What do former Vermont governor, full fledged liberal Howard Dean and the Tea Party have in common? They both welcome the sequester. The Tea Party because any cut in government spending is a good cut, and Dean because while “tough on things that I care about a lot… the fact of the matter is, you are not going to get another chance to cut the defense budget in the way that it needs to be cut.”
Certainly Dean’s opinion is not the common liberal view, which is more along the lines of the sky is falling, with the President publicizing details of various losses and the pain and reduced safety they will cause (*1). What makes this all murky is that much of the money cut could be refunded or the cuts be delayed for years to come.
While Dean and the Tea Party make for strange bedfellows, the gathering looks odder still when some like minded military experts are included. On Feb 22, retired Adm. Gary Roughead and some others with strong military credentials gathered for a discussion of military spending at the Brookings Institute Feb 22. Not that they favor these across the board cuts, but as Roughead stated: “the Defense Department could absorb the pending $500 billion sequester reduction in planned Pentagon spending over the next 10 years if it had ‘the latitude to rebalance its own spending.’ ”
Somewhere between 18 and 24% of our federal budget goes for military spending (depending on how a given chart breaks it down), so the idea that the sequester cuts will weaken our defense is mostly a matter of their heavy handed nature. Of course, wiser cuts might be “politically incorrect”. As Roughead noted, “It is a matter of public record, many times over, that the military infrastructure [bases, air fields etc.] exceeds need,” but Congress has balked at closing facilities.” Apparently government waste is money spent in congressional districts other than ones’ own.
Another aspect is when talking about military spending, the underlying issue is what we expect our military to do, tied to what we see our role in the world to be. I believe America does have a unique role as world leader, but to paraphrase Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, it’s time to restore the idea that the United States would help countries, but those countries must help themselves. As another panelist put it, we should be “a catalyst for common action”, implying an active but less dominant role than has been our American way over the past 70 years.
But could Congress come around to allowing the military to suggest the best cuts to make? Hmm… At least this forces the issue to some extent, and how it will play out could get interesting, as some Republicans oppose the military cuts while the Tea Party views them as a victory.
Since Defense, along with Social Security and Medicare make up about 60% of federal expenditures, spending cuts take on the “guns vs. butter” dynamic, so the fundamental question is: How much defense spending is really enough? (*2). As David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, our military expenditures are greater than the next 17 nations combined, our navy is larger than the next 13 nations combined and we have 11 carrier strike groups while no other nation has more than one. We replace a carrier with a new one every few years, and they costs about 11 billion each? Could we get by with 10 or even nine? (*3).
So maybe letting the sequester happen will become a good thing when it comes to military spending. Now that the size of the cuts is no longer the issue, but how they are to be made, the two parties might actually come to a sensible agreement.
(*1) It will be interesting to see the public reaction as the cuts unfold and the kind of impact it will have on altering them. Here’s one place to start, a story about a small Kansas airport planning to cut out its control tower.
(*2) A problem of talking about cutting “defense” spending is the word itself. “Defense” raises the issue of safety. How safe is safe enough? I wonder if the debate would be of a different nature if we were talking about cuts in the War Department, as it was called until the late 1940s.
(*3) The Wessel facts come from either his book Red Ink or from a video I borrowed for a previous post. Greg Mankiw, a highly regarded right leaning economist has praised the book, so I believe the facts to be fairly presented.