Military and Budget

Recently, in the number of comment trails for which I am not quite managing to keep up, a point of disagreement arose between commenter JA and myself regarding the size of the military budget. For the purposes of the discussion below, I will concede right off that the assumptions I’m making about the opposite point of view is one which is understood by me as a stock (or not uncommon) liberal/progressive position on this matter and it may or may not coincide with JA’s particular views.

One of the current dogmas on the progressive/liberal left is that military spending is far too great. They will enjoin and welcome in today’s depressed economy any sort of broken window ala Bastiat, transposing ditches, repairing roads which don’t urgently or presently need repair, beautifying rarely used parks, or spending great sums on underused airports but if that money is spent on military resources, well now, that’s going far beyond the pale.

The current budget has four large parts which make up about 75% of the budget. These parts four parts are to a first order roughly equal. The other three parts along side the military expenditures are social security, payroll security, and healthcare. The opinions expressed here by myself regarding government/state involvement in actuarial activities and the need to be careful about keeping incentives in order are likely well known. Thus the salient objection that the military budget is too large in comparison to the other three large expenditures would normally be contested here with an eye to the point of view that the other three are not part of what a government should be engaged and therefore eliminated entirely. However, let’s set that aside and inspect for a moment the question of the size of the military budget and whether it is too large or too small.

Recently a big item in the news has been the earthquake in Haiti. Less than a decade ago there was a tragic tsunami striking in Indonesia. In the latter case, and likely in the ongoing weeks and months we will find the same to be true in Haiti, a major source of physical relief and delivery of services and aid to those who need it has been the US military. While the progressives might complain about the price-tag and the costs of large capital ships (such as nuclear carriers) that the US Navy has in its arsenal, it remains that those carriers were essential in providing and airlifting food, fresh water, and medical supplies into regions in which local transportation had broken down. Oddly enough, the ability to quickly project power into a region means … exactly that. You can’t have a Navy capable of arriving anywhere in the world in a matter of weeks with large hospital ships and the capability to desalinate and provide and deliver many thousands of gallons of fresh water and food independent of local infrastructure cheaply. That price tag which gets you the ability to service these world disasters quickly and effectively is that “large” military budget.

Another reason the military budget is so large is that the US, for better or worse, places an very very dollar valuation on American lives. Much treasure is expended in both R&D, equipment, and so on to insure that loss of life on both sides are minimized. This costs money. America in the last two decades has been involved in a number of military expeditions. Casualties, while non-zero, when compared to similar efforts in prior ages by other forces not so equipped are, to put ti bluntly, negligible. This is not to say (obviously) that this is regrettable, i.e., that it might be better if the casualties where higher or that those that were lost aren’t missed. The point is that to get those low casualty rates carries a very high price tag.

One of the points made in the recent book Wars, Guns, and Votes by Paul Collier points out that if first world nations can promise, and make good on that promise, to provide security for governments in the “bottom billion” nations, money which goes to the military in those governments which more often that not destabilizes and materially impedes that countries growth not just by diverting badly needed (scarce) funds on the arms market but that it also increases the likelihood of coups and other violent uprisings. Currently there are few countries in the world with a military force which is capable of making and holding to that sort of promise. There are those who would argue that development and guns cannot mix. But that is not strictly true. Stability and the kind of order that failed and struggling nations need is often best supplied by a well trained motivated (external) first world military arm.

The Petraeus/Amos/Nagl COIN manual (The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual) mentioned much more often that it is read. One of the repeated points throughout the manual is when carrying out the tasks related to COIN, the military is not the best tool for many of the jobs related to doing the building up and nation building that is required in a war torn region where COIN operations normally would be taking place. A battery of other non-military organizations would be better suited to the task of providing those services, leaving the military to do those related to security and the traditional roles the military is tasked to do. However, as it is pointed out in the COIN manual (and was seen in Iraq and Afghanistan) in the absence or failure of those other organizations to be up to the task, then this role falls on the military. Thus, one answer the complaints of high military budgets specifically for the Iraq rebuilding … a big reason for that being a military expenditure is the failure of other organizations and government bodies to be ready and willing to do their jobs.

