Opinion

The Great Debate

Paul Ryan’s weak case for a strong defense

By David Callahan
March 22, 2012

One aspect of Paul Ryan’s new budget that hasn’t drawn much attention is that it is a big love letter to the Pentagon. Ryan rejects the idea that budgetary pressures should have any effect on defense spending, which he argues should be dictated purely by “strategic” calculations. Among other things, the Ryan budget would reverse $55 billion in defense cuts mandated for 2013 by the “trigger” agreed to in last year’s budget ceiling deal – and cut this same amount from domestic programs instead.

Ryan says we shouldn’t worry about military spending, even amid a supposed fiscal emergency, because such outlays are “shrinking as a share of government spending and as a share of the national economy.” America may have a spending problem, Ryan and the House Budget Committee believe, but the Pentagon is not part of that problem: “This category of spending is clearly not driving the unsustainable fiscal trajectory that is threatening the nation’s future.”

That’s strange to hear, since soaring security costs since 9/11 have been a key driver of deficits – accounting for about $1.4 trillion in new debt since 2001 by one widely cited non-partisan estimate. And, looking ahead, it’s hard to see a path to fiscal discipline that doesn’t include sharp cuts to the defense budget, which constitutes over half of all discretionary federal spending.

Ryan is wrong – and misleading – when he argues that defense spending is shrinking. He says that defense as a percentage of GDP has declined from its “Cold War average of 7.5 percent to 4.6 percent today.” What he doesn’t say is that this share is up from the 1990s. Defense spending ranged between 3 percent and 3.4 percent of GDP from 1996 to 2001, according to budget data from the Office of Management and Budget. Likewise, while Ryan says that such spending as a percentage of all federal outlays is down from 25 percent three decades ago to 20 percent today, he doesn’t mention that defense spending constituted just 16 percent of federal outlays in 1999.

It made sense that the Pentagon’s budget rose following 9/11 as the U.S. became embroiled in two land wars, as well as a broader global fight against al Qaeda. But the United States is now out of Iraq and will soon be out of Afghanistan. Moreover, we have made big strides in dismantling al Qaeda and killing Osama bin Laden and other top leaders.

Given these new realities, what is the right level of defense spending going forward? Is there really a case for spending a third more on defense in the next decade than we did in the 1990s, as the House Budget Committee proposes?

Ryan’s blueprint doesn’t really attempt to make that case. Rather, it speaks generally of the need for American leadership in a dangerous world and avoiding America’s “decline as a world power.”

Sorry, but that’s not a good enough argument for gutting domestic programs while spending $6.2 trillion on defense over the next 10 years – annual spending levels that would be higher, in real terms, than what the U.S. was spending during the Cold War, according to the Project on Defense Alternatives. While the world remains a dangerous place, the U.S. should logically be able to reduce defense spending as a decade of war comes to a close and the power of our terrorist foes wanes.

As for maintaining a position of leadership, the U.S. now accounts for 43 percent of all military spending in the world. We now spend six times more than China on defense, and 11 times more than Russia. Even with a smaller defense budget, the U.S. would still outspend all real and imagined foes by a wide margin.

What’s more, Ryan is wrong that defense spending should be dictated only by “strategic,” not “budgetary,” calculations. In truth, all spending choices are strategic. China and other emerging powers certainly believe that investing in education, infrastructure, and other domestic foundations of national wealth is “strategic” in a world as likely to be ruled by geoeconomic clout as by geopolitical muscle. The real risk of U.S. decline is that we remain trapped in a dated paradigm that fetishizes military power even as the sources of national strength change.

When the United States completes its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, or possibly earlier, our nation will again be officially at peace – and not a moment too soon given the strain on our troops and Treasury. The U.S. has major problems at home, large deficits among them, and it now makes sense to move to a true peacetime budget.

Getting military spending down to 3 percent of GDP, where it was in the late 1990s, before 9/11, is a reasonable goal – and this, as it happens, is what the Obama administration envisions in its fiscal plans. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney stands firmly with Republican hawks, and his defense plan calls for keeping military spending above 4 percent of GDP.

