The PDA’s and Stephen Walt’s lies about defense spending

While claiming that America’s electric grid is underinvested and weeping over the self-created budget problems of America’s state governments (actually, it’s DEMOCRAT-run states that have such problems; Republican-governed states generally have well-managed public finances), Stephen Walt, as a liberal, predictably singles out defense spending for big cuts. (It’s not surprising; defense is everyone’s favorite whipping boy these days, and it’s the easiest thing to cut… which is why it gets cut deeply everytime there is a deficit problem.)

In defense of his proposals, he cites false data from the extremely-leftist “Project on Defense Alternatives” (which should rather be called the Project on Deep Defense Cuts), which falsely claims that the US spends 4.8% of its GDP on defense, that China (whom he claims “our supposed emerging peer competitor”) spends only 2.0%, and that the US and its allies collectively spend 4 times as much as their enemies do (but at the same time, Walt claims that America’s allies spend very little on defense and free-ride on the back of American taxpayers, and calls America “Uncle Sucker”).

These claims are all utterly false, but even if they were not, they would be completely irrelevant.

Here’s why they are false:

1) The total US military budget, as of today, is $645 bn, i.e. 4.41% of America’s GDP (which is $14.62 trillion). The core defense budget amounts to just 3.63% of GDP. Both figures are historic lows. Throughout the Cold War, except FY1948, the US spent more on defense than a paltry 4.41% of GDP – even during the Carter years! Indeed, after FY1948, military spending didn’t slip below that level until FY1993.

And even then, it was still higher than 3.63% of GDP until the late 1990s.

I’ll leave it to you, Dear Readers, to decide whether a 4.41%-of-GDP military budget (incl. a 3.63%-of-GDP base defense budget) is too big or whether it’s an affordable price to pay for America’s defense.

2) China spends a lot more than just 2.0% of GDP on its military. How much exactly? No one knows for sure, except China’s top leadership ( questions whether even China’s senior leaders know); the PLA hides many expenditures off its official budget and, on top of that, has many off-budget sources of income such as companies and farms. The DOD estimates China’s 2011 military budget to be $186 bn, representing two decades of nonstop double-digit increases which will likely continue for many years to come, while the US is CUTTING its own defense budget.

3) The claim that America and its allies collectively spend 4 times more than America’s potential adversaries on defense is both false (especially in light of the facts listed in #2) and irrelevant. It is also contradicted by Walt’s complaint that America’s allies underinvest in their own defense (which they do, but South Korea drafts all of its male citizens into its military, while male Americans are no longer required to defend their own country). So which is it, Mr Walt? Are America’s allies spending a lot on defense, or very little? You’re contradicting yourself.

Now, why are the defense spending levels of America’s allies and enemies alike irrelevant?

For three reasons. Firstly, there are vast PPP differences between the US and other countries (especially developing ones such as China, Russia, Iran, and Venezuela). Secondly, things are much cheaper in those countries than in the US, Britain, or France. For one dollar, China and Russia can buy much more than the US can.

Thirdly, these numbers tell us nothing about how many troops, weapons, bases (and where), benefits for troops, developmental programs, and training programs (and of what quality) America needs. That can be determined only through a holistic review of America’s own defense needs, made through the prism of 1) what threats is America facing or is likely to face in the future; 2) what missions need to be carried out to deter and defeat those enemies; 3) what equipment, units, troops, bases, and training are needed to do so; and 4) how much would it all cost. And when the cost is summed up, the Nation must be willing to pay it – or forego security and invite aggression, as massive defense cuts did everytime they were tried.

As the CSBA’s Todd Harrison and other analysts besides me have concluded, America’s current defense budget is quite affordable. 4.41% of GDP – a historically low share of the economy – is a bargain price to pay for national security.

Last, but not least, because America’s enemies wouldn’t leave it alone even if it retrenched behind the oceans, and because threats to America’s key allies and to the world’s commons deeply affect the US, America would need to spend as much on defense as it currently does in the base defense budget (3.63% of GDP) even if it refused to protect any of its allies and adopted an isolationist posture.

Walt also falsely claims that:

“But there is clearly a connection between the amount the U.S. spends (trying to) provide global security in lots of far-flung places and our ability to pay for desirable things here at home, including things like education and infrastructure that are essential to our long-term well-being and strength as a nation.”

Utter garbage. The US is, first and foremost, trying to provide for its own security, and only then for the security of others; and even if it were to adopt an isolationist posture, it would still need to spend as much on its own defense as it is currently spending. Which is very little – 4.41% of GDP. That’s a bargain price to pay.

 And it’s clear that “Professor” Walt doesn’t even know the BASICS of America’s system of government. Education and the infrastructure are just a few among the myriad of issues reserved by the Constitution EXCLUSIVELY to the states and the people. Federal spending on them is unconstitutional.

And since we’re on the subject, the US already has the best infrastructure in the world, with the best highway network in the world (even better than Germany’s), best (and most used, by share of market) freight railway network in the world (40% of American freight goes by rail, vs just 8% in Europe), and the best airports in the world (how passengers are treated by the TSA is a different issue). American metropoles also have better urban transit systems than foreign cities.