The progressive/left would have their cake and eat it too, desiring the results of a large military budget, the ability to quickly aid people around the world in time of disaster, providing security and stabilizing relations between nations, and insuring that when American forces are actually fielded that their losses are historically speaking for military ventures astonishingly low. These requirements cost those billions spent on the military.

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7 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    The current budget has four large parts which make up about 75% of the budget. These parts four parts are to a first order roughly equal. The other three parts along side the military expenditures are social security, payroll security, and healthcare.

    Payroll security? What’s that? From pg 37 of http://www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/i1040ez.pdf I get this:

    Defense 24%
    SSI/Medicare 37%
    Social programs 20%
    Human Dev. 9%
    Interest 8%

    Roughly 2/3 of dollars is non-defense stuff you like to pretend you don’t like. 1/4 is defense and the balance is interest.

    Thus the salient objection that the military budget is too large in comparison to the other three large expenditures would normally be contested here with an eye to the point of view that the other three are not part of what a government should be engaged and therefore eliminated entirely

    The salient objection is that this has nothing to do with the other. Whether or not we decide we should do more social spending, how does that increase the need to spend on the military?

    Let me put it another way, suppose we implement a universal payer healthcare system which doubles our spending in the ‘nondefense’, ‘noninterest’ budget categories. Does that mean we automatically have to double our military budget? Why? That’s kind of like saying if you double you spending on cable TV you need to double your spending on shoe polish. Why?

  2. Mark says:

    From Wiki:
    * $644 billion – Social Security
    * $408 billion – Medicare
    * $224 billion – Medicaid and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)
    * $360 billion – Unemployment/Welfare/Other mandatory spending
    * $260 billion – Interest on National Debt
    and
    # $515.4 billion – United States Department of Defense
    # $145.2 billion(2008*) – Global War on Terror

    This isn’t the chart I had seen elsewhere but “employment” was the 3rd ($260 billion) line item above.

    It is salient … if you’re trying to cut the budget you have to go for the big chunks, and see what you can do with those things which will make the most impact.

  3. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Let me put it another way, if Medicare/Healthcare becomes 90% of the budget, then if the budget needs to be cut, then cutting military spending won’t help.

  4. Boonton says:

    Let’s put it another way, with Social Security and Medicare we know what we are getting and who benefits. $1T on the Iraq war and most people have no idea what we got out of it. Just say for the sake of argument the critics are right and the Iraq war was unneeded. If we could go back in time we would say don’t do it.

    Or would you say don’t do 1/4 of the Iraq War and let’s cancel 1/4 of Social Security, 1/4 of Medicare and 1/4 of whatever else because our military budget isn’t about what type of military we need but about maintaining magic ratios with other types of spending?

  5. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    Uhm, I didn’t say anything about “magic ratios.” That’s all in your head.

    Are you pretending that if the Iraq war didn’t happen then complaints about the size of the military budget would vanish from the left? That is preposterous.

  6. Boonton says:

    Let’s back up. The budget for anything should be what is required to accomplish what you want of it.

    Social Security’s budget therefore should be sufficient to pay the benefits to those who are entitled to them.

    Likewise the military budget should be sufficient to do what we want to do with it. A rule of thumb I recall hearing is that we want a military that is able to fight two full scale wars at the same time. Therefore the argument over whether the budget is too little or too much should be debated in terms of whether we can accomplish that goal with the money we are spending now. Social Security’s size has nothing to do with that just as we don’t say Social Security’s budget will be cut because we are cutting the military budget or vice versa.

    Now our overall budget is how much we can/should spend on all things government. If that needs to be cut then you have an argument for assigning priorities to things and dividing cuts accordingly (if everything is equal priority then you can split the cuts accross the board).

  7. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    That’s right, and as I outlined in the essay above, the sorts of requirements and “things we want it to do” of the military do indeed set the cost where it is located, i.e., the cost is what it is because what we ask of it costs that much. That complaints such as JAs, “we spend more on our military then the rest of the world combined” (which I’m not sure is true) don’t mean we should spend less … because the constraints and things we ask of our military cost that much.