By Winslow Wheeler
The defense budget has become such a pampered darling of the American political system that the most stringent budget scenario that most Republicans and Democrats are currently contemplating — the so-called “Doomsday” scenario — is so stuffed with money as to be historically unprecedented.
Moreover, as Pentagon spending begins to approach the modestly-reduced levels it currently faces, we can anticipate a titanic effort by defense industry and many across the U.S. political spectrum to pump additional tens, even hundreds, of billions of dollars into Pentagon coffers.
Conventional wisdom on these questions is so poorly informed as to the actual data that politicians running for both the White House and Congress make stupendously daft statements about the defense budget, only to be greeted by many nods of pontificatory agreement.
Consider the data in the graph below. It shows spending for the Department of Defense (DOD) since the end of World War II to 2022. The data up to the year 2012 are actual spending, expressed in inflation-adjusted dollars equivalent to the year 2012—according to DOD’s records. The data for the years 2012-2022 show Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s approximate plan (in red), President Obama’s (in blue), and the spending to be impose by “sequestration” (in green). That green line is a result of Congress’ failure to come to a broad budget deal under the provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011, resulting in automatic reductions in DOD’s and other budgets now scheduled for January 2, 2013.
The spending amounts for the Romney plan assume his goal of 4% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for DOD is implemented gradually, as calculated by Travis Sharp at the Center for a New American Security. Compared to other calculations of Romney’s declared intent, it is one of the more modest calculations I have seen, even if Romney’s surrogates have tried to squirm—unsuccessfully—out of the actual commitment it involves in their effort to Etch-a-Sketch away his extreme positions from the Republican primaries.