by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
Sept. 6, 2012
YOU CAN'T NEGOTIATE WITH REALITY
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- What is the definition of madness?
One might be the amount of money that the United States spends on its military.
More than two decades after the end of the Cold War, the United States remains the biggest spender on its military in the world - 41 percent of all global defense spending.
At more than $710 billion a year, the United States spends five times more on defense than China and 10 times more than Russia. Indeed, we spend more than the next 15 biggest military spenders combined.
Our nation spends so much money on its military that billions and billions of dollars vanish without a trace.
Our nation spends so much on its military that it consumes more than half of the federal government's discretionary spending.
Yet both President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney are committed to spending even more money on the Pentagon, and Romney says he is ready to spend even more than Obama.
Granted, given the messed-up politics of our nation, it has become impossible for candidates for public office to talk about the need to bring sanity to the U.S. defense budget without being dismissed as a starry-eyed, unserious crank.
But its well past time to bring some common sense to defense spending, and unfortunately, our choices are between the lots of money that Obama proposes spending, and the lots and lots of money that Romney proposes spending.
Right now, the Obama defense budget constitutes 3.6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, which is still larger, in real terms, than it has been at any time since World War II. Even with the winding-down of the Iraq occupation, and his commitment to winding down the Afghan war by 2014, Mr. Obama has still overseen continual growth in the defense budget.
For Romney and the Republicans, this isn't good enough. They want defense spending as a share of GDP to be no less than 4 percent. But to get this and still meet their cherished goal of cutting taxes for the weazlthy even further, they would have to cut the budgets of virtually every domestic spending program.
On Jan. 1, 2013, the Bush tax cuts on high-income filers expire, and the top rate is restored to 39.5 percent. The Alternative Minimum Tax, which also targets high-income filers, also ends, as does the Social Security payroll tax cut instituted by President Obama.
If Congress takes no action by the end of this year, these tax changes - along with spending reductions - would immediately cut the federal budget deficit in half, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
But if Congress does decide to keep the Bush tax cuts and the current high levels of military spending, it would have to start chopping everything else in the budget, as agreed to in the Budget Control Act that Congress passed last year.
Again, our nation is spending more on its military than the next 15 countries combined. What threat is out there that is so big and so scary that we need to spend more money that we did during the Cold War?
Unfortunately, our nation's military spending has little to do with responding to actual national security threats, and everything to do with responding to the threats of Congress. They scream and raise hell about proposed base closures in their districts, or phasing out unneeded weapons systems that the generals and admirals don't want but are economic gold mines for the folks back in their Congressional district.
But some pushback is coming from an unexpected source. Americans for Tax Reform head Grover Norquist, the man who pretty much controls the Republican Party on matters of budgets and taxation, advocates steep cuts in defense spending.
"Conservatives need to remember that, just as spending money on something called education doesn't mean people are educated, and spending money on welfare doesn't mean it adds to the general welfare, calling something 'national defense' doesn't mean it is. It may not be. It may undermine national defense if it's a waste of resources, if it's a misallocation of resources," Norquist said in a interview last week with the libertarian Cato Institute.
There are very few of Norquist's ideas that I would defend, but he is on the right track when it comes to military spending. Domestic spending is far more efficient at creating jobs than military spending.
At the same time, Norquist doesn't seem to know that when it comes to national security, we get a better return on investment by spending more money on education, health care, public infrastructure, and basic research and development.
Unfortunately, defense spending is the most sacred of all the cows in the political pasture. Democrats fear to cut military spending becausethey are afraid they will be seen as weak. Republicans won't cut spending because too many of their supporters profit from it.
But when the public knows the facts about the extent of military spending and is offered alternatives, poll after poll shows that Americans would rather see the defense budget cut than see Medicare or Social Security cut.
Who has the guts in either party to stand up and advocate for a saner, less expensive defense budget? And will the voters reward those guts with their political support?
These are questions that need to be asked as we get closer to Election Day in November.
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.