Questioning assumptions, left and right - We lead off with a pair of recent books, one striving desperately to undermine our confidence, and the other trying just as hard to snap us out of our fu...
23 hours ago
Every once in a while people start suggesting that we save money by means-testing Medicare and Social Security — hey, Bill Gates doesn’t need them.
But Atrios is exactly right: there’s no money in it.
Remember that we’ve just been through a ferocious debate over whether $250,000 a year makes you rich, with $400,000 a year working stiffs crying poverty, declaring that they couldn’t possibly afford to pay Clinton-era tax rates; do you imagine that we’ll be able to set a lower bar on denying Medicare benefits?
So maybe, maybe, we’d end up means-testing for the top 2 percent or so of the population.
But while there’s some money to be gotten by taxing the top 2 percent — they have more than 20 percent of the income — they account for roughly their pro-rata share of benefit costs — that is, the richest 2 percent account for around 2 percent of Medicare expenses. (Maybe a bit less because they’re healthier than the average American, maybe a bit more because they live longer.) Social Security is more complicated, but bear in mind that high earners get bigger benefits, but also get taxed on those benefits; so again, we’re talking about savings not very different from their share of the population.
So we’re talking very small savings here. This is more anti-Wille Suttonism, going where the money isn’t. - Paul Krugman
I know I've been picking on Republican heartthrob Paul Ryan a lot, but his statement yesterday at the Budget Committee really exposes the absurdity of his Brave Man reputation:
Instead of confronting our debt head on, the President has presented us with a budget that spends too much, borrows too much and taxes too much. ...
He has argued for massive tax increases that would stifle economic growth and make our fiscal picture worse -- this budget alone contains $1.6 trillion in higher taxes on American families, businesses and entrepreneurs.
And on our nation’s most pressing fiscal challenges, the President has abdicated his leadership role. First, he punted to a bipartisan commission to develop solutions to the problem.
Then, when his own commission put forward a set of fundamental entitlement and tax reforms, he ignored them.
Okay, first Ryan lambastes President Obama for raising taxes, and in the next sentence accuses him of abdicating his leadership. Now, Ryan advocates the loopy supply-side view that tax hikes will "make our fiscal picture worse," so I suppose there's an internal consistency of sorts to his insanity. Still, in the real world, proposing that rich, powerful people pay a little more to the government is both politically difficult and something that would reduce the deficit. Ryan manages to position himself as an advocate of fiscal boldness and a staunch opponent of raising one thin dime of taxes. Nice trick.
The best part is the last sentence, where Ryan assails Obama for ignoring the proposals put forward by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Hey, you know who else opposes Bowles-Simpson? Paul Ryan! He was on the commission and he voted no. How can Ryan claim Obama's lack of interest in a proposal Ryan voted against indicts Obama? Does he not remember having served on this commission? - Jonathan Chait
The rubber-hand illusion has been a popular perception experiment for more than a decade. In it, a research subject's real hand is hidden from view while a fake rubber hand is substituted in plain sight. Both hands are simultaneously stroked with a brush until the person's mind has come to perceive the fake hand as part of their body. In some people—especially those prone to a poorly developed body schema—the real hand then starts to get ignored by the brain, marked by a discernable temperature drop. The concept has also helped some amputees alleviate pain in phantom limbs.
But the false-hand illusion has been based on the notion that the brain is maintaining a normal, symmetrical body plan: two arms, two hands. A strange new study throws that model out the window—or at least adds on a new twist. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, have shown these healthy adults could easily be tricked into feeling as if they had three arms.
Alex Tabarrok makes an interesting point: recent experience seems to suggest that Keynesian policies, even if appropriate, turn out not to be politically feasible when you need them. I don’t think we need to take that as an immutable fact of life; but still, what are the alternatives?
Increased wage and price flexibility is NOT the answer: you need fiscal policy when you’re in a liquidity trap, and as some of us have tried to explain many times — apparently without getting through — those are the conditions under which falling wages and prices are likely to make things worse, not better.
