The issue that dares not speak its name is, predictably, getting little attention in this election year. With trade and national debt at harrowing levels, social spending cut to the bone and scant political will for new taxes, military spending would seem to be a logical target for liberal White House aspirants. But the Pentagon remains virtually untouchable.
All 10 candidates scramble for answers to the nation's deficit woes, but only Jesse Jackson has promised to make more than a dent in the $300-billion budget. Candidates are not entirely to blame; the complexities of military spending and its effect on the economy are elusive. And even though defense spending has been flat for the last three years, the issue demands debate and prescription.
The problem contains two related but separable dimensions. The first is the thorny matter of how much is enough: Must the United States dedicate half of its federal outlays to the military? The second dimension is a less emotional but no less complex matter: How do huge defense budgets affect the American economy?
To address the first question, America's global role must be examined, for the military budget is driven by the presumption that the United States should be the protector of free-market societies worldwide. This role, inherited from the British at the end of World War II, was easily maintained for two decades because America emerged from the war as the world's only healthy power.
The 40-year record is mixed. Latin America, Indochina and Africa have little benefit to show from U.S. hegemony. But it is a testament to that economic and military paternalism that Japan, Singapore, Western Europe and others have succeeded so brilliantly.
The price to America has been its own economic jeopardy as these countries rebounded from the war. But it would be foolish to punish our allies now for policies designed by Harry S. Truman, Dean Acheson, George Kennan and the other architects of the postwar recovery. The world--and that postwar architecture--has changed, and so should our military obligations.
More than half of the Pentagon budget is dedicated to Japan, Korea and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Gradually reducing that burden by 70% (about $100 billion) over the next five years is both feasible and prudent. These allies, whose economies now rival America's, can hardly refuse a major shift of the burden.
Other cuts in the defense budget are readily attainable; simply eliminating the waste of any enormous bureaucracy, streamlining procurement, etc., should save 10% or more. But the major savings must be derived from a new global posture, an assertion of America's leadership through economic power, diplomacy and commitment to human rights, rather than with increasingly outmoded military tentacles. Several recent opinion polls indicate that the public is amenable to such a new global role.
The second question about defense spending is related to the first. David Calleo, a distinguished Johns Hopkins scholar, makes the point in historical terms: "Britain's long-term decline was tied to the perpetual outward looking of its political and economic elites, and the consequent neglect of the country's domestic and social development." The aptness of this example for America is palpable.
Japan and West Germany, free from large military budgets, race ahead of us unencumbered. In contrast, our neglect of transportation, education, housing and industrial innovation is now taking its toll.
That negligence cannot confidently be blamed on defense spending. In the contest for divvying up the smaller federal pie of the 1980s, the Pentagon has consistently proven to be the most adept player. Through a finely tuned ability to distribute contracts, its lobbying powers are prodigious and unbridled. But the debate about the Pentagon's impact on the economy goes deeper than its evident adroitness at accumulating federal resources.
Is there something intrinsic about military spending that is bad for the U.S. economy? Liberal economists prognosticated darkly when the Reagan rearmament commenced. Military spending, they said, does not produce consumer goods and is therefore inflationary; a brain drain of technical talent will affect commercial R & D; the military build-up isn't being paid for with new federal revenues, and so on. Such economists are now hard-pressed to explain the ensuing five-year recovery.