Defense Spending: First, Get the Facts Right!
In a Washington Post opinion piece today, Danielle Pletka and Thomas Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute, arch-defenders, perhaps the last flame carriers of the neo-conservative vision, open fire on those voices in the Republican Party who think we need some restraint in runaway defense budgets as part of getting our fiscal house in order.
A circular firing squad is always fun to watch, but the deceptive way in which Pletka and Donnelly manipulate evidence deserves a response. Items:
1.They substitute the economic "burden" of defense for what we actually spend on defense, tryin to make the case that Eisenhower spent more on defense than we do today. Not true. Eisenhower's defense budgets were a larger share of GDP than they are today. But the share of GDP consumed by the defense budget measures how much it consumes of US overall product, but not what we spend. If the GDP grows, unless the defense budget grows at the same rate it will consume a smaller share of GDP. Doesn' t tell you much, except whether the economy can handle it. The proper measure of what we spend is what we spend, not how much it takes of the economy. Spending is measured in constant dollars, not in GPD shares. In FY 2011 constant dollars, the average Eisenhower defense budget was just over $400 billion; the comparable number for FY 2010 is over $699 billion. That's more, a lot more, in anybody's book.
2. They assert that "defense is not the source of the deficit," but do not bother to look at the data. There are multiple sources of the deficit. Defense spending, like other spending, is one of them. Deficits turned up at the start of this century, after serious deficit reduction efforts and a growing economy had put the federal budget in surplus. There are clearly two original sources for those deficits: the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and the rapid rise in the defense budget. Now they have been joined by the stumulus package, which presumably Pletka and Donnelly opposed.
But if we are going to tackle that deficit, for both economic and political reasons, everything has to be on the table, including defense. Why defense? Because, from a budgetary perspective, defense spending is now one of the "budget big four," consuming roughly the same shares of federal spending as Social Security, means-tested entitlements, non-defense discretionary spending each consume. We can't push back the deficit and halt growth in the national debt without all four of these, and revenues, in the discussion. And the political system won't get close to an agreement on that goal unless all of them are on the table.
3. They selectively report on the results of the latest Gallup poll on US opinion about defense, asserting that "Americans who wish to cut defense spending are consistently outnumbered by those who believe we should spend the same or more on national security." But the opinion data they quote from the poll is not about spending, it is about whether the respondents feel our national defense is as strong as it needs to be, not strong enough, or too strong. If they had honestly reported the poll on defense spending, they would have had to report what Gallup actually found about public views on defense spending: "When asked about the government's spending on the military and national defense, Americans do not show a great degree of consensus -- 36% say the government is spending 'about the right amount,' 34% say 'too much,' and 27% 'too little.'"
In fact, those who have followed this Gallup data for years find this split has persisted for decades, with small rises and declines in "too much" and "too little," and a pretty steady share saying it is "about right." Using these data, one could just as easily say a majority of Americans think we spend "too much" or "about right" on defense, or the alternative pairing. Easy to manipulate, but Pletka and Donnelly don't even report those data.
4. Pletka and Donnelly even turn their backs on the Secretary of Defense, condeming those who suggest that "wasteful and <!--[if gte mso 9]>
"wasteful government and bureaucratic collusion" (their words - not clear how a government colludes with itself, perhaps they meant the industry...?) have, as they quote Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) "allowed the military-industrial complex to make things unaffordable."<!--[if gte mso 9]>
It's fine to argue about America's role and mission in the world; I've done it with both of these analysts and am likely to continue to do se. But getting the facts straight is probably a good starting place.