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Editorial: Cut defense budget responsibly

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | NOVEMBER 08, 2013 5:00 AM

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Between 2001 and 2013, the defense budget for the federal government nearly doubled from $287 billion to $530 billion per year, a statistic made all the more staggering by those numbers not including the direct costs of fighting two multi-decade wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On Wednesday, Retired Maj.-Gen. Paul Eaton addressed University of Iowa students, professors, and members of the Iowa United Nations Association on the UI campus, and he had a strong message about the American defense budget.

“We’re way out of whack,” he said. “Our military budget outweighs our State Department budget by a factor of 10.”

Eaton is an advocate of lower federal military spending; he believes that American foreign policy should be conducted without an overreliance on military might.

“How can we get done, in America, what we need to get done, without recourse to the military?” he asked the audience during his lecture.

Indeed, the American defense budget is too large — it’s infamously the largest in the world by a wide margin (bigger than the next 13 largest defense budgets in the world, in fact). Our defense budget stretches far beyond the cost of keeping the nation safe and too often serves as a de facto subsidy for the nation’s defense contractors.

The U.S. defense budget is a behemoth not only in terms of the international community but also in terms of the total federal budget. Twenty percent of federal government spending goes toward defense. That’s the same amount that we spend on Social Security, and the same amount we spend on Medicare, Medicaid, and the Children’s Health Insurance Program combined.

The defense budget is nearly three times larger than the benefits programs for federal retirees and veterans. It’s seven times larger than federal infrastructure spending and 10 times larger than both federal education investment and science and medical research investment.

Much is made of the crucial functions of the Defense Department that contribute to economic development, particularly with respect to research and development. But according to data from the Office of Management and Budget, research and development spending from the Pentagon is dwarfed by the costs of military operations, weapons procurement, and personnel.

The current budget debate that’s dominated congressional politics in recent years has focused primarily on cuts to relatively small discretionary-spending programs and minor tweaks to federal entitlement programs, largely leaving aside the possibility of large defense cuts. But any plans to bring down long-term deficit projections will have to address the twin problems of rising health-care costs and an overly inflated defense budget.

There is already some relief on the horizon. The military’s budget will be cut by $600 billion over 10 years because of sequestration. Those cuts are rooted in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which raised the debt ceiling in exchange for $1.2 trillion in spending cuts. The committee responsible for the implementation the cuts failed to reach an agreement, triggering automatic cuts that are scheduled to take place over the next decade.

These cuts, however, are not the ideal mechanism for slashing the defense budget. The sequestration cuts are essentially an across-the-board reduction in spending — dumb, indiscriminate cuts that harm the economy. According to a report compiled by the House Armed Services Committee, the first two years of sequestration cuts will reduce the U.S. GDP by 1 percent, with particularly negative effects on the aerospace industry.

Some economic cost is to be expected whenever government spending is dramatically reduced, but replacing the broad sequestration cuts with more targeted cuts that keep intact funding levels for important government functions such as research and development would be preferable.


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