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Public overwhelmingly supports large defense spending cuts

May 12, 2012

(from “Just Foreign Policy website – May 11, 2012)

To trim the deficit, Americans favor much deeper reductions at the Pentagon than their leaders do

R. Jeffrey Smith, Center for Public Integrity, May 11, 2012
[noted by NPR: “Survey: Americans Overwhelmingly Support Defense Cuts,”]

Cut Military Spending; Use Money for Human Needs; No War Against Iran

While politicians, insiders and experts may be divided over how much the government should spend on the nation’s defense, there’s a surprising consensus among the public about what should be done: They want to cut spending far more deeply than either the Obama administration or the Republicans.

That’s according to the results of an innovative, new, nationwide survey by three nonprofit groups, the Center for Public integrity, the Program for Public Consultation and the Stimson Center. Not only does the public want deep cuts, it wants those cuts to encompass spending in virtually every military domain – air power, sea power, ground forces, nuclear weapons, and missile defenses.

According to the survey, in which respondents were told about the size of the budget as well as shown expert arguments for and against spending cuts, two-thirds of Republicans and nine in 10 Democrats supported making immediate cuts – a position at odds with the leaderships of both political parties.

The average total cut was around $103 billion, a substantial portion of the current $562 billion base defense budget, while the majority supported cutting it at least $83 billion. These amounts both exceed a threatened cut of $55 billion at the end of this year under so-called “sequestration” legislation passed in 2011, which Pentagon officials and lawmakers alike have claimed would be devastating.

“When Americans look at the amount of defense spending compared to spending on other programs, they see defense as the one that should take a substantial hit to reduce the deficit,” said Steven Kull, director of the Program for Public Consultation (PPC), and the lead developer of the survey. “Clearly the polarization that you are seeing on the floor of the Congress is not reflective of the American people.”

A broad disagreement with the Obama administration’s current spending approach – keeping the defense budget mostly level – was shared by 75 percent of men and 78 percent of women, all of whom instead backed immediate cuts. That view was also shared by at least 69 percent of every one of four age groups from 18 to 60 and older, although those aged 29 and below expressed much higher support, at 92 percent.

Disagreement with the Obama administration’s continued spending on the war in Afghanistan was particularly intense, with 85 percent of respondents expressing support for a statement that said in part, “it is time for the Afghan people to manage their own country and for us to bring our troops home.” A majority of respondents backed an immediate cut, on average, of $38 billion in the war’s existing $88 billion budget, or around 43 percent.

Despite the public’s distance from Obama’s defense budget, the survey disclosed an even larger gap between majority views and proposals by House Republicans this week to add $3 billion for an extra naval destroyer, a new submarine, more missile defenses, and some weapons systems the Pentagon has proposed to cancel. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has similarly endorsed a significant rise in defense spending.

When it comes to military forces, respondents on average favored at least a 27 percent cut in spending on nuclear arms – the largest proportional cut of any in the survey. They also supported, on average, a 23 percent cut for ground forces, a 17 percent cut for air power and a 14 percent cut for missile defenses. Modest majorities also said they favored dumping some major individual weapons programs, including the costly F-35 jet fighter, a new long-range strategic bomber, and construction of a new aircraft carrier.
While Republicans generally favored smaller cuts, they overwhelmingly agreed with both independents and Democrats that current military budgets are too large. A majority of Republicans diverged only on cutting spending for special forces, missile defenses, and new ground force capabilities.
By far the most durable finding – even after hearing strong arguments to the contrary – was that existing spending levels are simply too high. Respondents were asked twice, in highly different ways, to say what they thought the budget should be, and a majority supported roughly the same answer each time: a cut of at least 11 to 13 percent (they cut on average 18 to 22 percent).

In one exercise, a larger group chose to cut the defense budget (62 percent supported this) than to cut non-defense spending (50 percent) or to raise taxes (27 percent).

