I support the Chuck Hagel nomination for Defense Secretary, in large part because I think we should have a smaller military footprint around the world, and invest that money at home. But I’m not confident that that money will be used prudently at home. Instead, it will go to pay the doctor bills of old people; there won’t be much for anything else. This is not, of course, a good thing, but it is better than borrowing money we don’t have to pay for things we can’t afford, until the whole damn thing collapses. I appreciate David Brooks pointing out the real meaning of the Hagel nomination: the American people prefer Medicare to guns. Excerpts:
Advocates for children, education and the poor don’t even try to defend their programs by lobbying for cutbacks in Medicare. They know that given the choice, voters and politicians care more about middle-class seniors than about poor children.
So far, defense budgets have not been squeezed by the Medicare vice. But that is about to change. Oswald Spengler didn’t get much right, but he was certainly correct when he told European leaders that they could either be global military powers or pay for their welfare states, but they couldn’t do both.
Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.
All the charges about Hagel’s views on Israel or Iran are secondary. The real question is, how will he begin this long cutting process? How will he balance modernizing the military and paying current personnel? How will he recalibrate American defense strategy with, say, 455,000 fewer service members?
How, in short, will Hagel supervise the beginning of America’s military decline? If members of Congress don’t want America to decline militarily, well, they have no one to blame but the voters and themselves.
Again, to be clear, I don’t think a reduction in the US global military footprint is necessary a “decline” in the sense we usually think of such a thing, as opposed to a retreat to more rational and defensible borders, so to speak. Was the drawdown in defense spending after the Cold War a “decline” — or a prudent use of our resources, relative to the threats America faced? The US is currently responsible for 40 percent of the world’s entire military expenditures — that’s five times what China spends, and 10 times what Russia spends. Do we have any other adversaries? According to the CFR’s numbers from 2011, if the US slashed defense spending by about 50 percent overnight, we would be back to 2000 numbers. Those were the days in which everyone gassed on about how America was a “hyperpower.” Was that really Carter-era, post-Vietnam rot?
Brad Plumer has a pretty impressive collection of charts showing how massive the US defense budget is. Clearly we have a lot of room to cut. One of the most surprising charts is the one showing poll results indicating that the American public broadly supports defense cuts, even much deeper cuts than either party proposes. Which makes David Brooks’s point.
But just so you keep things in perspective, there’s a chart showing that annual Social Security payments are about equal to the defense budget of the only global superpower, the one that spent as much on defense as the next 13 nations combined. And the budget for Medicare and other government-subsidized health care programs? The same.
Austerity’s a bitch.