August 01, 2011

Defense and the Budget

Because Republicans refuse to raise taxes (ever) and Democrats refuse to cut entitlements (ever), the big loser in yesterday's deficit reduction deal is defense spending. As Ezra Klein explains,

...[The] real hit comes in stage two: if the second round of deficit
reduction isn’t signed into law, the “trigger” that will make automatic
spending cuts absolutely savages defense spending.


Let’s stop there and talk about the trigger, as it’s arguably the
most important part of the deal. In his remarks on Friday, President
Obama said he would support a trigger if it was done in “a smart and
balanced way.” The implication was that it had to include tax increases
as well as spending cuts, as a trigger with just spending cuts wouldn’t
force Republicans to negotiate in good faith. The trigger in this deal
does not include tax increases.


What it includes instead are massive cuts to the defense budget. If
Congress doesn’t pass a second round of deficit reduction, the trigger
cuts $1.2 trillion over 10 years. Fully half of that comes from defense
spending. And note that I didn’t say “security spending.” The Pentagon
takes the full hit if the trigger goes off.


The other half of the trigger comes from domestic spending. But
Social Security, Medicaid and a few other programs for the poor are
exempted. So the trigger is effectively treating defense spending like
it comprises more than half of all federal spending. If it goes off, the
cuts to that sector will be tremendous -- particularly given that they
will come on top of the initial round of cuts. Whether you think the
trigger will work depends on whether you think the GOP would permit that
level of cuts to defense.

On the one hand, I am among those who think you can really cut a lot of money from the Dept. of Defense budget over the next 10 years by trimming personnel costs -- paring down the force structure of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps after Afghanistan, raising TriCare premiums and adjusting retirement and pension programs. On the other hand, I can't help but shake this sinking feeling that the United States became Europe a little bit yesterday, and not in the good our-espresso-is-now-better way. Democrats and moderate Republicans have decided they would rather keep expensive entitlements than rebuild our military after two exhausting ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and turn our focus to the security challenges of East Asia. And conservative Republicans claim to value the military and believe in more robust defense spending, but they refuse to raise taxes to pay for the advanced military capabilities they want. 

So we're left with defense spending that will almost certainly decline precipitously over the next decade, and those of us who work as defense analysts will remain usefully employed, ever scrambling to explain to policy-makers how they need to match their ambitions to their available resources, and how if they reduce their available resources, they will need to adjust the scale of their ambitions as well.

As a younger voter, I continue to be alternately depressed and angered by the selfishness of the generation older than me. Just a few decades ago, the United States was the largest creditor nation. We are now the world's largest debtor nation. The older generation continues to draw more from entitlement programs than they ever contributed and also refuses to raise taxes, meaning the burden for both perpetually doing more with less and paying for entitlement programs we ourselves will never enjoy falls to my generation and the one below me. It's just incredibly frustrating. But hey, it's a democracy, and if that older generation of voters wants a United States that is less ambitious but fatter and happier, okay.