2) Don’t Buy the Spin: How Cutting the Pentagon’s Budget Could Boost the Economy
Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier, The Nation, May 9, 2012 [May 28 edition]

Should the enormous US military budget – which is more than double the combined levels of military spending by China, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Germany – be cut? This question is finally on the table, thanks to the winding down of combat activities in Iraq and Afghanistan and to Washington’s obsession with tamping down the federal deficits that have arisen from the Great Recession. Many who would like to protect the military from the budget knife raise economic arguments to make their case: Won’t cutting military spending be bad for jobs, just when we need to maintain focus on reducing unemployment? Won’t it threaten the country’s long-term technological capabilities?

The matter assumed increased urgency in November after the Congressional supercommittee failed to agree on a deficit-reduction plan. This failure set in motion an agenda for automatic cuts – or “sequestration” of funds – from military and nonmilitary budgets beginning in January 2013. According to the sequestration scenario, absent the adoption of a large-scale deficit-cutting plan, military and nonmilitary spending would face $55 billion per year in automatic cuts over a decade, relative to previously established spending levels. If Congress and the White House devise a way to exempt the Pentagon from the automatic cuts – as seems increasingly likely – the cuts will instead be taken from healthcare, education, social spending, infrastructure and the environment.

Of course, framing the deficit issue in terms of military versus social spending cuts ignores other options, such as raising taxes on the wealthy. It also erroneously assumes that reducing the federal deficit is necessary now, before the economy has settled onto a sustainable recovery path out of the recession. Even more fundamental, today’s debate largely skirts the question of what the military budget needs to be after Iraq and Afghanistan, and fails to grapple honestly with the impact that major military spending reductions would have on the economy, especially in terms of job opportunities and technology.

Members of today’s military-industrial complex – the constellation of forces, including Democratic and Republican politicians, weapons manufacturers, lobbyists and the Pentagon leadership, whose influence President Eisenhower warned against in 1961 – claim that significant reductions in the military budget would decimate US defenses and inflict major damage to the economy. In fact, these claims are demonstrably false.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has stated that the planned cuts in the military budget would result, over a decade, in “the smallest ground force since 1940, the smallest number of ships since 1915 and the smallest Air Force in its history.” Panetta has said repeatedly that the cuts would amount to nearly $1 trillion. That does indeed sound like a lot, given that the annual level of total military spending is about $700 billion.

But what Panetta and others call $1 trillion in cuts is actually an annual $100 billion reduction added up over ten years to produce the huge-sounding $1 trillion figure. In reality, moving from a roughly $700 billion to $600 billion annual budget is hardly extreme, especially when we consider that this includes cuts tied to ending the US combat role in Iraq and Afghanistan. The 2012 budget for these two wars alone is $115 billion, and the planned budget for 2013 is $88 billion, even after combat is over. The Pentagon has also included for 2014 onward a baseline contingency budget of $44 billion annually for any carryover fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan, or new wars elsewhere. Thus, by the Pentagon’s own estimate, winding down Iraq and Afghanistan will end up saving $44 billion a year after 2013. In the unlikely event that the budgetary sequestration cuts are carried out, an additional $55 billion per year would be cut. That’s how we cut our way from a $700 billion to $600 billion annual military budget.

The graph on page 17 provides some perspective on these figures. As we see, last year’s $700 billion military budget represented 4.7 percent of the country’s GDP. This was higher even than in 2008, Bush’s last year in office, when defense was 4.3 percent of GDP. In 2000, Bill Clinton’s final year in office and before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, military spending was 3 percent of GDP. In today’s economy, the difference between a military budget at 3 percent of GDP versus 4.7 percent is $260 billion. Thus, if we were to return just to the 2000 level of defense spending as a share of the economy, that would itself entail “budget cuts” of about $1 trillion over four years (i.e., $260 billion per year for four years).

If all the cuts being discussed today were enacted – including the $55 billion in sequestration cuts, which, again, seems highly unlikely – the military budget would return to about 3 percent of GDP in 2017, according to the Defense Department’s budget forecast as well as the Congressional Budget Office’s projections. This is assuming – perhaps implausibly – that the United States does not engage in new wars between now and 2017. If we do end up fighting more wars, the budgets to pay for them would be exempt from spending caps. The sky would be the limit. In short, aside from winding down the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the military cuts being considered are modest and easily reversible.