In truth, these are not huge differences between the president and his likely opponent. Still, there is a real debate emerging in Washington about how much is enough when it comes to national defense – a debate that is sure to grow louder as the election approaches.

PHOTO: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) shows a copy of the “FY2013 Budget – The Path to Prosperity” during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 20, 2012.  REUTERS/Jose Luis Magana

Comments
16 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Thanks for the article. I knew Romney was for increased defense budget. But, I’ve heard nothing but good things on Ryan. I should’ve known he had a hidden agenda, too. Typical smoke and mirrors from your average politician

Posted by mtowner | Report as abusive
 

Annual defense spending (not counting war) has doubled (100% gain) since 9/11. Would we be less safe if we cut back to a 50% gain ie 2008 levels?

We have 12 aircraft carriers. NO other country has more than 1. Do we need more?? Apparently. We have 3 under construction.

Posted by gordo365 | Report as abusive
 

Large defense contractors contribute to Republican party campaign funds, and defense lobbyists hire former members of Congress and their staffers. What better justification could there possibly be?

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive
 

We need to secure the world’s sea lanes to continue bringing in oil and cheap foreign goods that benefit the U.S. economy. By the way, it doesn’t hurt the “investors” that profit from this, either. After all, many of the Vietnam era purveyors of death were in Texas and their offspring are still there and in control. If they can’t get a pipeline for exporting Canadian shale oil, they’ll build some more aircraft carriers and plant hundreds of billion dollar planes on them.

Posted by TIREDINPHILLY | Report as abusive
 

mtowner..nothing but good things about Ryan? My way or the highway Ryan? Have you ACTUALLY read his Path to Prosperity (version 3.0, 2013)? There’s no question whose prosperity he’s talking about if you read it. Besides increasing Defense spending (we already spend almost more than the rest of the world combined on defense..why?), his tax policy gives a huge tax break to the richest Americans and Corporations while throwing peanuts at the rest of us. While he cites all those evil loopholes and special exemptions that disproportionately favor the richest and corporations this isn’t a single change or elimination of any of them in his plan (the bullet points). The only change (other than the two new tax brackets) is the elimination of the AMT tax, which again favors the richest in this country. Any outright savings (specific cuts, the Path is extremely vague when you get past Taxes, increased Defense spending and Medicare cuts) is at the expense of the elderly and government workers who aren’t part of the DOD. Ryan is the reincarnation of Draco. He IS the poster child for the Plutocracy. Defense contractors and the 1% can sleep with a smile on their faces. The rest of…not so much. It’s clear that he would preserve and protect the industrial-military complex and the 1% at the expense of the rest of us. Is this the kind of leadership YOU want in our government?

Posted by xyz2055 | Report as abusive
 

Cut revenue by alot, cut spending by a little, somehow the budget gets balanced in the process. The math is fuzzier than moldy bread.

Posted by spall78 | Report as abusive
 

I’m starting to think these people legitimately believe that reducing defense spending would lead to the downfall of America. There’s no other explanation for why they would continue to push for increased defense spending when the entire country is telling them no, and calling them out on pandering to special interests.

But thinking that our politicians are just idiots, as opposed to corrupt, isn’t much of an upgrade.

Posted by CapitalismSays | Report as abusive
 

The problem with Ryan is that he got elected by a fluke as an anti-tax crank, and he is the one with the weak mind.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive
 

If he really wants a strong defense he ought to be willing to raise the revenue to pay for it outright instead of continuing to borrow from China as the Repos did for their two 21st century wars.

Posted by borisjimbo | Report as abusive
 

We have not been on the “defense” since Korea.

Unrestrained appetite for war, war and yes, more war has been the ruin of the country. When was the last time we had a Government in power that did not start a war somewhere? Someone born in Asia attacks an American somewhere? That is then a license to invade an Asian country or two, preferably ones with significant mineral wealth or at least a strong political lobby in Washington.

We need to limit wars to declared wars, and we ought to require a “Super Majority” of States to vote approval to continue to fight them by any means whatever after 3 years. And every three years thereafter. And if the Federal Government violates that rule, no Federal elected official collects a dime of pay and accrues no benefits and cannot run for re-election from the date of violation. And collected money to be repaid if necessary by the offenders heirs and trusts. Death should not be an ally to treason.

