The Overhyped Defense Cuts

Politicians often rail against government spending, except when it goes to the military. Conservatives believe there is no such thing as too much defense spending, and liberals don’t argue, for fear of being labeled appeasers. So when there is talk of the two parties agreeing to cut the Pentagon budget, it sounds like a monumental change.

But probably not. It’s a good thing that defense, which accounts for roughly a fifth of all federal outlays, is no longer considered immune to the need for frugality. But both supporters and opponents have a stake in portraying any trims as far more significant than they really are.

The Obama administration reportedly has decided to boost its planned defense cuts from $400 billion over the next 12 years to as much as $700 billion. That sounds like a lot — considering that the earlier, smaller figure had sparked furious objections.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned it would be “a grievous mistake” that would someday “be measured in American lives lost.” Mitt Romney, in line with most other presidential candidates, insisted “we should not reduce our commitment to national security.”

Some Republicans in Congress may be prepared to subject defense spending to the sort of scrutiny applied elsewhere. But if you think the tea party favorites will demand serious fiscal discipline, you are in for a disappointment.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s heralded budget plan would, according to Cato Institute analyst Christopher Preble, leave the Pentagon “essentially unscathed.” Michele Bachmann wrote recently, “Blaming our budgetary woes on the military is reckless and misinformed.”

She doesn’t seem to have noticed that while discretionary domestic outlays have been flat in inflation-adjusted terms over the past decade, military expenditures have not. The discretionary defense budget, after accounting for inflation, is 80 percent bigger this year than it was in 2001 — and 33 percent bigger than it was just five years ago.

Assuming the president and Congress agree to the cuts being discussed — no sure thing — it would still be larger in 2016 than it was for most of George W. Bush’s presidency. It would also be more, in real terms, than it was at the height of President Ronald Reagan’s military buildup, when we faced a hostile nuclear superpower in the form of the Soviet Union.

It might make sense to provide such gargantuan sums if we were merely trying to keep up with our enemies. In reality, the United States devotes more money to defense than the next 17 countries  combined . We spend six times as much as the Chinese, who come in second overall.

It would be misleading to say we greatly outspend our rivals. When it comes to military outlays and capability, we have no rivals. The United States is the New York Yankees, and everyone else is in Little League.

If spending is the solution, the problem has been solved many times over. If, on the other hand, we are still dangerously vulnerable to our enemies, more dollars are not likely to make us safe.

But we keep chasing the dream of absolute security, which requires an unending succession of wars in faraway countries that pose little or no danger to us. That’s what justifies the immense military budget, an indulgence disguised as a necessity.

What neither party is willing to consider is downsizing our global obligations and ambitions. Both Republicans and Democrats can be found in support of staying in Afghanistan for three more years, keeping some troops in Iraq beyond this year and continuing the war in Libya. Wars cost money — lots of it.

Nor is either party ready to reassess our permanent presence in Europe, South Korea and Japan — which have ample resources to provide for their own defense. If our leaders want to preserve the option of intervening anywhere on Earth, anytime something happens that we don’t like — and most of them do — they have to maintain a military establishment that dwarfs all others.

So don’t expect the Pentagon to become noticeably smaller just because we’re being buried in debt. An aide to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon, R-Calif., told Politico, “The chairman is deeply concerned about any defense cuts made during wartime.”

There lie the crucial facts about the defense budget: 1) Washington politicians resist cutting in wartime; and 2) it’s always wartime.



Steve Chapman


Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, where he has been a member of the editorial board since 1981. He came to the Tribune from The New Republic magazine, where he was an associate editor. He has contributed articles to Slate, The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard and Reason, and has appeared on numerous TV and radio news programs, including The CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, and National Public Radio's Fresh Air and Talk of the Nation. Born in Brady, Texas, in 1954, Chapman grew up in Midland and Austin. He attended Harvard University, where he was on the staff of the Harvard Crimson, and graduated with honors in 1976. He has been a fellow at the American Academy in Berlin and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, and has served on the Visiting Committee of the University of Chicago Law School.

  • Rob Holland

    Vote Ron Paul 2012.

  • Carl

    First, I think the author is some what guilty of overhype because he paints with broad strokes with his political arguments.

    The real overhype is that the military represents only one fifth of the national budget and that entitlements and pork barrel spending are approaching three quarters of the budget. The former is US Constitutionally mandated while the latter is NOT and is driving us into bankruptcy.

  • gimme shelter

    Spending 100billion a year in Afghanistan while veterans are homeless or unemployed in this country must be the new math and is either crazy or is so sane that it looks like crazy.

  • Martial Artist

    Amen, Rob Holland!

    And, Carl, he may be somewhat guilty, but there is no rational defense for the federal budget growth that has taken place in my adult lifetime (60+ years). It has been simply irresponsible, and increasingly so for the vast majority of that span of time.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

  • Carl

    giva shelter today.

    Teach you how to build one for yourself tommorrow!

    You’re not entitled to taxpayer funded shelter and support. Man was designed to support himself.

    In fiscal year 2009 (which began on October 1, 2008, and ended on September 30,2009), federal income was $2.105 trillion and outlays were $3.518 trillion, leaving a deficit of $1.413 trillion.
    Source 2010 IRS 1040 page 97.

    3.581 trillion X 75% = 2.686 trillion for all social programs
    3.581 trillion X 22% = 787 billion for the military

    Clearly most of the cost savings can be found in social spending.

  • gimme shelter

    Which one has wastage? Ten years from now I’d say Afghanistan will still be first in opium- heroin export. None of your family got more than they put into social security?
    Early diers all?

  • Carl

    Givya shelter today, build your own tomorrow.

    75, 22, and 3 percent law enforcement and government. (1040 instructions page 97)

    What does the average person expend defending themselves from danger and hazards? I don’t know about you but I think I’m not much different from anyone else: Car Insurance, Home Owners Insurance, Flood Insurance, Term Life insurance, disability insurance, Health insurance, home security system, community tax for local police, etc. It can also be argued that other expenditures like the local school tax is an insurance for a well developed society. (Feed them fish today, and teach them how to fish tomorrow)

    It’s reasonable to expect to pay between 5-15% of ones earned income to protect oneself and family from bad things that may occur in life.

    And if I add the portion of my federal tax dollars that goes towards our military to protect me and my fellow citizens I’m clearly above 20% of my yearly income.

    Sure, there are always ways to save money like shopping around for different insurance plans, maybe move to a less expensive area, or reducing the amount of coverage on any individual policy. But in doing so a person is increasing his financial risk—especially if one drops coverage all together.

    The average person can save the most where he or she spends most. A smaller house, cheaper vacations, less expensive automobile, eat out less, less expensive toys and hobbies, etc. And the financial risks in doing so are 0%.

    Never mind that our socialistic government entitlements and bureaucracies are in violation of the US Constitution, Catholic Subsidiarity, and human nature—they are economically unfeasible. How many times does socialism have to fail before more people believe that socialism doesn’t work?

    O yea, I’m overstating that we are becoming socialists? At what tax rate do you consider one to be a socialist? The effect tax rate for the average taxpayer today is between 40% and 65% depending on ones life style. (effective tax rate includes all taxes paid like alcohol, soda, hotel, phone, sales, cable taxes etc.) At some point soon the way we are spending money we can no longer call ourselves a free market society at these tax rates.

  • Mike

    I like Rep. Ryan’s ideas about the budget. There is excellent commentary on this and Catholic social teaching at