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October 31, 2011

Our False Debate on Cutting Defense Spending
Posted by Michael Cohen

Robert Samuelson has made quite a career for himself saying wrong-headed things about Robert_samuelson2 economic policy, deficits and entitlements; and it now appears that he wants to add "saying wrong-headed things about defense policy" to his list of accomplishments. (As an op-ed writer for the Washington Post he clearly is in good company).

Today's piece by Samuelson in the Washington Post is truly a tour de force of the all-the-rage dubious, evidence-free argument that one hears all over Washington these days; namely that cutting defense spending will weaken US security. Says Samuelson:

A central question of our budget debates is how much we allow growing spending on social programs to crowd out the military and, in effect, force the United States into a dangerous, slow-motion disarmament.

Let's ignore for a moment the ludicrous idea that social program spending is at risk of crowding out defense spending; there are two interesting assumptions being offered here - 1) military spending is more important than social program spending and 2) reducing military spending is "dangerous."

Voters have overwhelmingly said they prefer protecting Medicare, Social Security and other social programs to spending more money on the military. And from the standpoint of basic American needs and security their preferences are correct: social programs do more to help Americans live long and healthy lives and spur the economy than spending on the armed forces. Moreover, why would a slow-motion disarmament of the US make this country less safe? Samuelson doesn't answer that question because like many a Washington pundit he simply assumes that more spending on defense = more security.

What's more he doesn't really seem to understand how particular defense outlays impact actual security:

People who see military cuts as an easy way to reduce budget deficits forget that this has already occurred. From the late 1980s to 2010, the number of America’s armed forces dropped from 2.1 million men and women to about 1.4 million. 

Samuelson is right that the size of the military decreased for 1980 to 2010, but glosses over the fact that from fiscal year 2000-2009 it jumped 9% annually, reversing many of the cuts made to the armed forces in the 1990s. The US has a smaller military force than it had at the end of the Cold War, but considering the changing nature of US threats of course it has a smaller military. We're no longer confronting hordes of Soviet troops in the Fulda Gap. That US defense budgets remain as large if not larger than Cold War budgets even as the existential threats to America have been dramatically reduced is a far more important issue - and one ignored by Samuelson.

And then there is this:

True, Iraq and Afghanistan raised defense budgets. As these wars conclude, lower spending will shrink overall deficits. But the savings will be smaller than many expect because the costs — though considerable — were smaller than they thought. From fiscal year 2001 to 2011, these wars cost $1.3 trillion, says the Congressional Budget Office. 

Iraq and Afghanistan didn't just raise defense spending; they grew Pentagon budgets at a pace far higher than other non-discretionary spending (approximately 50% of which is now taken up by the defense budget). Of course, we now know that the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were exponentially larger than expected. Or have we all forgetten Larry Lindsey.

But the $1.3 trillion number is the real problem here because it glosses over the issue of indirect costs. By some estimates the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost the United States $3 billion in direct and indirect costs. And here's the real rub; those are sunk costs that basically did nothing to make Americans safer. It's not like that $1.3 trillion was spent on improving the education system or modernizing our health care or placing Medicare on stronger structural grounds - all spending categories that would have important multipllier effects.  Rather it was spent on wars that did nothing to help the US economy and in fact harmed US national interests. But again if you approach the issue of defense spending, as Samuelson does, from the perspective that more spending = more security these issues tend to be ignored.

In an effort to burst the supposed "myths" around defense cuts, Samuelson argues that "spending on social programs replaced military spending, but that shift has gone too far" but provides not one example of where social spending has gotten out of control and where supposed cuts in military spending have weakened our security. 

He says that even though the US spends exponentially more on its military than China, "China’s military manpower is about 50 percent greater than ours, and it has a fighter fleet four-fifths as large" but doesn't bother to argue why that should be a concern to US policymakers? is China automatically a threat to the United States simply becuase it has a large standing army? He says this "like most bureaucratic organizations, the Pentagon will always have some waste. It’s a myth that it all can be surgically removed without weakening the military." Yet, if Samuelson had bothered to do some research into the topic he might have come across this report by the Sustainable Defense Task Force that lays out $1 trillion in defense cuts over ten years that deals with Pentagon waste and a host of other issues and won't weaken US security. 

Finally, there is this:

Those who advocate deep cuts need to specify which goals — combating cyber warfare, countering China, fighting terrorism — should be curtailed. Would that be good for us? The world?

Today the US and its allies are responsible for approximately 70% of all global military spending. Across America states are laying off teachers, firefighters and police officers. The Senate can't pass a measly $45 billion in stimulus spending. If Samuelson is going to argue that the US continue to spend approximately $650 billion on defense its somewhat incumbent upon him to argue why such extravagant defense spending is necessary. Moreover, it is also incumbent upon the sky is falling defense hawks to demonstrate why a $650 billion military is needed to fight terrorism, combat cyber-warfare or counter China. I think if Samuelson talked to actual supporters of cutting the defense budget as opposed to strawman composites he would probably find most of them are more than happy to lay out what military goals should be curtailed (I'll start with two; stop subsidizing European security via NATO and reduce the size of the armed forces).

If we spent a bit less or a bit more than than could anyone seriously argue that it would have a demonstrative impact on our security? (and to be clear this is the size of the cuts that we are talking about) Maybe Samuelson believes that such cuts are incredibly dangersou and he has detailed reasons why, but he makes no effort to prove that it is correct. He simply takes as a given that cutting spending = less security without bothering to take the time to engage in the intellectual exercise of explaining why.

In that respect Samuelson has a lot in common with the way most of Washington talks about the defense budget.


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Cutting Defense Spending My Heading.

This is an important test for new U.S president. During his campaign, Barack Obama (president of U.S)promised fundamental change, pledged to steer a determined courses in combating the global economic crisis and said he would seek greater international cooperation.

Those who advocate deep cuts need to specify which goals — combating cyber warfare, countering China, fighting terrorism — should be curtailed. Would that be good for us? The world? as a chinese . I am appreciate of you in the point of the goverment'policy.

"Robert Samuelson has made quite a career for himself saying wrong-headed things"

It's nice work when you can get it.

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