Better regulation, so that crises don’t happen as often, would be good. So would stronger automatic stabilizers.
But what really stands out, if you assume that discretionary fiscal policy won’t be there when you need it, is that this makes the case for a higher inflation target. Olivier Blanchard, at the IMF, made just that case a year ago (pdf). If we’d come into this crisis with 4 or 5 percent inflation, not 2, there would have been more scope for conventional monetary policy to act before hitting the zero lower bound.
But the same people denouncing Keynesianism are also screaming about inflation, and would never countenance a higher inflation target. So what can we do if that, too, is ruled out?
Not much. If politics rules out all effective responses, there will be no effective responses. - Paul Krugman
Three-quarters of the world's coral reefs are at risk due to overfishing, pollution, climate change and other factors, says a major new assessment.
Reefs at Risk Revisited collates the work of hundreds of scientists and took three years to compile.
The biggest threat is exploitative fishing, the researchers say, though most reefs will be feeling the impact of climate change within 20 years.
The report revisits some of the territory explored in the original Reefs at Risk project, published in 1998, but in much greater detail.
Over the 13 years intervening, the area at risk of destruction has increased by nearly a third.
The main reason for that change has been a massive increase in damage from exploitative fishing, particularly in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Against this bleak backdrop, the researchers have been at pains to emphasise that there are things that can be done to reduce the damage.
"There are reasons for hope," said Lauretta Burke, senior associate at WRI and a lead author of the report. ...
"The report is full of solutions - real world examples where people have succeeded to turn things around," said Dr Spalding.
The showdown in Washington over budget cuts is on, big time. This one isn’t for the faint of heart. The Republican leadership in the House gave in to its radical new members and passed deep cuts to programs essential the nation’s health, and especially to those suffering the most in this economy. The Democrats, ever willing to give in on their supposed principles to appease the permanent anger of the Right, have proposed their own, less severe cuts, along with a sensible set of proposals for growing the economy, which of course require a certain amount of investment, something that has become a dirty word in the bizarre world of conservative politics, which sees cuts to the government as the only possible policy.
On the state level, we’re seeing drastic slashes as governors and legislatures try desperately to deal with the wreckage of the meltdown. The GOP has demonized taxes so much over the last few decades that we now live in a country where the traditional budgeting tools are no longer available to us. Democrats and Republicans used to understand that a careful mix of tax and spending policy always involved raising and lowering budgets and taxes to deal with the vagaries of the economy, and that governments could and should invest in certain parts of the economy to keep it vibrant and to help it grow. We invest in education, medical and scientific research, we help small businesses develop, we point the way to the future by promoting space exploration, innovations in energy and computer technology. All those investments help create new consumer products and spawn new industries. Republicans no longer believe that government can do anything right. If Democrats still believe in its proper role, they are keeping it to themselves. Now, we are reduced to a single tool, the axe.
Paul Ryan has been saying of President Obama's budget, "What we have is $1.6 trillion in new tax increases, $8.7 trillion in new spending. He's going to be adding $13 trillion to the debt over the course of his budget." Glenn Kessler figures out where these numbers come from. It's staggeringly dishonest:
The problematic figure in Ryan's statement is the claim that the president proposed $8.7 trillion in new spending. In response to a question about how this number was obtained, the Committee staff provided a chart that showed that outlays would be frozen every year for the next 10 years at the 2012 level of $3.729 trillion.
Thus, while in 2021 Obama proposes to spend $5.697 trillion, the Committee would still be spending $3.729 trillion, for a difference of almost $2 trillion. Add up the difference for every year, over 10 years, and it amounts to nearly $8.7 trillion, which the committee calls "new spending."
In other words, the Committee assumed the president needs to freeze all spending, without adjustments for inflation or population growth, for 10 years. Moreover, it makes this assumption for all spending, even mandatory programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which need to be changed by law.
