There was an interesting discussion in blog land yesterday about national security spending and the public’s willingness to support meaningful cuts to the defense budget. I am only a part of blog land in the most literal sense, but I will inject myself into the debate anyway.
Quick background: Annie Lowrey of the Washington Independent posted a chart that shows once again the infuriating central paradox of American politics: people want to cut the federal deficit, and they want to do it by lowering spending rather than raising taxes, but when pressed to say which federal programs and services they want to cut, they were either speechless, or else they named items that comprise a miniscule percentage of total government spending.
Ezra Klein noted that one bright spot in the data was that a sizable minority of people (~23%) said they’d be willing to cut defense spending. Ezra speculated that maybe this is a tiny opening for some brave politician to broach the issue in a serious way, or at least make it not so sacrosanct. Matt Yglesias wasn’t as sanguine, and argued that national security and military spending are issues that are just too easy to demogogue and a political fight would be disastrous for whomever dares bring it up.
Spencer Ackerman argued that maybe the public would be more amenable to defense trimming if they weren’t so overwhelmingly insulated from military matters:
One inescapable consequence of the end of a conscript military is the insulation of the broader civilian populace from military affairs. To put it differently, the military is an abstract concept to many more people now than it was before 1973. On the one hand, defense spending just isn’t as personal as entitlement spending or discretionary spending. You or a loved one may or may not join the military. But your kids are going to have to go to school; you are going to get old; you are going to require medical care at some point. […]
[I]t strikes me that if more of us were involved in the military, more of us would accordingly approve of trimming the fat out of that budget, or at least rearranging priorities to support actual-existing national security threats and priorities.
While it’s certainly true that Americans are more insulated from the consequences of defense policy than they are from education or health policy, I think Spencer gets the effects of this insulation exactly backwards. As the chart shows, nobody really wants to cut education or health care spending, and it’s precisely because the issues are more personal to them. As we all know, health care entitlements have a built-in constituency of very politically powerful old people, who seem to accrue extra life force through the ritual incantation of “Hands Off My Medicare!” Education spending has a built-in consisituency of every household in America with children in it.
And defense and education seem to have this in common: Rather than think hard about actual effective policy outcomes, it is much easier for the public and policymakers alike to conflate increased spending levels with increased efficacy and better results. In other words, spending is policy. Want to show you care about defense? Vote to spend more on defense. On what? Doesn’t matter, just more. Want to signal that you believe the children are our future, and show them all the beauty they possess inside? Improving teacher quality and increasing academic standards is hard, so just increase the education budget. Then campaign on how the education budget went up by 20% on your watch. Are the kids smarter? Who knows?
This isn’t to say that resources don’t matter. Of course they do. Student-teacher ratios matter. Up-armored humvees matter. But the quickest way to create a constituency that cares deeply about an ever-increasing military budget would be to have more of us involved in the military. The reason over 70% of us want to slash the foreign aid budget is quite clearly because none of us are recipients of foreign aid. Conversely, if everyone’s 18-year-old kid was in the military, I would guess there’d be absolutely no call for less, or even more efficient, military spending. Just more, more, more.
UPDATE: At the Economist’s DiA blog, M.S. digs a little deeper into the public’s professed desire to slash the foreign aid budget, which M.S. notes makes up less than 1% of federal spending. Most of our foreign aid is for economic development and military support to Iraq and Afghanistan, miltary aid to Israel, and fighting AIDS in Africa. M.S. suspects that the public wouldn’t be so quick to dump these programs if asked specifically to do so. Anyway, most of this spending serves a strategic purpose, on top of just being good ideas, and I imagine there is no political will to touch any of it. But again, it’s less than 1% of the federal budget so it doesn’t matter anyway.