Monday, February 26, 2007

The military-industrial beast

The US defense budget continues to reach astounding heights. The Bush administration's request for fiscal 2008, made in early February, has topped $600 billion. This uncontrolled expenditure, already at 48% of world defense spending in 2005, has probably breached the 50% barrier. Think about what that means: the US spends more on defense than the rest of the world combined.

Historically, the US has been big on defense budgets, at least since the cold war began. As the chart below demonstrates, the fall of the Berlin wall and the implosion of the Soviet Union, courtesy of Mikhail Gorbachev, had a fairly small effect on US military spending. The military-industrial beast must be fed, cold war or no cold war.
(Picture from slide 2 of presentation by Winslow Wheeler of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information. Click on the picture to see it a bit more clearly.)

The table below, created with data from one of the White House's budget documents, shows that about 25% (or less) of the government's largesse is spent on military personnel and housing for their families. Even those who are fond of the empty slogan "support our troops" cannot fail to see that the troops and their families get very little of this taxpayer funded bonanza. The giant procurement and R&D budget is what goes to feed the military-industrial complex. Note that this amount is not used for "Operations and maintenance", for which additional money upwards of $200 billion is spent.

2006 2007 (Est.) 2008 (Est.)
($, billion)
522 572 607
Military personnel, housing
($, billion)
129 131 137
(as % of total) 25% 23% 23%
R&D, Procurement
($, billion)
158 337 295
(as % of total) 30% 59% 49%

Of the amount requested for fiscal year 2008, $481 billion is for expenditure on things other than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A chunk of this absurdly large amount, to the tune of $60 billion, is being spent on obsolete cold war weapons - this according to an assistant secretary of defense from the Reagan era.

I find it hard to believe that any sensible person fails to see that this is corporate welfare at its worst. Nevertheless, there will be the occasional op-ed column in the national newspapers by paid shills claiming that the correct way to view the defense budget is to see it as a percentage of GDP. This has been one of my pet peeves for the last few years. The GDP is the total amount of spending by every entity in the economy - the government, businesses as well as the entire population of the country. It is a large number. Dividing a large number (the defense budget) by a much larger number (the GDP) is obviously going to yield a comfortingly small number. What is more relevant is the ratio of defense spending to total government spending. This number hovers around 25%. If you use discretionary government spending as the denominator (i.e., spending that excludes mandated expenditure such as social security and medicare), the number jumps to around 50%. Add to this the fact that the consistently large size of the defense budget is the primary reason for the growing US public debt, which stands at $8.9 trillion. For fiscal year 2006, the interest expense on this mountain of debt was $406 billion.

The military industrial beast and the parasites it brings along are feasting on American taxpayers.