As for education, the US ALREADY spends far more on it – per student and in absolute numbers – than any country in the world. Yet, the results are dismal. The conclusion is clear: America’s education system is NOT underinvested, it is badly run and infested with unionized teachers who cannot be fired, no matter how bad they are.

Walt also falsely claims that:

“Unfortunately, over the past forty years so-called conservatives in the United States have done a great job of convincing Americans that it is foolish, counter-productive, and even unpatriotic to pay taxes for the benefit of other Americans, while at the same time declaring that it is one’s patriotic duty to pay taxes so that we can occupy other countries, build military facilities on every continent, and make it easier for Europeans, Asians, and others to live better under the umbrella of our protection.”

Those are also blatant lies straight out of the leftist propaganda book. Firstly, we conservatives do not claim that paying taxes is “foolish, counter-productive, or unpatriotic”; we are claiming some taxes have to be raised, but too much taxation is BAD for the economy, for our own lives, and for our freedoms, which it is. We furthermore claim – as the Founding Fathers did – that taxes should be raised ONLY for the constitutionally legtimate purposes of the fed. govt. – of which defense is the most important one.

Secondly, America is NOT occupying any country, and Walt is again contradicting himself here by claiming that the US is occupying countries and OTOH giving a security umbrella to Europeans, Asians, and “others” (who are these others, Mr Walt? Africans? South Americans?).

Thirdly, Walt falsely claims that the US has “bases on every continent”. What bases does the US have in Africa (outside Djibouti), South America, or Antarctica? I guess I have missed all those outposts of the American Empire on those three continents! 😉

And bases abroad are needed for power projection, without which the US military would’ve been much weaker. There is such a thing as the tyranny of distance. During Operation Linebacker II, B-52s based in Thailand conducted more sorties than B-52s based in Guam, which were 3 times more numerous.

Walt’s claims are blatant lies. Firstly, the US is trying to provide security for ITSELF first and foremost (as would every country). But secondly, the US cannot afford to ignore threats beyond its borders. A threat to South Korea, Japan, or the world’s commons of access (seas, the air, cyberspace, the outer space) is a threat to America as well. China’s aggressive, expansionist designs are threats to America as well. America will shrink from its responsibilities at its peril. Even Walt’s beloved President Obama believes that, which is why he’s EXPANDING America’s degree of engagement in the Pacific. He believes in America’s global role – as have all post-WW2 presidents.

If there were a threat to, or a conventional (or even worse, nuclear) attack against a large, important trade partner of America’s, such as Japan or South Korea, or someone tried to block the Straits of Hormuz or the Suez or Panama Canal, or threatened other sea lanes or airspace, that would be a serious threat to the US economy and therefore to America’s national security. And the impact would reverberate throughout the entire US economy, not just on Wall Street. For more on why America needs to remain engaged in the world – especially in the Pacific Rim – see this article by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The US, as the strongest country in the world, and the country most benefitting from the freedom of the commons, stands to lose most from this, and bears the primary responsibility to protect the world’s commons free.

Isolationism has NEVER served America well. It’s a foolish policy. It should not even be considered.

Walt also falsely claims that:

“Either we have our strategic priorities all mixed up, or the DoD is doing something very wrong. I would note in passing that Mitt Romney thinks we aren’t spending enough, that we ought to cut taxes even more and that we also need to balance the federal budget.  Needless to say, this combination makes no sense, and Romney (who seems to know a lot about clever accounting when his own fortune is involved) is being disingenuous or simply lying.”

No, Mitt Romney is not being disingenous or lying, Mr Walt. YOU are lying. Mitt Romney wants America’s defense budget to stabilize at 4.0% of GDP and yes, he wants to cut taxes. America currently has the highest corporate income tax rate in the world (the federal rate alone is 35%, and state rates add another 5% on average; in California, it’s 9% last time I checked); the highest personal income tax rate (there are 6) is 35%; there are also many other taxes – the AMT, the death tax, SS and Medicare payroll taxes, capital gains and dividends taxes, and fuel taxes, – on top of these, and they all vastly reduce the amount of wealth each American is allowed to keep (to say nothing of state and local taxes… unless you live in a conservative state like Texas or Florida, where there is no state income tax).

So yes, Mitt Romney is ABSOLUTELY RIGHT about cutting taxes and keeping defense spending stable at 4% of GDP (which is a paltry amount).

Moreover, cutting taxes will actually INCREASE federal revenue by spurring rapid economic growth, in contrast to the current sluggish growth of the US economy, which is strangled by a high tax burden and other obstacles to growth.

Romney’s proposals are just parts of an overall plan. Like other Republicans, he’s saying that federal taxes AND spending should be cut (it’s on his website), and the Federal Government should be reduced to its core constitutional functions, but those functions must be funded adequately – starting with national defense. And Mitt Romney is absolutely right about that.

Stephen Walt’s and the PDA’s claims are blatant lies.


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