Whatever bit of optimism or stretching you find in the administration's budget, nothing comes within an order of magnitude of this kind of dishonesty.
Ryan's reputation as an honest policy wonk is a curious thing. It must owe itself to the total dearth of elected Republicans who can even halfway plausibly bullshit their way through some numbers. - Jonathan Chait
Thanks to Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie for writing today’s strip. (Via Jerry Coyne).
The image is Voyager 1′s Pale Blue Dot.
The old joke goes, “What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in God?” The answer is, “A Jew.” And that’s largely true, but there are some exceptions to Jewish atheism. One is Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who, in a piece at PuffHo called “The frustrating, difficult, never-ending search for God,” tells us all how to find Him in these difficult times when the Big Man in the Sky seems to be hiding from us. The upshot: all is well, for we can find Him by reading sacred texts, keeping our eyes open, observing rituals, and acting like God (presuming, of course, that we know how God acts). But the final paragraph is telling:
All of this might be a little overwhelming, I say. But start somewhere. The search for God is frustrating and difficult, and it is never done. But with God, our lives have meaning and purpose; without God, we are reduced to being no more than a tiny speck in a vast universe.
There’s Abrahamic religion in a nutshell. Because we don’t like the truth—which is that all of us are just specks—we make up a god.
An interesting exchange between John Quiggin and Jonathan Chait on right-wing agnotology — that is, culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. The specific issue is birtherism, the claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya or anyway not in America, which polls indicate is a view held by a majority of Republican primary voters.
Quiggin suggests that right-wingers aren’t really birthers in their hearts; it’s just that affirming birtherism is a sort of badge of belonging, a shibboleth in the original biblical sense. Chait counters that much of the modern right lives in a mental universe in which liberal elites hide the truth, and in which they, through their access to Fox News etc., know things the brainwashed masses don’t.
My view is that Quiggin is right as far as right-wing politicians are concerned: for the most part they know that Obama was born here, that he isn’t a socialist,that there are no death panels, and so on, but feel compelled to pretend to be crazy as a career move. But I think Chait has it right on the broader movement.
I mean, I see it all the time on economic statistics: point out that inflation remains fairly low, that the Fed isn’t really printing money, whatever, and you get accusations that the data are being falsified, that you yourself are cherry-picking by using the same measures you’ve always used, whatever. There really is epistemic closure: if the facts don’t support certain prejudices, that’s because They are hiding the truth, which we true believers know.
And don’t get me started on climate change. - Paul Krugman
A new study by the Southern Poverty Law Center describes a big rise in hate groups across the country.
By its count, there are now more than 1,000 active extremist groups in the U.S. Experts say the largest increase comes from militias that consider the federal government their enemy. ...
"We have absolutely explosive growth of these groups in 2009," [Mark] Potok says. "And what we have now found is that that growth continued through 2010. We have a higher hate group count than we've ever had."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit organization that tracks extremist movements, says there are three major reasons for the increase: the bad economy, the wide reach of the Internet and changing racial patterns in the country.
Experts say the most negative energy seems to be coming from people who think the federal government is conspiring to take away their freedom.
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If you value freedom, you should flee from religion as the antelope flees the lion. Religion is the very antithesis of freedom, insisting on our complete subjugation to the unachievable demands of an invisible but supremely powerful overlord. Think of Islam, whose very name means 'submission'! Think of Christianity, which claims it is disobedience that brought original sin into the world, with all that entails in terms of suffering and injustice and even earthquakes and tsunamis. Imagine! To claim that human obedience is so imperative that the purposes of an omnipotent deity and the very fabric of the planet, if not the whole universe, depend upon it and can be catastrophically disrupted at the first whiff of rebellion - and then to claim that such a religion is the source of human freedom!
The Abrahamic god even enthusiastically endorses the vilest of all negations of freedom: slavery. In Leviticus 25, there is a direct quote from this supposedly perfect deity, specifically permitting the Israelites to take and keep slaves, the only proviso being that they must be from the neighboring tribes and not from their own people. Straight from the horse's mouth, as it were, and hardly a shining example of freedom as a religious ideal.
