Defense Spending Deserves Close Scrutiny Too

My latest column at the Christian Science Monitor makes the case that defense spending deserves close scrutiny as America evaluates its fiscal priorities. Excerpt:

This year the US will spend about $110 billion in Afghanistan and $44 billion in Iraq. Regular defense spending is even larger, at about $550 billion. Military spending will total more than $700 billion this year.

That spending gets far less scrutiny than it deserves. Discussions of our long-run budget challenges usually emphasize the big entitlement programs – Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security – and the need for new revenues. Congressional budget debates, meanwhile, have bogged down on the sliver of spending that goes to domestic discretionary programs [written before the 2011 budget deal].

Defense should be on the table as well. Military spending has more than doubled over the past decade. Some of that increase has been necessary to respond to the 9/11 attacks and the new challenges they revealed. But not all. Some of the increase has simply been excess.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made this clear in remarks in January. Because of the dramatic expansion of the Pentagon budget, he said, “We’ve lost our ability to prioritize, to make hard decisions, to do tough analysis, to make trades.”

We also have embarrassingly little ability to track that spending. When the Government Accountability Office recently audited the government’s finances, it concluded – as it has for many years – that the Defense Department’s books are so poorly kept that they can’t be audited. Taxpayers are thus giving $700 billion a year to an organization that can’t prioritize and can’t tell us where the money is going. That’s unacceptable.

4 thoughts on “Defense Spending Deserves Close Scrutiny Too”

  1. One reason why the military has escaped scrutiny is because individuals can’t contextualize the huge numbers that are part of the federal budget. One proposal that my son actually suggested recently was putting everything in terms of what it means to an individual. In this case, imagine a discussion between a congressperson and a constituent that goes as follows:

    “Do you belive that the government should balance its budget?”

    – Absolutely!

    “You realize that if the budget is balanced, every dollar spent on one thing means a dollar less on other things that matter, or a dollar less directly to you?”

    – Sure, that’s what budgeting is…

    “So what do you think about the military budget of $700 Billion?”

    – It’s important for America to be able to protect itself and its interests

    “$700 Billion is almost $10,000 per year for your family of four”

    – Holy cow!

    “Our largest spending NATO allies, France and the UK, spend about half of that”

    – Wow, we need to spend on the military, but I’d be happy to get that $5,000 back on other stuff that matters to me if it isn’t all essential

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