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Why is Defense Waste Taboo in the Tax Debate?

For all the talk about the big Republican tax cut it’s really only about $150 billion per year—although proponents multiply it by 10 years, so that $1.5 trillion sounds like a lot. Arguments about how to pay for it may end up derailing or neutering it in the end. Which is ironic, since Trump wants to add $50 billion [1] to the defense budget. But no one wants to talk about defense waste during these tax debates. Why is the Pentagon budget untouchable?

The waste in defense today is incredible. It’s not that Americans don’t inherently care: My 2013 article, 16 Ways to Cut Defense [2] is still at the top of the search engines after four years. Just to mention a few of the 16 ways: Cut some of the 4,000 military bases in the U.S. Most of them were set up in horse and buggy days before highways and helicopters brought them all closer together. Another, combine the Army and Navy hospital system. Furthermore, TRICARE costs another $50 billion to give mainly non-combat veterans free family health insurance for the rest of their lives.

Here’s another suggestion: Test military weaponry before the Pentagon orders it. There is vast corruption in placing supply factories in key congressional districts to build a constituency for new weapons even before their design is tested. The biggest boondoggle from this is the $1.4 trillion F-35 [3] fighter plane program. We should return to bidding out contracts for the lowest costs.

As for personnel, cut the number of civilian Pentagon employees, which is now around 800,000 persons [4]. There are too many officers—the Army and Navy have about one for every four to five enlisted men [5], some triple the number compared to World War II. Generals are equally super abundant and never get fired. In World War II, General Marshall fired dozens of them. And when every bomb now hits its target why do we need so many bombers?

And let’s not forget the trillion-dollar nuclear weapons modernization program [6] started by President Obama, and continued with President Trump, which will add new nuclear weapons to the arsenal.

Another enormous waste involves Navy ships. The New York Times published a report [7] in November after the recent collisions of two destroyers in the Pacific. Even though one ship now has the missile accuracy in firepower equivalent to maybe half a dozen ships in World War II, the Navy appears to still schedule their numbers and crews the old way. Since the accidents, the Navy is now revamping its scheduling process. Representative Mike Coffman urged the Navy [8] to adopt “sea swap policies (to save billions of dollars) for cruisers, destroyers and amphibious ships by flying crews out to ships instead of changing crews at home ports.”

More appalling is the information that until two years ago nuclear submarines were also operating on such grueling watch schedules as to leave captains and crews exhausted even though the service ordered (nuclear) submarines to abandon similar schedules two years ago. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report from May said sailors were on duty up to 108 hours each week. Why? America is not at war, why are we running our ships ragged? What are they all doing?

The fact that all this waste if off the table in budget debates is almost criminal. All the claptrap on cable news and not a word of these Pentagon boondoggles and mishandling of taxpayer funds! Most Republicans are ready to cut health care, much less reform much of its inordinate waste and monopoly pricing, but they can’t talk about military waste? House speaker Paul Ryan has a sad record on this issue. Years ago, in Tax Collectors for the Warfare State [9], I wrote how Ryan and many Republicans were ready to sacrifice the home mortgage interest deduction to pay for more war in Afghanistan.

It’s heading us toward eventual bankruptcy when even important tax cuts to bring back faster economic growth may be sacrificed to hang us on a cross of guns (with due respect to William Jennings Bryan speech about hanging America on a cross of gold).

Jon Basil Utley is publisher of The American Conservative.

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24 Comments To "Why is Defense Waste Taboo in the Tax Debate?"

#1 Comment By john On December 1, 2017 @ 10:07 pm

Well unlike other programs, your very patriotism will be questioned if you quibble about the price of the next weapons system.

Nobody finds it unpatriotic or suggests you “hate your country” if you wonder whether food stamp program might be trimmed. but oh boy if you suggest maybe we can’t afford some piece of military kit.

#2 Comment By Anne Mendoza On December 1, 2017 @ 10:10 pm

Great post. Clearly the donor class doesn’t care about grossly bloated defense budgets and obscene waste because if they did something would be done to clean house. The donor class doesn’t even appear to notice when Congress gratuitously and regularly exceeds defense budget requests by tens of billions of dollars. But the donor class does care about Social Security and Medicare which they want gutted. Why is that?

#3 Comment By John On December 2, 2017 @ 6:52 am

I am not sure if the piece is meant to imply that these practices make no sense, or if there may be a rational reason for this, or if there is a starting point for debate, etc.

It is really a combination of self-interest, blatant corruption, raw imperialism, and a public which has been conditioned to see militarism in a positive light.

