14 August 2011

follow up on "The Debt Ceiling Deal and Progressives"

The composition of the bipartisan Debt Ceiling Panel bodes ill for there being serious cuts in the U.S. military budget as part of any "second phase" deal to reduce the U.S. deficit.  Put simply, the states with large military contractors are fully, if not overly, represented on the Panel.  

Of particular note on the Democratic side is Senator Patty Murray of Washington.   Progressive commentators have generally responded favorably to her appointment (and conservative voices have singled it out for criticism), but Boeing is a major employer in Washington (with some 30,000 workers in the state) and its PAC is a major source of campaign funds for Murray.  Almost certainly, for example, the cuts in military spending that would be triggered if the panel reaches no compromise would hit, and perhaps eliminate, the 35 billion dollar contract awarded to Boeing this past February to build roughly 200 new refueling "tanker" aircraft for the military.

Murray no doubt will be concerned about higher unemployment in her state should the Panel not reach a compromise and trigger the cuts in military spending that are built in to the debt ceiling bill passed in early August.  And of course, she's right.  Indeed, the best thing one can say about U.S. military spending is that it (to some extent) functions like both an economic stimulus and a jobs program.  

But this also points to one of the problems with "growth" per se as an economic goal (a topic of a forthcoming post).  As Keynes argued, any and all government spending -- even paying people to dig and then refill holes -- provides an economic stimulus and thus can promote growth during a recession.  Yet, while this is true, it does not follow that there are not other very good reasons to prefer some spending over other spending, some forms of growth of other forms of growth, and some sorts of jobs over others.  The problem Murray faces, however, is that so many of the jobs that currently exist in her state are directly or indirectly tied to military spending.

But my immediate point is that the composition of the Debt Panel -- including, as it does, both Murray and Republican Senator Toomey from Pennsylvania, to cite just two notable expamples -- means that the threat of triggered military cuts will loom particularly large in its deliberations.  This may well lead the Panel to reach some sort of bipartisan compromise, but almost certainly, if such a compromise is reached, it will not include robust cuts in military spending as part of longterm deficit reduction.


  1. I figure I'll join in on the fun.

    The composition of the supercommittee shouldn't be the main concern for progressives wanting to reduce defense spending, it's the mechanism for the committee's action.

    A big, deal-making committee can (keyword is CAN) do a reasonable job when the future state of spending is relatively known. For example, the cost projections of Medicare and Social Security are fairly straightforward to predict based on current expenditures and future demographics. Additionally, those two programs are funded outside the annual appropriations process.

    Defense spending has neither of those two characteristics. First, it's annually appropriated, so even if the supercommittee makes significant cuts to the Pentagon that you're after, that can't bind future Congresses from reinflating the defense budget if they choose to. Second, we have a very limited idea of what the appropriate level of defense spending will be in the next 10 years. We just don't know what the future state of the world will be. So even if we could make the supercommittee cuts binding on future Congresses, is it the prudent thing to do? I agree that our defense spending is higher than it needs to be right now. I don't know if it's too high ten years from now.

    Generally, I'm not a fan of holding hostage the pentagon's budget in this debate. I think we spend too much on defense, but saying "our deficits our too high, we need to cut the Pentagon's budget" will just lead to more defense spending as soon as our fiscal house is in order. It's an implicit concession that our defense spending is fine, but we're short on cash. Our defense spending is too high if we had a long-term budget surplus.

    Maybe a followup post articulating what a progressive defense policy would look like? Personally, I think this is a major division in the progressive/liberal community. Liberal interventionists vs. McGovernites. I know I'm personally conflicted.

    We surely have oversized military, but this decade has seen fewer war deaths than any in the last 100 years, not even factoring population growth. http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/08/15/think_again_war?page=full
    I don't think there is a direct, causal relationship, but it does give me pause when we discuss our dangerous military-industrial complex.

  2. Hi Adam, Thanks for your comments.

    I agree with your first point. The deal setting up the committee assumed bipartisan support for excessive military-spending, and embedded this in the trigger mechanism for further cuts in spending, in order to force the supercommittee to compromise on revenues and non-military spending. That was the point of my earlier post; here my point was not that the composition of the supercommittee was the main problem, but that the composition made things worse.

    I am skeptical though of the your final paragraph's approach to calculating the impact of world peace of our "excessive military spending." How did you pick the last ten years as the right time span for making this judgment; maybe that's just cherry-picking a time-span (a short one) during which humanity got lucky? Or a related point, how are you factoring in the possibility that even if we are avoiding war deaths at a given moment, or for a given 10 years, nuclear weapons might at any moment annihilate humanity in toto? And finally, what is your source for this claim about the last 10 years out of the last 100?

    Thanks again for your comments. - Dan