Monday, October 04, 2010

Social Security versus John Philip Sousa

Although we already spend more on defense than all other nations combined, the killing machine known as William "the bloody" Kristol, along with the usual conservative welfare suspects argue that we are dangerously weak and might get pushed around if we don't start buying more stuff soon.

So today, we get three conservative luminaries -- Arthur Brooks, the head of the American Enterprise Institute; Edwin Feulner, the head of the Heritage Foundation; and Weekly Standard editor and policy entrepreneur William Kristol -- arguing in the Wall Street Journal that unless we start buying some weapons, disaster is around the corner:

Even with the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan, this year the Department of Defense will spend some $720 billion -- about 4.9% of our gross domestic product, significantly below the average of 6.5% since World War II...

We should be vigilant against waste in every corner of the budget. But anyone seeking to restore our fiscal health should look at entitlements first, not across-the-board cuts aimed at our men and women in uniform.

Furthermore, military spending is not a net drain on our economy. It is unrealistic to imagine a return to long-term prosperity if we face instability around the globe because of a hollowed-out U.S. military lacking the size and strength to defend American interests around the world.

You've got to hand it to them: $720 billion per year on defense, as far as they're concerned, is a "hollowed out" military. And about that GDP number, the "average since World War II" utterly distorts the question. Through the 1950s, we spent more than 10 percent of GDP on defense every year, peaking at 14.2 percent in 1953. At our current level of GDP, that's the same as spending over $2 trillion a year on defense. The point is that the size of the economy should have nothing to do with what we spend on defense. I assume that Brooks, Feulner and Kristol don't think that when the economy contracted during the Great Recession of 2008-2009, we should have cut our defense spending, just because the economy was smaller. And if next year we have terrific growth, it doesn't mean that we suddenly face a need to spend more on defense.

I thoroughly enjoyed the line about the need to be "vigilant" in looking for waste in the military budget. Nevertheless, we must reduce popular and effective "entitlement" programs -- otherwise known as the social safety net -- so that we can

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, when discussing his plans to cut back overhead and excessive spending in the military, often makes the comparison that the number of people in military bands is larger than the number of State Department Foreign Service officers. He never indicated that the bands were heading for the budget chopping block, but when I wrote about them two weeks ago the defensive response was so great that I decided to take a second look at their cost.

The Marine Corps provided the only solid number. It spent $50 million last year on its military bands, including $10 million to support the 130 elite musicians in the Washington-based Marine Band, known as "The President's Own," whose prime mission is to provide music for the White House.

The Marines have another 600 musicians in 12 bands around the country, costing $35 million, according to a Corps spokesman.

There are no comparative figures available for the overall costs of military bands in the Navy and Air Force, because they are carried as expenses for subsidiary organizations spread around the country and overseas.

The Army, according to a spokesman, estimates that it spends about $195 million a year on its bands, but that does not include those of the National Guard. Altogether, the Army says on its Web site that it has 5,000 musicians, describing itself as "the largest and oldest employer of musicians in the country."

Based on the Marine figures, total Defense Department spending could reach $500 million or more a year.

Clearly, our defense forces will be "hollowed out" if the armed forces are unable to release the CD, "This is Navy Country," from the Navy's own country and bluegrass band.

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