I don’t thank soldiers or veterans for their service, as they do not serve me in any conceivable way. We’re not under existential threat from any nation on warth, yet the public is conditioned to believe that we are at the brink of annihiliation. “If we don’t fight them over there, we will have to fight them here” and so on.

It is fictions like these which allow the MI complex to run amok, and not be called out on stupidity like aircraft carriers (which were recognized to be obsolete decades ago), or the folly of trying to bring the rest of the world into line with the neocon vision of a “pax Americana.”

The truth is that the world has become small. You can reach anywhere on earth in two days travel. There are no more frontiers to conquer, no more natives to kick around. The natives have the same guns we do now. Brilliant minds have long recognized that the future does not rset in trying to swap another nations flag for ours, but in advancements in technology and eventually establishing a permanent presence of humanity in the solar system, then interstellar space.

Of the 1.4 trillion for a worthless and useless strike fighter, could that have been better spent researching fusion power or reactionless thrusters? What about replacing aircraft carrier with cheap arsenal ships and using the surplus on developing better ways of putting payloads in orbit?

But this would take politicians with moral courage and the American people to wake up and see the future does not involve conquest and control, but becoming transformed as a nation in priority and approach.

#4 Comment By david On December 2, 2017 @ 7:36 am

It’s been more than a decade since DOD has passed an audit something they are legally obligated to do. Mattis has not said a word on this subject nor has president Trump. In the main stream conservative media all you hear is that we have to spend more money even though we outspend the next seven/eight countries combined including Russia and China. Listen to talk radio and the MSCM hosts never talk about controlling wasteful spending, just spending more. It’s not how much it’s how well you spend funds.

#5 Comment By Kent On December 2, 2017 @ 8:45 am

Conservatism no longer means what it used to mean. We need a new word for Republican Congressmen. I propose “scumbags”. But I’m sure others are better with the English language here.

#6 Comment By JohnE_o On December 2, 2017 @ 8:55 am

“War is a Racket”

#7 Comment By waste not On December 2, 2017 @ 9:54 am

I couldn’t agree more. Wasting money on defense is no different from wasting it on welfare fraud. It’s a disgrace to conservatism that so-called conservatives don’t acknowledge the colossal sums that are wasted or stolen, that they don’t take responsibility for it, and that they don’t end it. They pretend that defense waste and corruption have nothing to do with our deficits. And in doing that, they themselves are causing the deficits.

The Tea Party needs to swing back into action and start kicking Establishment GOP defense waste parasites out of Congress.

#8 Comment By Dan Green On December 2, 2017 @ 2:10 pm

Americans are conditioned to expect a war on a regular basis.

#9 Comment By Thomas W. Kester On December 2, 2017 @ 7:17 pm

Wow! Didn’t realize TRICARE was free! I’m gonna stop sending in those darn premiums! Thanks, Jon! Whoopee!

#10 Comment By Michael N. Moore On December 2, 2017 @ 10:03 pm

As University of Washington professor Rebecca U. Thorpe points out in “The American Warfare State”, her definitive study of the political economy of military spending,a significant majority of House Members represent districts that are economically dependent on military spending. The arms industry cherry picks or creates sub-contractors in ex-urban and rural areas where they become the monopoly employer. This particularly impacts Republicans.

#11 Comment By John On December 2, 2017 @ 10:12 pm

First, there is no tax debate. Giving rich people everything we can give them is a moral imperative, as is sticking it to the residents of states which support Democrats.

Second, since the Second World War, the military has become a source of patronage for contractors and suppliers, and a jobs program for citizens from rural states represented by the Republican Party.

And that’s why it’s never waste when it even tangentially involves the DoD.

#12 Comment By Hexexis On December 2, 2017 @ 10:40 pm

DoD has been the biggest purchasing agent in the US of A for decades now & has also been the primary forn. policy maker at least since the 1980s: Iran-Contra debacle got lots of mileage in the media for contravening the Boland amendment, but it was really the most public disaster among many of a forn. policy run from the CIA, DoD, & NSC.

Ironically, for all the Ken Burns-based soul searching about Vietnam, what former CIA & State intell. analyst Mel Goodman calls the “militarization of intelligence” began during the Ford. admin. (CoS Cheney, SECDEF Rumsfeld), even before the fall of Saigon, April 1975; which ensures that most intelligence gathered by all those no-such agencies is of forn. troop movements & strength, concluding w/ the potpurri of worst-case scenarios.