Religion delights in petty rules and the exercise of power over its followers. What theistic religion does not attempt to curtail believers' freedom with nonsensical decrees about foods that may or may not be eaten, fibers that may or may not be worn, days on which they may or may not work, coverings that must or must not be worn on their heads, books that must or must not be read, images that may or may not be created, words that may or may not be spoken, ideas they may or may not explore, actions they may or may not perform, rituals - whether physical or symbolic - they must perform in order to cleanse themselves of impurities of religion's own invention?
There is no aspect of our lives, no matter how intimate, which religion does not unblushingly insist on its right to control. ...
And yet we are invited to credit religion as the source of true freedom? It is a laughable claim, a disgraceful claim, a claim that makes a mockery of language as well as of truth and of human dignity. As such it is on a par with other religious claims, such as those that define perfect forgiveness as something dependent on the barbaric sacrifice-by-crucifixion of an innocent man, perfect justice as consisting in the innocent being tortured to death so the guilty can be let off scot-free, and perfect love as something that would damn us to hell for all eternity if we refuse to accept such grotesque monstrosities as evidence of a perfect and loving god. - Paula Kirby
The gap between the richest 1% of Americans and the rest of us is wider today than at any time since just before the start of the Great Depression. Writing for Forbes.com, Eva Pereira noted recently that since 1983, 43% of all financial wealth created in America went to the top 1%, 94% went to the top 20% while the remaining 80% of Americans were left to divvy up just 6% of the wealth created since the early 1980s. As a result, the Website econproph.com pointed out, income inequality in America is even greater than in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, nations that revolted in part because of income inequality.
But not to fear, Republicans have responded by targeting the wild excesses of…public employee unions. Having sucked the wealth out of workers in the private sector, Republicans are now targeting workers in the public sector for wanting decent pay, health care coverage and a retirement spent above the poverty line. To this end, Republicans have been busy sowing intra-class warfare by stirring up resentment among the middle class against public employee unions. Apparently, Republicans are hoping that you can always hire one-half of the working class to kill the benefits of the other half, to tweak a quote by railroad baron Jay Gould. Pay no attention to that man in the gated community who shipped your job overseas, destroyed the value of your home, drained the wealth out of the country and tanked the economy, go after your neighbor for having health care coverage.
The war on public sector unions began in Wisconsin and has since spread to Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. As Ezra Klein pointed out in the Washington Post last week, states aren’t in dire financial straits because of public employee unions, states are reeling because of a recession brought on by the excesses of Wall St. But as MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell quipped last night, “Republicans aren’t about to let a crisis go to waste.”
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A recent report on a poll finding that a majority of Republicans (that is, likely primary voters) are “birthers”, with only 28 per cent confident that Obama was born in the United States has raised, not for the first time, the question “how can they think that?” and “do they really believe that?”.
Such questions are the domain of agnotology, the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. Agnotology is not, primarily, the study of ignorance in the ordinary sense of the term. So, for example, someone who shares the beliefs of their community, unaware that those beliefs might be subject to challenge, might be ignorant as a result of their cultural situation, but they are not subject to culturally-induced ignorance in the agnotological sense.
But this kind of ignorance is not at issue in the case of birtherism. Even in communities where birtherism is universal (or at least where any dissent is kept quiet), it must be obvious that not everyone in the US thinks that the elected president was born outside the US and therefore ineligible for office.
Rather, birtherism is a shibboleth, that is, an affirmation that marks the speaker as a member of their community or tribe. (The original shibboleth was a password chosen by the Gileadites because their Ephraimite enemies could not say “Sh”.) Asserting a belief that would be too absurd to countenance for anyone outside a given tribal/ideological group makes for a good political shibboleth.
