in our district and they'd see a lot of business from this bill, so we we going to support it.


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