It is the swirling galaxy of these latter (Iran, N. Korea, Russia) that ensures the DoD will always remain not only overbudgeted but also recipient of 70% of other Cabinet depts. (State, DVA) “discretionary funds.”

#13 Comment By Christian Chuba On December 3, 2017 @ 8:49 pm

The sequester required a cap of $545B, Obama actually budgeted $600B by adding the Overseas Contingency Operations. Therefore, the $700B budget is $100B larger than Obama’s baseline.

Hmm … let’s crunch the numbers, over 10yrs, $100B+ is voila $1T.

We would be able to keep state and local tax deductions get rid of the AMT, and in general not mess with individual rates as much to pay for corporate tax cuts.

It doesn’t matter, we will spend ourselves into oblivion until we can’t, just like the Soviet Union did. Until then we will just watch ourselves slowly bleed to death both figuratively and literally. Perhaps we deserve it, the rest of the world doesn’t.

#14 Comment By Ray Joseph Cormier On December 4, 2017 @ 10:33 am

David said, “It’s not how much it’s how well you spend funds.”

That’s why American Client States are now switching and buying Russian weapons systems. They’re better built for much cheaper.

All the reasons the Author spells out in this article should be discussed by the People, not the Politicians in the pockets of the M-I-C. We know about the scandal of the Pentagon spending $500 for hammers and toilet seats.

Contractor money is the biggest drug of them all. Always wanting more, you can’t be satisfied.



#15 Comment By Sid Finster On December 4, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

Did not a man named “Hermann Goering” have something to say about a subject much like this?

Did he not have a measure of practical experience and a certain insight into goading a population into supporting war and militarism?

#16 Comment By bacon On December 4, 2017 @ 1:01 pm

There are two things to consider when thinking about why our government acts in stupid, self-damaging ways.
Elected officials may start their careers with the good of the country as a goal, but the heady atmosphere and perks of office quickly push that goal aside in favor of all-important reelection. Business executives may start their careers with the goal of providing decent working conditions and providing quality products and services, but for many the lure of government $$ to be had from a Defense establishment that doesn’t pay much attention to quality is irresistible. In short, self-interest and money generally. carry the day.

#17 Comment By b. On December 4, 2017 @ 2:09 pm

“War is a Racket”

Well put, and it didn’t take WW2 to make it so, and it should not have taken Eisenhower to say so.

The most stunning aspect of the self-penetrating sinkhole that is US “national securities and interests” policy – already we are talking shareholder language – is how it redefines itself. Let me present two new vectors by which this feedback loop spreads and threads itself through every aspect of US policy and economy.

First, observe one of our Representatives engineering a rationale to put major US industries – starting with defense contractors – on “preventive” war footing. This is an innovative scheme to justify anything from industry subsidies, to compensation for overcapacity, to union busting and surveillance of employees and restrictions of employee constitutional rights.

Gallagher is taking a valid observation – that no modern economy, much less that of the US, is configured to sustain a modern military through any prolonged, all-out conflict with a peer adversary. Related is the recognition that redundancy and inefficiency are inevitable “waste”, the up-front cost of disaster preparedness and infrastructure resilience.

However, instead of e.g. arguing for refocusing the National Guard to domestic emergency response (as. e.g. William Lind has proposed), or to defend redundancies in the national power grid or the cost of local fire departments, Gallagher is prepared to not only defend the “necessary” waste in a military designed to defend oligarchic interests unrelated to the safety of the “homeland”, but to propose that the waste has to extend all the way through the logistics train and supply chain – through corporations such as Haliburton – down to the individual employee.

The second new vector to extend this “war readiness” and preventive “preparedness” not just through the defense industry of the present, but also though potential defense industry “partners” of the future, using perpetual war to tie the emerging “superpowers” of the information age into the ranks of defense contractors:


This is not only a boon to executives and venture capitalists that seek to get employed in the unassailable “service” of national security needs, it also offers subsidies and other support to industries on the rise that threaten to replace established players – see F-35 – who struggle to deliver the promised software “integrations” (which, see F-35 ALIS, are extending the gaming of “software as a service” as a coercive tool of customer retention to the maintenance and repair of military hardware).

If you accept that the US is “aready at war” and that our national security is “threatened” in the present, you have no viable response to suggestions that we should be on “total war” footing at all times, in every aspect of our society. Industry becomes vital to the “war effort”, preparatory or in sustenance, and civilian life becomes subordinate to the needs of the military in its struggle for exponentially growing existence. Big Government can now embrace this need for domestic ware preparedness as both a tool to coerce and co-opt industry, and as a pretext to buy and subsidize its “partners” in the corporate ranks.