Slash military spending to the bone! The biggest enemies we have on this planet carry American passports and like using our “insurance” premiums to pay for their hobby wars. With such friends, who needs Al Qaeda?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive
 

If you want the truth about the motivating force behind ever increasing defense spending, read President Eisenhower’s farewell address from 1960. For the uninitiated, this is the military industrial complex speech. It may be the most precient political speech of modern times.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive
 

Want the truth about ever increasing military spending? Read President Eisenhower’s farewell speech from 1960. For the uninitiated, it is the military industrial complex speech. Ike nailed it. It’s as relevant today as it was 50+ years ago.

Posted by gordo53 | Report as abusive
 

To balance the budget, it only makes sense to cut also the intelligence, defense and military budget. I believe this budget has been bloated for many decades, benefitting only the military industrial complex, the lobbyist and military cronies, and sad to say, the armed forces. There should be significant cut in the headcount as well as operating budget. If going to war, its budget must pass the congress debate first. The last 2 war cost $1.4T (borrowed) that didn’t bring real benefits to the U.S. but instead more post-war costs for veteran programs, continuing medical cost, military family benefits, and interest on the borrowed money. (Ironically, the war also push the oil price from $20′s to $110′s and never recovered since). I believe that in this digital age, soldiers should play lesser role in the warfare, and lesser personnel is needed to maintain the military. The govt should shrink the budget for military personnel, benefits, and hardware. If the Iraq war was waged in the guerrilla warfare like in Libya, it would have not cost the U.S. 1T dollars, 4,400 dead and 32,200 injured soldiers, 110,00 Iraqi deaths, 100′s of thousands with post-war illness, and unimaginable hatred by people we supposedly wanted to help. The cut in military & defense should be as much, if not more than medicare budget. After all, Medicare benefits many people, and we have contributed to Medicare.

And then there’s the tax reform. To balance the budget, revenue should be addressed as well as expense. There’s the unnecessary tax break for the wealthy. For the last 10 yrs this cost $1.8B, which like the wars, contributed to the huge deficit. Take note that last 5yrs, at 14% of GDP, is the lowest tax receipts since 1950. Prior to that, it was averaging 17%-18%. Corporate tax receipts was averaging 3.5% of GDP from 1950-70, has steadily decline to 2% in the 80′s, further 1-1.5% in the last 2 decades. Meanwhile, U.S. population has been growing steadily as well as the senior population.

So the solution: higher tax revenue (fed/state), lower military spending, lower healthcare cost. And I don’t believe that education and R&D should be sacrificed. Of course the devil is in the details.

Posted by Corina2012 | Report as abusive
 

I like your article and might forward the link to any lefties who promote al Qaeda propaganda by suggesting that the war in Afghanistan has increased their strength and numbers. One key premise of this article is that this propaganda is NOT TRUE.

Just to look from the other perspective for a moment… You compare U.S., Chinese and Russian defense spending “in real terms”. But what does this mean in terms of local purchasing power parity? Wages are different between these countries. There are many loyal & patriotic engineers in defense programs (in Russia and China as well as the United States and other Western countries) who would not simply sell their work to the highest bidder. So how does this spending compare in terms of:
* PPP (with due consideration given to defense market segregation)?
* Sizes and percentages of GDP/ national spending budgets?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive
 

What utter garbage! This entire article belongs in the dustbin.

Paul Ryan’s case for a strong defense is very strong. The general case for a strong defense is NEVER weak.

Callahan’s claims are all completely false.

He claims that “One aspect of Paul Ryan’s new budget that hasn’t drawn much attention is that it is a big love letter to the Pentagon. Ryan rejects the idea that budgetary pressures should have any effect on defense spending.” No, Ryan doesn’t, and this is not said anywhere in his budget blueprints. What Ryan IS saying, and I agree, is that defense spending has been cut more than enough, and that now it’s time for departments other than the DOD to contribute to deficit reduction, as they have been so far exempt from this effort.