But I do think the concept of agnotology applies here. Quiggin's argument hinges on the fact that conservatives understand that some people do not believe President Obama was born outside the United States (or is a Muslim, or...) But what those conservatives believe is that they enjoy access to truth that is denied Americans who are brainwashed by the mainstream media. The believe that Fox News is not just a network that counteracts the biased liberal media, or even a network that reports the stories that the liberal media ignore, but the vehicle for Truth:
Does all this hurt or help the Republicans? In short-run electoral terms, I think it helps. A base of loyal supporters who, for one or other of the reasons mentioned above, are immune to factual evidence has to help win elections. There are, however, two big costs
- First, people have noticed that Republicans have a problem with reality. That perception, which undermines the rationale for all sorts of thinking about policy, will take a while to sink in, but it will also be hard to erase once it is generally accepted. In the long run, this has to turn off a fair number of Republican-leaning independents and any remaining Republicans with a capacity for embarrassment.
- Double-think is very difficult, and people will start to act on the basis of their beliefs. If those beliefs are ludicrously false, trouble is likely to follow.
One major problem related to your second conclusion is that the GOP has unusually trended heavily toward being the party of the elderly and rich for awhile and there are fair odds that many of their current voters will be dead before the consequences are obvious. Breaking the idea of concern for the future is in some ways worse than the actual problem.
Yesterday I somewhat cynically suggested that Republicans were not interested in actually altering the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Today, Mitch McConnell says he's not interested in altering anything about the law:
Republicans aren't likely to bury the hatchet with President Obama over the healthcare reform act, their Senate leader said Friday.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), fresh off an unsuccessful vote on Wednesday to repeal healthcare reform, said not to expect Republicans to strike any agreements with the president.
"I think it’s clear that this is an area upon which we are not likely to reach any agreements with the president," McConnell said on conservative pundit Laura Ingraham's radio show.
If this was a dispute about policy, of course, Republicans would be willing to pursue alterations. Democrats didn't like the Bush tax cuts, but if Bush had been willing to tighten up some tax loopholes, maybe lose the estate tax cuts, then they'd have been happy to entertain some alterations. While they may not have liked the law, they could surely imagine ways to improve it that could meet with bipartisan approval, especially given President Obama's professed willingness to negotiate changes. They could do so while still pursuing their preferred model of health care reform.
But the Affordable Care Act has become to the right a symbolic totem that has little to do with actual policies. Its very existence is an enduring emotional wound. Greg Sargent writes:
Consider this article by the Post's Amy Goldstein, which quotes a range of Tea Partyers talking about the repeal of "Obamacare" in fervent and even messianic tones. They are prepared to invest years in realizing this goal. It's clear that for an untold number of base GOP voters, major questions about political and national identity are now bound up in repeal. An entire industry has been created around this new Holy Grail. There is now a big stake for a whole range of actors, some less reputable than others, in keeping millions of Americans emotionally invested in the idea that total repeal is not only achievable, but absolutely necessary to preserving their liberty and the future of the republic.
The GOP is operating not on the basis of some analysis of public policy but from a sheer pathology. - Jonathan Chait
Diseases and ailments that were fatal just a few generations ago can now be easily treated, we can peer into the body without the cut of a knife using Magnetic Resonance Imaging, there are few points on the globe that can not be reached by wireless communication, and the computing power of a laptop exceeds that of room-size calculating machines that represented the state of the art in 1950. All brought to us through the efforts of elites.
And this is where the current distrust of scientists becomes a major concern. For there are real problems that need to be addressed, but we can't handle them without the advice of experts, which are often not respected by both the general public and the scientific community.
The findings and conclusions of scientists and engineers who have devoted years and years to the mastery of their fields of inquiry should be accorded the respect they deserve, and not dismissed for ideological reasons. Few people second-guess the political motivations of their dentist when informed that they have a cavity - why would they do the same with atmospheric scientists when they discuss a hole in the ozone layer? Strong science, elaborated by experts, is the foundation for sound policy.
