Conservatives are calling for massive increases in our defense budget after Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. According to our sources, the additional money would finance more weapons, which will help us better respond to aggressive behavior in a dangerous world. These arguments are compelling in stressful times, but it is not so easy.
The federal government has a legitimate function in providing military defense. This doesn’t mean Congress can spend more money, even though there may be dangers. This does not mean more spending will make America a safer place. This is partly because such a world does not exist. You can only buy so much safety.
Although I don’t claim to have the answer, it is clear that we already spend a lot on our national security and the Pentagon. Over $770 Billion is projected to be spent by the United States on defense in 2023. The Department of Defense will receive $729 Billion of these funds. This staggering sum surpasses what the 10 next countries will spend. combined. Russia is one example. It spends nearly $62 trillion. France and Germany each spend nearly $53 billion. China has a total of $252 trillion if its numbers are true.
Consider how much money you think it is worthwhile spending. However, not all military dollars will increase national security. This is because the government’s intentions are not always matched by their results. The incentives for tax-sensible management are weak in elected officials and bureaucrats. These officials and bureaucrats aren’t rewarded for maximising taxpayer value or penalized for taking unnecessary risks. Interest groups are often able to influence political decisions in the worst interests of the public.
The budget’s entitlement and welfare sections are also affected by military spending. Take a look at the arm-industry lobbying system, which in 2021 spent $117 million on lobbying and used 763 lobbyists. They are likely to push for more Pentagon spending. It is this reason that Congress keeps approving funds for weapons the Pentagon doesn’t actually need. This explains its endless cycle of cost overruns and delays, as well the malfunctions like those with the F-35. Because the Defense Department repeatedly fails its audits, no one can really know where any of it is. It has resulted in a poor allocation of the large defense budget.
This doesn’t negate the fact that Congress has a right to demand more funding for its military. Mackenzie Eaglen, American Enterprise Institute, argued that more money should be spent on military operations in 2017 because the United States “now fields a militaries that cannot meet the needs of even a benign Clinton-era environment” and because policymakers have directed them to spend too much for too long.
Eaglen’s claims are unquestionable. But, it is important to be skeptical of spending more money unless we reform the political system which produced such poor results.
Is it possible to spend 4 percent on defense annually, instead of 3 percent as we currently do? I don’t find the argument convincing. As an indicator of economic activity GDP does not have much to do with the ability to defend oneself. Three percent, four percent or any other percentage of GDP can be taken to mean the exact number.
If the defense-spending-to-GDP measurement reflects anything, it’s affordability. We are now at the end of our huge budget deficits, and growing debt. If Congress does not cut non-defense spending, the deficit will grow. If additional defense spending are deficit-financed, we can expect slower growth as Harvard economist Robert Barro demonstrated in a 2013 study. It reduces but not increases the affordability of our defense department budget.
Also, we need to be sure that we are asking the right questions and not just jumping into a defense budget.
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