DEFENSE SPENDING: CAN WE AFFORD TO CUT IT?

Here’s issue #5 of my Policy and Politics Newsletter, written 11/17/11. Another piece of the debate on how to reduce the deficit is whether defense spending should be cut. Here’s some context.

Defense spending has more than doubled from 2001 to 2011, increasing 121%, more than any other component of the federal budget (all other discretionary items together increased 60%). It now stands at $733 billion, 58% of discretionary spending. [1]  In 2011, theUS spent $51 billion on the war inIraq and $122 billion on the war inAfghanistan, together representing 24% of the defense budget.

If the Super Committee of Congress cannot present a deficit reduction compromise that is approved by Congress, defense spending will be automatically cut by about $1 trillion over 10years, a 17% reduction. For the sake of comparison, after the Korean War ended defense spending declined 31%, after Vietnam28%, and after the Cold War 31%. [2]  Both of the bipartisan deficit reduction commissions, which if anything tilted to the conservative side, recommended cutting defense spending by $1 trillion over 10 years and said this could be done responsibly. Therefore, substantial cuts in defense spending should not only be possible, but are appropriate.

Some people are arguing against cuts in defense spending because of their negative effect on employment. Ironically, this argument is coming from many of the same people who have argued against federal stimulus spending, saying the government spending doesn’t create jobs. Many of them have also supported government budget cuts that reduced jobs for teachers, construction workers, police officers, and firefighters. [3]  So these arguments against defense cuts ring hollow.

Furthermore, a study from the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston by Pollin and Garrett-Peltier found that for every 12 jobs created by defense spending, the same spending for education would create 29 jobs, or in health care would create 20 jobs, or in clean energy would create 17 jobs. [4] 

The USnow spends more on defense than all our top rivals in the world combined. We spend 5.4% of our overall economy, our Gross Domestic Product (GDP), on defense, while our European allies spend 1.7% of GDP on the military. They, Japan, Korea, and other countries around the world no longer need tens of billions of dollars in USmilitary support. “We can still maintain the superiority of our own security, … for two-thirds of what we now spend.” [5] 

All indications would seem to be that we can safely cut our defense spending, particularly as the wars inIraqandAfghanistanwind down. Furthermore, cuts in other areas are likely to be more painful both in terms of jobs and in the reductions in the services or support people receive, such as through Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, education programs, etc.

Perhaps the question should be, “Can we afford NOT to cut defense spending?”


[1]       Government Printing Office, retrieved from the Internet at www.gpo.gov on 11/0/11, “Table 8.9 – Budget Authority for Discretionary Programs: 1976-2015”

[2]       Kayyem, Juliette. 11/7/11, “Paychecks as defense weapons,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Frank, Barney, 11/12/11, “Defense cuts affect jobs, but other cuts are worse,” The Boston Globe

[4]       This study is cited in both of the above articles. It can be accessed at: http://www.peri.umass.edu/fileadmin/pdf/published_study/spending_priorities_PERI.pdf

[5]       Frank, Barney, 11/12/11, “Defense cuts affect jobs, but other cuts are worse,” The Boston Globe

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