This convergence was what brought about the concept of “total war” in the first place. It was pioneered in the lead-up to WW2 by one of the most repressive regimes our history records. A society that defines itself through wars will make them where they are not forced upon it, and perpetual war will redefine society to the point of collapse. Financing profitable war through debt is just the beginning.

#18 Comment By b. On December 4, 2017 @ 2:10 pm

Gallagher link:

#19 Comment By One Guy On December 4, 2017 @ 2:17 pm

Thank you, Mr. Utley; you’re my kind of conservative.

#20 Comment By FreeOregon On December 4, 2017 @ 3:37 pm

There’s USD $21 Trillion missing just from the Pentagon and HUD since 1998.

Until someone competent in government gets the money back, why would anyone want to pay taxes.

Imagine what we can do with the money. Solvent Social Security and Pensions, Infrastructure, no need for the IRS!

#21 Comment By Zgler On December 4, 2017 @ 7:11 pm

Great article. Thank you. The defense budget is hugely bloated by crony capitalism and catering to political donors.

#22 Comment By Wizard On December 5, 2017 @ 11:20 am

b. – “War is a Racket” was actually the title of a speech, and later a short book published in 1935, by Smedley Butler. Butler was twice awarded the Medal of Honor, and retired from the Marine Corps with the rank of Major General, so he presumably knew a little bit about the subject. So, yes, this was already out in public before WW II or Ike’s MIC speech. Some lessons people just have to keep learning. Maybe one of these days, it will stick.

#23 Comment By furbo On December 5, 2017 @ 11:41 am

For some perspective, defense spending has hovered just under 20% of the Federal Budget since the mid 90’s. It’s been decreasing as a % of GDP since the late 60’s. Social spending comes in around 60% of the budget. One of these is a specified function of the Federal Government, one is not. That said there can certainly be improvements, but many must start in congress, not at the pentagon. The Military would LOVE – LOVE – to close bases and consolidate forces…congress won’t let them and you can figure out why. Same goes for weapons procurement – somewhat. There are generals who are addicted to certain capabilities – but spreading out production over the entire continent – no. Even so the Congress forced the Army to buy tanks is explicitly said it didn’t need in 2013. Too many officers – yes, but that’s driven by structure and technology. We’ve divided the planet into regional sections overseen by (usually 4 star) generals with large staff’s comprised mainly of officers. Given these are staffed with type A++ personalities, they tend to generate their own work becoming “Self Licking Ice Cream Cones”. As to civilian personnel – yes. But we’ve downsized the Army for example from 780K to 450K from the mid 90’s…then went to war for 15 years with very little use of the Guard or Reserve (use of RC forces tends to negatively affect public opinion…but that’s a design feature – not a flaw)…so someone has to take up the extra work. Service members are overpaid – yes & no. Young soldier just outta high school – yes, absolutely. But 10yrs on when he’s responsible for 30 people and $3M in equipment – the reverse is true. A Colonel Commanding a Brigade has around 5,000 ’employees’ and is responsible for producing very concrete results in short order. He brings in around$150K with pay & allowances. Compare with a CEO from a similar sized company. So, yes it can be better, but most of the change is external to the DoD and no – it’s not going to bankrupt the country.

#24 Comment By Lee Green On December 12, 2017 @ 2:44 pm

“For some perspective, defense spending has hovered just under 20% of the Federal Budget since the mid 90’s. It’s been decreasing as a % of GDP since the late 60’s. Social spending comes in around 60% of the budget.”

That’s a perspective. Here’s another: Military spending is over half the discretionary budget. “Social spending” is 60% of the total budget, being mainly Social Security and Medicare. Those are fixed obligations. So, of all the money Congress actually votes to allocate, the military-industrial complex gets over half of it, and that’s without even adding in all the money in other departments that goes to support DoD activities.

“One of these is a specified function of the Federal Government, one is not.”

Though beloved of the militaristic, this assertion is simply false. The Constitution specifies “The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.” Common defense and general welfare, both, with neither privileged over the other. Does the general welfare clause mandate social spending? No, but it certainly doesn’t forbid taking care of the sick and elderly either. Does the common defense clause mandate maintaining a huge military establishment? No, and indeed the Framers’ original intent was not for the US to even have a standing army.

Our military-industrial-congressional complex is a greater affront to the Framers’ intent than social spending. You may not approve of social spending, consider it to be a waste of money, but it doesn’t threaten the democratic process itself, the way the widespread financial and moral corruption of the MIC does.