Sunday, January 8, 2012

Politics and the Defense Budget

Memo to Republican candidates: You cannot complain about proposed cuts in the Defense budget, as many of you did at last night's debate, and at the same time complain that the president or the Democrats in Congress are not doing enough to cut government spending. You have to be for cutting spending or against it. If you're for more spending cuts, then the biggest item of spending that is available for cutting happens to be the defense budget. By far. If you add up all the other items of discretionary spending in the federal budget, you are not going to find anywhere near the opportunities for cutting that you can find in the defense budget. Also please keep in mind that President Bush nearly doubled military spending, which means that there should be plenty of room to make cuts without doing harm to our preparedness. With the Iraq War ending and the Afghanistan War winding down, we ought to be able to reduce our military expenditures by quite a bit just by putting ourselves in a more "normal" state of readiness.

Also please remember that we made a gigantic military build-up during the Bush administration without asking taxpayers to fund that increase, and that this is a major and ongoing cause of current budget deficits that Republicans like to blame on President Obama. So it is only appropriate that he take some steps to reduce that spending, and it is unseemly for Republican candidates to complain when President Obama tries to rein in some of the spending increases approved during the Bush administration, while out of the other side of their mouths they have been claiming that Obama is responsible for all of the debt incurred since he has taken office. Maybe it's asking to much to expect that you would applaud these efforts to reduce spending, but you could at least try not to attack Obama for too much cutting, while you are at the same time attacking him for too much spending.

If we're going to have a rational debate about defense spending, let's talk about our real military needs, and how best to achieve them. Let's not just mindlessly scare people by assuming that every dime cut from the Defense budget is going to harm national security. Also, candidates, if you are against any defense spending cuts, but you still want to portray yourself as being in favor of reducing the size of the federal government, which all of the Republican candidates claim they are, then you must specify what it is you plan to cut instead of Defense that is going to achieve significant savings. It's only fair to let people know if you plan to cut food stamps, or Medicare, or unemployment insurance, or whatever programs you expect to cut.

I propose a new rule to make political debates more honest. Let's not talk about cutting federal spending anymore, at all, without specifying what it is you want to cut. No politician should be allowed to say that we need to reduce the federal budget by $100 billion or whatever number you want to use, without also specifying what programs we are going to cut and by how much. Especially if you are going to alarm people about threats to the nation's security represented by the president's and the Defense Department's proposal to trim a few hundred billion from the Pentagon's budget over the next ten years. If you don't like that, just admit you are not really serious about cutting spending, or tell people exactly what you would cut instead.

(Reuters chart)


  1. There is plenty to cut that is for sure.

    You said << Also please keep in mind that President Bush nearly doubled military spending, which means that there should be plenty of room to make cuts without doing harm to our preparedness. >>

    Using your line of thinking we should be able to slash our fiscal deficit and return to near 2008 spending. Why? Because during Obama's presidency to date, the national debt has risen by an average of about $1.8 TRILLION a year!

  2. You have to look at what that $1.8 trillion consists of. A huge chunk of it was caused by the recession itself, which has greatly reduced tax revenues. When people are out of work, or their incomes decline, tax revenues fall. Cutting spending would not help that at all. It would make the problem worse by throwing even more people out of work.

    Another huge chunk of that deficit is caused by automatic spending increases such as food stamps and unemployment insurance. We want those things to go up to cushion the recession for the people most affected by it. So nobody is seriously suggesting that at the very time when people need help the most, we should cut programs like food stamps that automatically increase when times are bad.

    Another huge chunk of the deficit is caused by the continuation of the Bush tax cuts and also by additional tax cuts that were put in place by Obama. And nobody is suggesting that we raise any of those taxes, except for taxes on the highest-income taxpayers, and that is the one that the Republicans refused to allow to increase.

    If you try to look for actual spending increases by Obama, you will find it is a pretty small part of the annual deficit increase. And most of those increases I would defend very strongly, because they consist of long term infrastructure spending, and stimulus measures that were deliberately put in place to increase the deficit in the short run so as to get the economy back on track.

    Health care spending, including the VA, Medicare and Medicaid, continues to increase. But Obama is the first president in a while who has done anything to curb those future increases. And there is more that can be saved in health care spending, if people could work together on it.

    So there is not as much room to cut as most people think there is. But if you're going to look for places to cut, the Defense Department is a good place to start.

  3. I get it. Just like a great portion of the defense budget under Bush was because of wars. The wars (we hope) are winding down and the Obama Administration tells us the recession is ending. So there is lots of room to cut both.

  4. What should happen is that the deficit will reduce itself automatically. If the economy improves, tax revenue will go up, and programs like food stamps and unemployment insurance will automatically cost less. And if we let the Bush tax cuts expire next year, the deficit will reduce itself even more dramatically. What that means is that we have been worried way too much about the deficit. We should have worried about it more when times were better and we could have afforded to pay a bit more in taxes, but we should want a big deficit when times are bad to help get us out of recession.