Conservatives are fiscally responsible. We believe in smaller government, cutting government spending and reducing the national debt. So why do we support reckless, bloated, wasteful government spending on so-called “defense” — and even fight to increase it?
A battle over this very issue is under way in Congress, with Republicans looking to avoid reasonable spending caps placed on the Department of Defense several years ago. In other words, a modest limit on government spending is on the table, and the side that allegedly favors reduced government spending is opposing it.
The irony is perhaps because of plain ol’ ignorance over how much we spend. So let’s take a look:
In the 2015 fiscal year, our defense spending will total approximately $600 billion. It is a staggering, sobering statistic. To put this in global perspective, when looking at a list of the top 10 defense-spending nations (a list we top), one sees we spend more than the next seven on that list combined. Yes, we outspend China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, the United Kingdom, India and Germany put together. China has a population almost five times the size of ours yet spends only about one-fifth of what we spend. And Russia, who, like China, is a militaristic culture engaged in steady conflict, with widely respected military might, manages to spend only about 12 percent of what we spend.
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From a share-of-the-pie perspective, our defense spending is about 20 percent of all federal spending — roughly the same percentage as Social Security or as Medicare and Medicaid combined. We spend more on defense than we do on healthcare for seniors. (And no, the defense budget does not include veterans’ care.)
So what accounts for that $600 billion? According to the National Priorities Project, it consists of: the Department of Defense budget ($496 billion), an emergency war slush fund ($64 billion), nuclear weapons and associated costs ($18 billion), aid to other militaries ($12 billion) and other, related costs (what’s another cool $7.7 billion? It’s only your money!)
Perhaps a costly military presence in more than 100 countries isn’t quite necessary; nor are 800 bases around the world (including more than 150 in Germany alone); nor 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan; nor the 100,000-plus troops stationed across the world. Perhaps having 60 percent as many active military personnel as China, a nation whose populations dwarfs ours, is a bit much.
This personnel does not come cheap. Despite the myth of the underpaid soldier, military personnel are, in fact, handsomely compensated. Studies show they earn salaries far higher than their counterparts in the private sector with similar skills and education levels, to say nothing of the terrific benefits — lifelong healthcare and full pensions for even non-combat personnel after a mere 20 years.
But politicians on both sides of the aisle do nothing about it. Defense contractors and others who feed at the government table are well-connected power players and generous donors — thus no politician is foolish enough (or principled enough?) to touch the issue. Second, various projects, such as weapons building, allow representatives to bring back the “pork” to their districts. Everyone wins — the politician, the cushy contractors, the manufacturers — except you, the taxpayer. Even modest attempts to scale back defense spending are met with demagoguery and hysterics that cuts will compromise our safety.
Rather than listen to reason, we reflexively roll our eyes when we hear talk of the “military-industrial complex,” without stopping to concede it was Dwight D. Eisenhower, military hero and Republican president, who uttered that warning.
Stories of ridiculously lavish spending on failures, such as sinking $7 billion into a useless helicopter design that was later scrapped, are not uncommon. Consider the F-35 fighter, supposedly the next generation fighter jet — except it barely works. The price tag? So far, about $400 billion — with more to come.
Cutting defense spending does not mean slashing or weakening our safety. On the contrary, by examining spending (why is it calls to audit the Pentagon continue to be brushed aside?) we can focus on programs, human resources, and even weapons that truly are valuable and efficient. And reducing spending reduces our national debt, the key to a strong, secure nation.
Anyone serious about cutting spending, and reducing our debt, should seek to cut so-called defense spending. National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke, earlier this year, remarked on this topic: “Conservatives should realize that indulging this behavior damages their credibility as the champions of efficiency and good government, and undermines their military goals.” Hear, hear.
A.J. Delgado is a Miami-based writer and lawyer. She writes about politics and culture.