The Coming Military Spending Surge

A substantial progressive landslide -- involving the White House, over a dozen House seats, and at least half a dozen Senate seats -- now looks like an increasingly likely scenario for November. But to translate electoral victory into policy victory will require this new progressive majority to free itself from forces that are already gathering steam. Forces that will, if successful, prevent it from doing anything more than offering a term or two to clean up the most egregious aspects of the current mess in order to lay the groundwork for a new round of tax cuts and deregulation.

One of those forces is the burgeoning neo-Hooverite sentiment among members of the elite media and perhaps the House Blue Dog Caucus that the appropriate response to a looming economic downturn is to implement an austerity budget that will only make the downturn deeper. This drive, though important to beat back, has already attracted substantial attention. Less noted amidst the recent focus on the economy, though crucially important, is the fact that the uniformed military is preparing an ambush for the next president.

Josh Rogan of CQ reported on October 9 that "Pentagon officials have prepared a new estimate for defense spending that is $450 billion more over the next five years than previously announced figures." To be clear, that's not $450 billion over five years that they're asking for. Nor is it an additional $450 billion over the next five years on top of what they're currently getting. Rather, it's $450 billion over five years on top of currently scheduled increases. Currently, U.S. defense spending is scheduled to increase from $515 billion (not counting "emergency" spending on Iraq and Afghanistan) in 2009 to $527 billion in 2010. The new proposal would up that increase to $584 billion.

What's going on?

Rogan quotes one former senior budget official explaining the estimate as "a political document." Its purpose is to set up "the new administration immediately to have to make a decision of how to deal with the perception that they are either cutting defense or adding to it." In other words, anything less than a $69 billion nominal increase will be portrayed as a cut. And it would be understandable if a new president -- viewed skeptically by most of the officer corps and lacking a strong mandate on national security issues -- chose to shy away from opening his administration with such a fight.

It would be understandable, but it would also be a mistake. We're talking about a lot of money. How much? Well, the $450 billion over five years that the Pentagon is looking for happens to be the exact amount that a Center for American Progress task force calculated would be required to cut the poverty rate in half. It's around what's estimated to be the cost of implementing Obama's health care reform plans.  The Obama campaign's been planning to pay for some of its proposals with savings from ending the military operation in Iraq, but part of the motive for the scaled-up budget request is the military's desire to ensure that money is simply shifted from the "emergency" column to the "permanent" column. Accepting this kind of thinking will make progressive governance extremely difficult. Even if the new administration endorses the view that large short-term deficits aimed at pulling us out of an economic quagmire are fine, new long-term spending commitments are needed to address some fundamental issues.

This request for increases on top of increases is coming at a time when, realistically, we should be looking for areas in which to pare back our defense spending. The United States already accounts for over half of world defense spending. And of non-U.S. defense spending, over half is accounted for by the combined budgets of France, the UK, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Australia, Turkey, and Spain -- all close allies bound by treaty to the United States, and that's not even an exhaustive list of our military allies.

Simply put, though the United States faces some real national security challenges, insufficient military spending is not the source of any of those challenges. Meanwhile, the best thing we can do to ensure that we're prepare for some hypothetical scenario in which we do face a conventional military challenge decades in the future is not to stockpile weapons systems that will be badly obsolete long before any such challenge emerges, but to continue to grow the economic and technological base that provides the foundation for our military superiority.

That means fixing health care, improving education, and building an environmentally sustainable infrastructure. None of that can be done merely by spending money, but none of it can be done without spending a lot of money. And it can't all be financed just by repealing the Bush tax cuts. That means taking a look at unnecessary spending. That of course will include domestic programs, but the military's share of the budget is just far too large and so wildly out of line with what other countries are spending to ignore.

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