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A New Level of Defense Spending

By Marvin Zonis

The U.S. Senate, on June 27, passed a new defense bill totaling $750 billion. Since Donald Trump became President, he has increased defense spending by $100 billion. This despite the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And this despite the fact that the Defense Department has never been able to provide a clean audit of its revenues and expenditures – an audit mandated by federal law.

In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Jessica Matthewsprovides the following ‘parable’:

“. . . in 2016, the 136 military bands maintained by the Department of Defense, employing more than 6,500 full-time professional musicians at an annual cost of about $500 million, caught the attention of budget-cutters worried about surging federal deficits. Immediately memos flew and lobbyists descended. The Government Accountability Office, laying the groundwork for another study or three, opined, “The military services have not developed objectives and measures to assess how their bands are addressing the bands’ missions, such as inspiring patriotism.”

“When the dust cleared, funding for the bands was not cut, because the political cost entailed in reducing the number of them by, say, half would have been enormous. The resulting $250 million in annual savings, on the other hand, while a significant sum for most government agencies, would have produced the almost unnoticeable difference of three one-hundredths of one percent in the Pentagon budget.”[1]

So, defense spending is massive – almost beyond reckoning – and absent an audit is out of control. But President Trump remains committed to his massive military build-up.

In a recent interview, President Trump suggested why he did not serve in the U.S. military. He suggested he wasn’t “a fan” of the Vietnam War. He then went on to suggest: “I think I make up for it right now – look, $700 billion I gave last year, and this year $716 billion. And I think I’m making up for it rapidly because we’re rebuilding our military at a level it’s never seen before.”[2]

As the President put it in his recent visit to Japan for the G-20 meetings, “We have equipment, missiles, rockets, tanks, planes, ships -- no one in the entire world can build them like we do. It's not even close.”[3]

But President Trump does not deserve all the credit (or as I mean to suggest here, the blame) for the boost in defense spending. Recall that in neither of the recent Democratic debates was the issue of defense spending even mentioned, let alone criticized. The Democrats have signed on to the increases, fearful of being seen as “soft on defense.”

The U.S. is an independent country and can spend whatever it chooses on whatever it wishes – defense and the same for health care, just for two examples. But here’s the problem.

Entitlements – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – plus interest on the federal debt make up some 60% of the federal budget. Of the remaining 40%, known as discretionary spending, defense now makes up 60%.[4]

The Trump tax cuts have generated budget deficits of more than $1 trillion per year. Republicans have called for cutting funding for discretionary spending. To quote Jessica Matthews from the New York Review of Books:

“Discretionary spending is everything else the government does: pay not just for the military but for the federal judiciary and law enforcement; support infrastructure, education, and agriculture; invest in science and technology; protect the environment, wilderness, and National Parks; manage relations with the rest of the world and with international organizations overseeing everything from trade to arms control; fund the National Weather Service; police the border; explore space; develop energy resources; ensure the safety and soundness of food, drugs, communications, airline travel, consumer products, banks, the stock exchanges, and on and on.”[5]

The issue is whether $750 billion is the level of spending the United States needs given any reasonable threat assessment and all the other demands on its budget. This is, of course, a separate issue from what the $750 billion is spent on – whether we need any particular military system – and of the predilection of the Congress – Republicans and Democrats alike -- to force new weapons on a reluctant DOD as a job generator for their districts.

[1] https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/07/18/americas-indefensible-defense-budget/

[2] https://news.antiwar.com/2019/06/05/trump-says-hes-making-up-for-not-going-to-vietnam-with-higher-military-budget/

[3] https://news.yahoo.com/trump-bids-japanese-emperor-farewell-tours-us-navy-015336486.html

[4] https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/aug/17/facebook-posts/pie-chart-federal-spending-circulating-internet-mi/. The chart is based on 2015 data. The current data makes for 60% defense spending as a percent of all discretionary spending.

[5] https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/07/18/americas-indefensible-defense-budget/