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Reaction to Military Cutbacks Way Off Base

March 30, 1993|DANIEL AKST

Gov. Pete Wilson called it "a man-made disaster." Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) pleaded with the White House for "fairness." Thus did conservative join hands with liberal in a kind of pork-barrel peaceable kingdom.

The to-do, of course, was over plans to close eight major California military installations and shrink 18 others. From the perspective of California's most public hawks and doves, who are united when it comes to hometown military installations, the unkindest cut came just Monday, when a government panel voted to add to that list McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento and the Presidio in Monterey.

From the sound of it, you'd think it was the end of the world for California. Since the rhetoric has been so strident, let's take things one at a time and see if we can set the record straight:

* Base closings will devastate California's economy. The closings announced so far will cost about 51,000 jobs over the next three years, about half of them civilian. Since total employment in California stands at nearly 14 million, the loss from the bases will knock only a small chip from the state's job base. There has been much bad news for California's economy lately; witness Hughes' decision to move nearly 2,000 more jobs to Arizona. But keeping open surplus military bases isn't the answer.

* California is bearing a disproportionate share of the cuts; it's not fair. By any objective standard, what's unfair is the vastly disproportionate benefit California enjoyed from years and years of defense spending. With more defense installations than anywhere else, it's only natural that we should have more cuts. Anything less would indeed be disproportionate.

* The bases will leave a vacuum that is impossible to fill. Base closings hurt, but most of the time they only hurt in the short term. A study by the Pentagon's Office of Economic Adjustment looked at bases closed between 1961 and 1990 and found that, altogether, civilian employment at the former bases was 69% higher after the closings than when they were in the hands of the military. The study may be biased, but probably not as much as the politicians wailing about what's in store for California.

* With California's economy so weak, this is just a terrible time for base closings. Actually, this is a good time to close military bases. Wasteful military spending diverts resources from investments likelier to bring about solid economic growth. America's huge military buildup during the 1980s was paid for with borrowed money, burdening Californians and others with debt for years to come. The bottom line is, anytime is an excellent time to stop wasting money.

* OK, but California's situation is uniquely awful; we deserve special consideration. Everyone says their situation is uniquely awful, and everyone wants special treatment. Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, the South Carolina Democrat, likened plans to close military facilities in his state to the after-effects of a hurricane: "If the Navy left Charleston in big numbers, Charleston would suffer a hit bigger than from Hugo." Plans to close military installations in Orlando, Fla., would have a devastating impact on that city, said Frank Carter of the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce.

"Since everybody says that," I asked, "whose base should we close?"

He answered without hesitation: "Somebody else's."

* That's why politicians have no choice but to fight for our bases. Nonsense. Charles Anderton, an economist at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., surveyed the literature on the subject and found that strong, concerted efforts by local leaders can really make a difference in what happens to a community when a base is closed. But the efforts must focus on pursuing genuine economic enterprise for the facility, or at least a worthwhile public use, rather than keeping it open as a base.

"A lot of studies show that in terms of job creation, defense spending is the least effective" spending, he adds. "The private sector is much more productive in that regard."

Let it be said, then, on behalf of all those who are tired of America's economic strength being sapped by needless defense spending, that the best thing for California is a growing U.S. economy, not a few more minutes of borrowed federal money spent on obsolete military installations.

The good news in all this is that a mechanism has been established to insulate the base closing process from precisely the sort of political posturing that has arisen over the latest round of closing announcements. That mechanism is an independent panel called the Defense Base Closure Commission.

Now that the Pentagon has decided which bases it wants to close, the commission must listen to wailing from all across the land, from everyone who wants the peace dividend without cashing in the war bond that is their local military installation.

The commission has made a good start in adding McClellan and the Presidio back to the closure list. All the panel has to do now is finish the job. The Pentagon is not the sort of agency to wantonly cut spending, so national security isn't a consideration. And the economy can only improve by diverting this spending elsewhere.

So when the commission looks at the list of bases the Pentagon wants closed, it should let all parties have their say. It should make sympathetic noises. And it should close every last one of them.

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