“Among other things, the Ryan budget would reverse $55 billion in defense cuts mandated for 2013 by the “trigger” agreed to in last year’s budget ceiling deal – and cut this same amount from domestic programs instead.”

But it would STILL leave the FIRST tier of defense budget cuts mandated by the BCA – $487 bn over a decade, i.e. an average of $48.7 bn per year – intact, still forcing the DOD to make such savings. Only the sequester – which, by OMB Chief Jacob Lew’s admission, “was never meant to be policy” – would be detriggered. The sequester ($55 bn per year), I remind you, would be coming ON TOP OF this first tier of BCA-mandated defense cuts and all defense cuts previously administered by Obama.

So, effectively, what Callahan is saying is that the DOD, which is the ONLY federal agency to contribute ANYTHING meaningful to deficit reduction so far, and which has ALREADY been mandated to cut a further $487 bn from its budget, should be slapped with yet FURTHER budget cuts to the tune of $55 bn per year (sequestration) – cuts that, according to the UNANIMOUS opinion of the Joint Chiefs and civilian DOD leaders incl. Sec. Panetta, would be disastrous, and by Jacob Lew’s own admission were NEVER MEANT TO BE POLICY.

“That’s strange to hear, since soaring security costs since 9/11 have been a key driver of deficits – accounting for about $1.4 trillion in new debt since 2001 by one widely cited non-partisan estimate.”

That’s a blatant lie, like the rest of this garbage “article.” The estimated cited here is hardly non-partisan – it’s a falsehood produced by the highly partisan, pro-Democratic, extremely liberal Atlantic magazine. It claims that the money for the Iraqi and Afghan Wars was “borrowed”, while the entitlement programs that are the real drivers of the debt were supposedly paid for with tax revenue. The converse is the truth – the wars were paid for with tax revenue, while entitlement programs were paid for with borrowed money. (Even if there was no other federal spending other than entitlements, there still wouldn’t have been enough revenue to finance these gargantuan socialist programs.)

“And, looking ahead, it’s hard to see a path to fiscal discipline that doesn’t include sharp cuts to the defense budget, which constitutes over half of all discretionary federal spending”

No, it’s not hard to see such path, Callahan simply doesn’t want to see it, because he’s irredeemably biased against defense spending and against the military. Discretionary spending is a tiny minority of the total federal budget; besides it, there’s also the mandatory part of the budget. Military spending (including war spending) amounts to just 19% of the total federal budget. Entitlements, by themselves, amount to 63%.

And despite Callahan’s claim that you supposedly can’t balance the budget without defense cuts, the Republican Study Committee, the Heritage Foundation, and Paul Ryan have all proposed budget plans which would all balance the budget without ANY defense spending cuts – and the plans of both the RSC and the Heritage Foundation would achieve that within 10 years, again with no defense cuts. (Of the 6 budget plans reviewed by the Peterson Foundation, the HF’s plan would cut federal spending, taxes, and debt most deeply.)

“Ryan is wrong – and misleading – when he argues that defense spending is shrinking.”

No, he is not. He is absolutely correct, as we shall see below.

“He says that defense as a percentage of GDP has declined from its “Cold War average of 7.5 percent to 4.6 percent today.” What he doesn’t say is that this share is up from the 1990s.”

But the 1990s were a nadir for defense spending, the lowest ebb of defense budgets since FY1940 (i.e. since before Pearl Harbor). In the late 1990s, defense spending averaged from 3.4% in FY1996 to 3% in FYs1999-2001. It was a record, and perilous, low. And yet, compared to these perilously low levels, which resulted in dramatic American military weakness, core defense spending is barely at 3.5% of GDP today, and even total military spending (war costs included) today stands at barely 4.5% of GDP, just barely 0.6-1 pp above the 1990s’ level and full 3 pp below the Cold War average (during the CW, it ranged from 15% of GDP at the peak of the Korean War to 4.7% of GDP in the Carter years and 3.5% in FY1948).

THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE COLD WAR EXCEPT FY1948, MILITARY SPENDING WAS HIGHER THAN IT IS NOW.

