Politics, Moderate



Why we must raise defense spending

Robert J. Samuelson on

Sizable increases in defense spending seem warranted to compensate for past underfunding and to confront new challenges. China and Russia loom as potential adversaries; North Korea could become a global menace; the Middle East remains a cauldron of conflict; global terrorism survives; and new forms of warfare -- cyberattacks, drones and space-based conflict -- demand new responses.

Proposals abound. The plan of AEI's Eaglen would, among other things, increase the Army's number of active-duty soldiers from 476,000 to 519,000; raise the number of Navy ships from 275 to 339 by 2025; expand the Air Force's inventory of planes to 6,391 by 2022, up from 5,465; and accelerate research and procurement.

Sen. John McCain and Rep. Mac Thornberry -- the chairmen of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees -- have endorsed a similar proposal. So has the Trump administration, though with less detail. The problem is not policy; it's politics.

Eaglen's plan would cost $672 billion more than existing law over the next five years. Will Congress vote to spend that money? If so, will it be financed through higher taxes (seems dubious, given Republicans' misplaced zest for tax cuts); reductions in other government programs (also dubious -- if cuts were popular, they'd already have been adopted); or borrowing (the easiest alternative, but embarrassing)? Present congressional budget negotiations for FY 2018 focus on a smaller increase in defense outlays.

Defense spending is increasingly a political orphan. Republicans are wedded to tax cuts. Democrats are addicted to welfare spending, mislabeled as "entitlements."

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What these political preferences share in common is that they provide immediate political gratification for large constituencies: lower taxes or higher benefits. By contrast, defense spending confers smaller benefits on smaller constituencies, mainly workers at military bases and government contractors.

In the competition for scarce public funds, the military-industrial complex is at a distinct disadvantage with the welfare state, an essential and permanent part of our social fabric. No one is going to dismantle it. But the favoritism toward the welfare state weakens the military. It is time to recognize and rectify this bias because it poses a fundamental threat to our collective well-being.

(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group



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