What happens when experts disagree? More good news — this happens much less than one might think, at least concerning questions of fact (interpretations are another matter). Of course, it is important to realize that not every scientist is an expert in every branch of science (I am concerned here with scientific communication, and not interdisciplinary research). If my cardiologist tells me that I need open heart surgery, I may seek a second opinion before having a difficult and expensive operation — but I won't consult a dermatologist.
It pains me to say this, but — physics professors are not experts in all fields of science. While we may be able to address, for example, the quantum mechanical mechanisms by which carbon dioxide ignores visible light but absorbs and re-emits infra-red radiation, and can discuss the application of the scientific method, we are not climatologists, and should respect the conclusions of those who have devoted the same time and effort to their field as we have to ours. As the science fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote: "Expertise in one field does not carry over into other fields. But experts often think so. The narrower their field of knowledge the more likely they are to think so." - James Kakalios
Paul Rosenberg catches the president rewriting history — and, revealingly, doing so in a way that makes the case for timid, incremental action, while waving away the actual history of bold strokes.
Specifically, Obama said this:
This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people. When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew.
Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal.
This is all wrong: both programs were huge from the start. From the beginning, Social Security applied to all private-sector workers, except those in agriculture, domestic service, or casual employment — and yes, those exceptions happened to exclude the majority of African-Americans. Still, it was by no means a small program that grew big. Medicare covered everyone 65 and older right from the beginning, although initially it only provided hospital insurance.
So: one thing you’re going to hear is something along the lines of, “In 1950 life expectancy was only 68 years, so hardly anyone was collecting Social Security; now it’s 78 years — the problem is obvious”.
Does anyone know what’s wrong with this? You over there in the corner?
That’s right: a life expectancy of 68 years doesn’t mean that a lot of people toddle along then suddenly keel over over after threescore and eight birthdays. Mostly it meant much higher child mortality than we have now, which has no relevance one way or the other to Social Security.
Much more to the point is the number of years people could expect to live after reaching 65: 14 years in 1950, 18.5 years now. Not so impressive a change, is it? And the retirement age is already 66 for my cohort, and scheduled to rise to 67 on current law.
Oh, and by the way, rising life expectancy was built into Social Security planning from the beginning. The big surprise has, if anything, been stagnating life expectancy among less affluent Americans.
Finally, disparities in life expectancy have been rising sharply, with much smaller gains for disadvantaged socioeconomic groups and/or those with less education than the average. Yet these are precisely the people who depend most on Social Security. ...
It turns out that the good people at EPI got there well ahead of me. They point us to this study by the Social Security Administration, which shows (Table 4) that men in the bottom half of the earnings distribution saw their life expectancy at age 65 rise only 1.1 years from 1982 to 2006. Over the same period, by the way, the retirement age — under current law — rose 8 months.
When medical expenses are big, they’re big; even the very affluent are grateful when Medicare pays the bills for their mother-in-laws bypass or dialysis. The importance of Medicare, in short, is obvious to all but the very rich.
Social Security, by contrast, is something that matters enormously to the bottom half of the income distribution, but no so much to people in the 250K-plus club. A 30 percent cut in benefits would represent disaster for tens of millions of Americans, but a barely noticeable inconvenience for VSPs and everyone they know. A rise in the retirement age would be a vast hardship for people who do manual labor, but if anything a gift to VSPs, who don’t want to step aside in any case. And so on down the line.
So going after Social Security is a way to seem tough and serious — but entirely at the expense of people you don’t know.
The long term budget deficit is about one thing: medical costs. It’s not about “entitlements.” Social Security isn’t a long run problem of any serious consequence, nor are various small programs that count as entitlements in the budget process. Long-term projections of the federal budget are very clear. It’s all about health care.
Medical costs. Medical costs are going up much faster than inflation. Therefore, Medicare and Medicaid, and any other government programs affected by medical costs, will, long term, get far more expensive than any realistic level of taxation can handle.
So when budget hawks talk about “entitlements,” as Andrew Sullivan did today, they’re using language that in my view obscures, rather than illuminates, the situation.