Similarly, as a share of the total federal budget, military spending is again at a historic low, lower than it was throughout the entire Cold War except FY1948. Only during the late 1990s was it even lower – and the defense cuts of the 1990s are not an example to emulate. Again, this is the lowest ebb of defense spending since FY1948, excepting only the late 1990s.

“Is there really a case for spending a third more on defense in the next decade than we did in the 1990s, as the House Budget Committee proposes?”

Actually, the budget proposes to spend less than a third more than during the 1990s, and again, the fact is that the 1990s were a record low ebb of defense spending, and a time of extraordinary and perilous American weakness. During the 1990s, the military was gutted. There was not enough equipment being bought, not enough steaming and flight hours, not enough vehicle training hours, and so little funding for facilities that military bases were turning into slums. At the end of the 1990s, in 2000, the Joint Chiefs were UNANIMOUSLY saying that the defense cuts of the 1990s had “mortgaged” the military and weakened it, and that their respective Services were underfunded by tens of billions of dollars… in CY2000 money. The deep defense cuts of the 1990s were huge mistakes that must NEVER be repeated and must NEVER be emulated.

“Sorry, but that’s not a good enough argument for gutting domestic programs while spending $6.2 trillion on defense over the next 10 years – annual spending levels that would be higher, in real terms, than what the U.S. was spending during the Cold War, according to the Project on Defense Alternatives.”

That is patently false. Paul Ryan does NOT propose to gut domestic programs. Under his plan, entitlement programs would not even be cut at all, they would still be growing, albeit at a much reduced pace, and domestic discretionary programs would be significantly reduced but retained, and not a single federal department would be abolished. The military spending levels Ryan proposes would be only slightly higher than those of the Reagan era ($607 bn in FY1988 in today’s money), whereas the current ones are barely above it and scheduled to shrink deeply below Reagan era levels in FY2014. The CORE defense budget already is, and since the 1990s, has ALWAYS been, under the record levels of the Reagan years. The current core defense budget is $531 bn and the proposed budget for FY2013 is $525 bn.

Moreover, Callahan is being fundamentally dishonest and disingeous by equating defense with other federal programs. Defense, as stated in the Ryan budget plan, is the #1 Constitutional DUTY of the federal government, and the FG is required to devote whatever funding is necessary to maintain a strong defense, whereas most domestic federal programs are not just utterly wasteful but also completely UNCONSTITUTIONAL, including all three entitlements and most federal departments. Besides defense and foreign affairs, VERY FEW AFFAIRS are the purview of the federal government. Moreover, the vast majority of federal programs keep half of the American people permanently enslaved by dependence on the federal government.

“While the world remains a dangerous place, the U.S. should logically be able to reduce defense spending as a decade of war comes to a close and the power of our terrorist foes wanes.”

No, it isn’t, because a war’s end has nothing to do with how much the US should spend on its defense. As for terrorist foes, they are hardly getting weaker, and besides them, there are other, more powerful enemies, such as China, Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela.

“As for maintaining a position of leadership, the U.S. now accounts for 43 percent of all military spending in the world. We now spend six times more than China on defense, and 11 times more than Russia. Even with a smaller defense budget, the U.S. would still outspend all real and imagined foes by a wide margin.”

Such false figures can be arrived at only by accepting the false, woefully understated official figures declared by China and Russia. China’s real military budget is, according to the DOD and independent analysts, at least $150 bn, and China intends to double it in this decade. Thus, the US spends barely 4 times more than China on its military, and that’s even without taking PPP differences into account (in China, things cost 3-4 times less than in the US). When they are accounted for, the difference between China and the US effectively vanishes, meaning that China effectively spends as much on defense as the US. Russia’s military budget is also being woefully understated by Callahan; it is actually 3-4 times larger than what Russia admits to. For example, many Russian ministries buy a lot of military goods and then give them as “free goods” to the Russian MOD. And in Russia, as in China, one dollar can buy 3-4 times more than in the US.

Furthermore, how much other countries spend on their militaries is totally irrelevant to how much the US should spend on defense. America’s expenditures should be determined solely by its defense needs, i.e. how much it costs to salary, feed, house, train, equip, and properly size a military big enough, and technologically capable enough, to defeat all plausible adversaries. And here’s an unpleasant truth: such a military costs a lot of money. There’s no way to get around this fact. Defense on the cheap is not possible. European countries have tried it and have failed and now rely on the US for protection.