The primary economic argument made by members of the military-industrial complex against cutting the Pentagon budget is that it would produce major job losses. One widely cited report by Stephen Fuller of George Mason University found that 1 million jobs would be lost through the annual cuts set by the sequestration agreement. The Pentagon claims that military cuts in the range of $1 trillion over the next decade would raise unemployment by one percentage point per year – from, say, 8 to 9 percent. It is hard to assess the accuracy of either of these claims, since neither Professor Fuller nor the Pentagon has provided details about how these estimates were reached.

In any event, it is indisputable that the Pentagon is a major employer in the US economy. How could it be otherwise, given that the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget is equal to nearly 5 percent of the GDP? In fact, Pentagon spending as of 2011 was responsible for creating nearly 6 million jobs, within the military itself and in all civilian industries connected to it. In addition, because of the high demand for technologically advanced equipment by the military, a good share of the jobs created are well paid and professionally challenging.

However, the crucial question is not how many jobs are created by spending, for example, $1 billion on the military. Rather, it is whether spending that $1 billion creates more or fewer jobs when compared with spending $1 billion on alternative public purposes, such as education, healthcare and the green economy – or having consumers spend that same amount of money in any way they choose.

In fact, compared with these alternative uses, spending on the military is a poor source of job creation. As we see in the graph (follow link to article above), $1 billion in spending on the military will generate about 11,200 jobs within the US economy. That same $1 billion would create 16,800 jobs through clean energy investments, 17,200 jobs within the healthcare sector or 26,700 jobs through support of education. That is, investments in clean energy, healthcare and education will produce between 50 and 140 percent more jobs than if the same money were spent by the Pentagon. Just giving the money to households to consume as they choose would generate 15,100 jobs, 35 percent more than military spending.
But why do we get so many more jobs per dollar of spending through investments in healthcare, clean energy and education than through the military? The reasons are straightforward:

– Spending on people versus everything else. Retrofitting buildings entails hiring lots of electricians, carpenters and roofers, with a relatively modest level of spending on machinery, energy, land and heavy-equipment hauling. Building the F-35, by contrast, entails heavy investments in electronic equipment and carefully treated steel, glass and other materials, with less need to hire people.

– Spending within the US economy versus other countries. Even with the ending of direct involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the overall amount of overseas spending by the US military and its personnel will remain far higher than when funds are spent on domestic investments in healthcare, clean energy and education. When a higher proportion of a given pot of money is spent within the country, more jobs are provided for US workers.

– Differences in pay scales. Average pay for all the jobs connected with military spending – including directly employed personnel and those working for military suppliers – is about $60,000 per year. By contrast, with healthcare, clean energy and education, the average annual pay is closer to $50,000, or 20 percent less. If there is a given pot of money available for hiring workers, when you pay each person a higher wage, that will create fewer – if better compensated – jobs.

Does this mean military spending creates more good jobs? Actually, no. Because spending on clean energy, healthcare and education creates so many more jobs overall – as much as 50 to 140 percent more – these investments also create larger numbers (if lower proportions) of decent- to good-quality jobs than the military, as well as many more low-paying jobs.

Considering only jobs paying at least $32,000 per year, clean energy and healthcare both generate well more than the military, while the figure for education spending is more than twice as high. Considering a still narrower category of jobs – only those paying $64,000 or more per year – the totals for clean energy and healthcare are roughly comparable to the military’s, while the figure for education is double that for military spending.

We should also not dismiss the jobs paying below $32,000, in which the totals for clean energy, healthcare and education are all at least twice that for the military. It is certainly better to have more low-paying jobs available than no jobs at all. Low-paying jobs can be improved through union organizing, job training and a reasonable minimum wage, which should be $12 per hour today. Also, prospects for organizing to improve these jobs will rise when there are more low-paying jobs available. It is much harder to fight for improving job quality when the jobs are not there in the first place.

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Institute for Policy Studies: Cities For Peace

One Comment leave one →
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