Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Common Defense

When I was coming of age, it was often said that Social Security was "the third rail" of American politics: touch it and die.  More recently, I have heard Medicare referred to the same way.  Personally, I believe that's crap.  For decades the real third rail of American politics, at least when it comes to money, is the Department of Defense.  Whether knee-deep in the Cold War, a couple small hot wars, restructuring our defense posture vis-a-vis current and potential threats, or even attempts to address our domestic balance of payments, the Pentagon is a holy, untouchable site.

Or, so it seems to many of critics of the budget for the Department of Defense (DoD).  Usually separated from the rest of federal outlays in any discussion - there's DoD, then everything else including non-budgetary entitlements (Social Security and Medicare) and discretionary spending - it seems a thing apart.  Since we live in a country that allows ordinary folks the opportunity to peruse the ways our government spends our money, we have the opportunity to check these things out for ourselves, and looking over recent budget requests as well as appropriations - two very different things, separated by administrative requests in the former case and political realities on the other - we see that we spend way more than we need on all sorts of things, whether the F-22 Raptor, a plane that barely made it to service before pilots demanded it be replaced because it performs so poorly or thinly armored troop carriers such as those used at the beginning of the Iraq invasion, that it would be better not to.  At the same time, it is within the past decade that a serious effort had to be mounted in Congress to raise the pay of military enlisted personnel after it was revealed that many families qualified for federal Food Stamp assistance because the pay was so low.  Indeed, that such a bit of legislation actually became a "fight" shows how odd our approach to spending money for Defense really is.

While it is true our spending on things that go boom and blam is greater than several different combinations of our rivals and allies (it always depends on the year, and the fact that some of these figures are guesses; anything from the next six to the next ten, sometimes as high as fifteen).  These figures are distorted, however, because the United States has a tech-heavy military posture.  We spend money on the most advanced weapons platforms, or retrofit old ones like destroyers and attack submarines and tanks, with all sorts of expensive stuff.  Combined with personnel who receive some of the best training and have been battle-tested over the past decade, we have fewer troops with more sophisticated weapons able to do far more efficiently and deadly.

Budgets aren't just lists of numbers.  Anyone involved in business or public affairs understands they are statements both of principles and priorities.  They also reveal, should one study not just the overall budgetary strategy, but take careful looks at specific outlays (and, in the case of DoD, appropriations), the basic framework within which decisions concerning spending money are made.  In the case of the our defense budget, it should be clear enough that policy makers agree that the United States should remain unchallenged and unrivaled as a world power, from a military point of view.  To that end, spending half a trillion dollars a year just on normal military matters - everything from new ships and planes to food for troops to military housing to the millions of bullets the troops need - but with supplemental requests for troops in the field (since 9/11, our many and varied forward military actions have been "off-book", not handled in the usual budget requests and appropriations, but through supplemental requests) seems not just sensible but necessary.

Is this, however, the military posture the United States needs?  With the Presidential election coalescing around matters of the budget and federal spending, I don't think it inappropriate to ask if this is the military posture the United States can afford?

Complicating these matters - and it is complicated enough with numbers like this; one of the biggest employers of accountants is the Pentagon, because it is increasingly difficult to track this much money - are the politics of appropriation.  Even though we toss vast sums of money each year at the Pentagon, since the end of the Cold War, policy-makers have deliberately sought to pare down the numbers of actual personnel.  Even as the need for more troops and airmen and sailors and Marines increased early in the last decade, there was no movement afoot to increase the actual overall numbers of uniformed personnel.  At the same time needs increased without resources to fill all those needs, our technology didn't stand still, missions expanded, and, of course, occasional oddities of the appropriations process create more problems than their worth.  Wars on two fronts without the needed increase in troop strength and support stretched those troops in uniform to the limit; the weapons of war became overused, wearing out and breaking down even as replacements continue to get pushed back because powerful interests force retention of outdated, outmoded, and sometimes even dangerous weapons platforms (think the Osprey, a plane so dangerous Marines don't like to use it, the Corps and OMB removed it from items requested, yet put back because continuing to build and operate it creates jobs in various Congressional districts).  This parenthetical makes my central point: as much as critics of Pentagon overspending may howl, the fact is various departments, even whole branches, find themselves forced to do twice or three times the work even as money disappears; all the while, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent on things the Pentagon neither wants nor needs.  The money spent keeping the Osprey "flying" (I put that in scare quotes because it doesn't fly very well, and when it stops flying, whoever is aboard is in serious trouble) is removed from other areas of the budget.  It's not even a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul; it's robbing the garbage collectors to build statues of gold, which leaves bigger messes that other people than those who get the gold statues are forced to clean up, except now they don't have the resources with which to do it.

We need to take a good, long look at how military appropriations are done in this country.  We need to take a good long look at what kind of nation do we want to be.  Do we want to be a world power, sending troops hither and yon to fight whatever bad guys we might encounter?  If so, then we need to spend enough, and budget enough, for ALL the resources to do the job.  We can no longer afford to believe it possible to act as a serious military power without giving the services the tools to do the jobs effectively, overtaxing and overstretching in every conceivable fashion.  On the other hand, if we just don't believe we should pay a single red cent in any more taxes, then it is necessary to rethink the various missions we foist upon the military services.  These are choices and discussions and arguments that need to be made.  At the moment, our military is asked to do far too much with (believe it or not) far too little in terms of people, money, physical capital, and very often public and political support (unless it's something flashy like killing bin Laden).  This needs to change.

That would be supporting the troops.  Far better than hanging a flag in your window and a bumper sticker on your car.

Virtual Tin Cup

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