By Michael Diamond
If you’re among the taxpayers who are just getting your taxes done today, you might be wondering where all that money goes. After all, the federal government will bring in something approaching $3 trillion this year, which, of course, won’t be enough to satisfy its spending habit.
The second-biggest line item following Social Security is defense spending, which accounts for about 20 percent of federal spending and is greater than the next three departments — Health and Human Services, Education, and Housing and Urban Development — combined. We spend more on defense than on Medicare, Medicaid and the interest on our debt.
Before anyone puts me in some sort of left-leaning, anti-military camp, let me say I served in the United States Army Reserve as a military intelligence officer; served in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq during Operation Desert Storm; and am a proud veteran. As the saying goes, you can take the boy out of the Army, but you can never take the Army out of the boy.
I also am generally conservative, but one of the curious things about our odd political labels today is that being in favor of greater defense spending in the face of an expanding national debt has become associated with “conservative” policies.
In a recent column about his proposal for greater defense spending, Rep. Paul Ryan said, “The world is less safe when America doesn’t lead,” as if taking a few pounds off of an elephant will somehow turn it into a mouse.
To borrow a term from the military, if ever there was a target-rich environment to reduce federal spending, our defense budget is it.
Those who are in favor of greater spending, whether for defense or social services, like to choose statistics that support their case. In the case of defense spending, proponents tend to cite the decline, over time, of defense spending as a percentage of GDP. I prefer to think of our defense spending in relation to the following: other countries’ military spending and the nature of the threats we face today.
In relation to the defense spending of other countries, the U.S. certainly is already in the leadership role that Ryan presumably envisions. In 2012, U.S. defense spending exceeded the defense spending of the next 10 countries combined. When it comes to naval air power, the U.S. Navy has 10 active Nimitz-class “super carriers,” which is nearly the same amount of aircraft carriers collectively operated by rest of the world. China recently doubled its aircraft carrier fleet by adding a second carrier to its fleet of one. I don’t know about you, but that looks like a lot of leadership to me.
The other issue is the changing nature of the threats we face. No matter how you look at it, peace is breaking out and that’s great news. The drumbeat of stories about Ukraine and Syria can confuse us about this, but overall, wars have been declining steeply for some time.
That doesn’t mean we don’t face threats — simply that the nature of those threats have changed over time. When I was in my military intelligence training in the 1980s, we spent an inordinate amount of time — I thought — on preparing for a full-scale conventional war with the Soviet Union in Germany. I suspected then that if I were ever loading live ammunition in my weapon, it would be in the Middle East. A few years later, that’s exactly where I was.
In the coming years, I think our two greatest threats will be cyber attacks and terrorism — in that order. We’re under cyber attack every minute of every day. Intellectual-property theft from our employers and defense contractors, financial theft and denial-of-service attacks on websites are just a few examples. Our vulnerabilities are significant. When China or Russia seek to strengthen themselves and weaken the United States today, they do so with computers, not aircraft carriers.
But investing in cyber security or looking for the next kids with explosive backpacks entering the country doesn’t exactly drive spending like the new F-35 fighter jets the Air Force wants — current price tag: $132 million per plane — and there are a lot of powerful interests in keeping the money flowing.
The best way to keep America strong is to prepare for the threats of the future rather than the past, and to reduce our multibillion-dollar deficit spending across the board — not just the defense budget.
Those aren’t just conservative values. They’re common sense.
— Michael Diamond is a Combined Locks resident.
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