Now, I’d go a bit further, as others have done. I agree with those who have argued that health care isn’t really, properly speaking, a federal budget problem. It’s a serious problem for the American economy. Thinking of it as a budget deficit problem misses the point; shut down Medicare completely and you solve the budget deficit part of it, but you still have an important dysfunctional situation with regard to health care.
Either way, I agree with Jonathan Chait: the way to measure a politician on federal budget deficits is really just to measure whether he or she has made medical costs a priority. ...
Getting back to my main point...in my view, those who are upset about the long-term federal budget deficit should talk about it in terms of what it is, health care costs. Just as the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” encourages sloppy thinking (because nuclear weapons are not really similar at all to chemical and biological weapons in lots of important ways), talking about “entitlements” confuses the budget situation. I could see “Medicare and Medicaid” or, perhaps, “government health programs,” but not entitlements.
One thing I’m hearing and reading from liberal sources is the argument that we can find big savings by ending the war in Afghanistan, and more generally by cutting bloated defense spending. So, a few words on that issue.
Yes, there’s a lot of wasteful defense spending — in fact, it’s almost surely the most waste-ridden part of the federal budget, because politicians are afraid to say no to anything for fear of being called unpatriotic. And even aside from the question of the Bush wars, it has long been clear that we’re still spending a lot to head off threats that haven’t existed since the fall of the Soviet Union. Read Fred Kaplan for a sense of just how bad it is.
Then there are those wars. I was against Iraq from the beginning — and I was pretty lonely out there on the pages of major newspapers. Afghanistan made sense in 2002, but I have no idea what we’re doing there now.
But if we’re talking about fiscal issues, you have to bear the arithmetic in mind. We’re not living in the 1950s, when defense was half the federal budget. Even a drastic cut in military spending wouldn’t release enough money to offset more than a small fraction of the projected rise in health care costs.
Still, $708.2 billion, the sum requested just for fiscal year 2011, is an extraordinary chunk of change. The Center for a New American Security (hardly a dovish think tank) calculates that, adjusting for inflation, this sum is 13 percent higher than the defense budget at the peak of the Korean War, 33 percent higher than at the peak of the Vietnam War, 23 percent higher than at the peak of the Cold War, and 64 percent higher than the Cold War's average.
There has been one constant in the defense budget ever since the mid-1960s: the money has been divided almost exactly evenly—never varying by more than a couple of percentage points—among the Army, Navy, and Air Force. For all of Gates' apparent rationality, the same is true in this budget: 32 percent goes to the Army, 35 percent goes to the Navy, 33 percent goes to the Air Force. (For more on this, click here.) It is extremely unlikely that our national-security needs just so happen to demand a response that gives each of our three services a nearly equal share of the military budget.
In other words, the Defense Department is a monstrous bureaucracy, and its budget is a political document—a set of weights and balances to keep the natural tensions from erupting out of control. (In the 1950s, when budgets were very tight, and before this tacit pie-splitting deal was worked out, the service chiefs saw one another as, quite literally, enemies. For an example, click here.)
I’m baffled by commenters who read my earlier note as an endorsement of current levels of defense spending. As I said, the defense budget is full of waste, we’ve been fighting wars that we shouldn’t, and we’re defending against threats that no longer exist. That defense buildup after 9/11 was outrageous: we were attacked by a handful of terrorists wielding box-cutters (or something like that — I’m aware that’s not certain), and we responded by (a) buying a lot of heavy tanks (b) invading a country that had nothing to do with the attack.
... Despite all that, it remains true that defense spending isn’t at the heart of the budget issue. The current Obama budget calls for defense spending of 3.4% of GDP by 2016; you can make the case that the number should be closer to 2%. But that’s not enough to avoid hard choices about health care and revenue.
If you can’t see how it’s possible both to believe that we waste a lot of money on the military, and to believe that ending that waste would make only a modest contribution to our fiscal problem, I can’t help you.