“What’s more, Ryan is wrong that defense spending should be dictated only by “strategic,” not “budgetary,” calculations.”

No, Ryan is not wrong. Ryan is absolutely right. Defense spending should be determined SOLELY by strategic choices, i.e. how many weapons, troops, units, and bases, and of what kind, purpose, and sophistication, in what combination, does the US need. Once that determination is made, they must be fully funded, no matter how they cost (although this must be done as efficiently as possible).

Callahan also falsely claims that:

“China and other emerging powers certainly believe that investing in education, infrastructure, and other domestic foundations of national wealth is “strategic” in a world as likely to be ruled by geoeconomic clout as by geopolitical muscle.”

But the US is already spending far more on education (in absolute numbers and per student) than any other country in the world, bar none; and also outspends the rest of the world in transportation and R&D. There is very little to show for all of this spending. Despite the US spending more on education than the rest of the world, American students are among the dead last in OECD countries and PISA tests in maths, reading, and mid-rank in science, and the HS dropout rate is 30%. America’s education system is actually overfunded, while students are not required to study hard.

Transportation spending is so wasteful that most of it goes to pork projects and highways that states don’t even want. Highly surprising, given that the US already has a complete, dense highway network, including a complete Interstate Highway System unparalleled in the world. China and other emerging countries have to spend heavily on transportation and other things because they are still vastly inferior to the West in this respect and have a lot of catching up to do.

Callahan was also wrong to claim that government spending is “the source of national wealth”. Private enterprise, not government programs, is the source of national wealth.

“The real risk of U.S. decline is that we remain trapped in a dated paradigm that fetishizes military power even as the sources of national strength change.”

Again, this is a blatant lie. No one is fetishizing “military power”, merely underlining its importance. But military might is, has always been, and will always be, one of the sources, indeed the BIGGEST source, of national strength (and is also necessary to defend economic might, the second biggest source). That is an undisputable fact, no matter how much Callahan might wish it away. No one cares about the opinions of military weaklings; they don’t count in this world.

But even more importantly, military might is absolutely necessary to keep a country safe, even if it doesn’t want to be a superpower. A country is not secure if it doesn’t have a strong defense, and a strong defense costs a lot. That’s an unavoidable fact. And if a country is not secure, it is not free and won’t be prosperous for long.

The idea that military might no longer matters and is no longer an important source of national strength, and that relying on it is a “dated paradigm” is such a ridiculous leftist fantasy that only an ignorant, foolish leftist hack like Callahan could believe in it. And China (which he invokes) and Russia clearly don’t agree with it. Both of them plan to dramatically increase their defense spending (as they have been doing for over a decade, and in China’s case, for two decades). China plans to double its military budget by 2015 and is on track to achieve that. Russia plans to spend $770 bn over the next decade on military modernization alone – just on weapons.

“Getting military spending down to 3 percent of GDP, where it was in the late 1990s, before 9/11, is a reasonable goal”

No, it is not a reasonable goal, it is a recipe for disaster. The deep defense cuts of the 1990s, as I stated above, are NOT an example to be emulated; they were a huge mistake that must never be repeated. They turned military bases into slums, cut acquisition programs dramatically (thus setting the stage for the dramatic shrinkage of the Navy), and left the military underfunded by tens of billions of dollars in FY2000 money, according to Clinton’s own Joint Chiefs testifying unanimously. They gutted the military so badly that tank units had to use golf carts to practice tank tactics. In total, defense spending declined in the 1990s to the lowest level (by all measures) since before Pearl Harbor.

This mistake must never be repeated. Callahan’s calls for defense cuts must be completely rejected. Reuters should be deeply ashamed of itself for publishing his ridiculous screed.

Posted by Harpagon | Report as abusive
 

Hey I’m all in with you chicken hawks commenting here. Now, tell me again – when did you end either of the two wars you started then badly managed?

Why not just sit down and learn for a few years. Morons.

Posted by tpartier | Report as abusive
 

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