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Providing for the Common Defense
Putting the defense budget into perspective
It’s that time of the year again: when a dysfunctional Congress dumps just about everything it can onto “must-pass” defense legislation because it can’t find the wherewithal to legislate anything else. The Senate started debate on the annual National Defense Authorization Act yesterday, and any version it passes will need to be reconciled with the one that’s already made its way through the House. But it’s worth taking this moment to stop and consider the defense budget on its own terms – especially when the world seems to be slipping even deeper into lawlessness.
As always, there’s a lot of focus on the overall amount of money spent on the Pentagon – the so-called budget topline. The Biden administration’s overall defense budget request for this year clocked in at $773 billion, and Congress looks set to tack on tens of billions of additional dollars in military spending when it finally passes the budget. That’s a repeat of what happened with last year’s defense budget, with Congress adding $24 billion more in funding than the Biden administration requested - showing there’s a fairly strong bipartisan consensus for keeping Americans safe, regardless of the noise from self-proclaimed progressives who want to blindly cut defense spending no matter what’s happening in the world.
But a focus on the topline defense budget often serves to mislead America’s debate on military spending more than it clarifies it. Shorn of context, big numbers can and do sound rather scary – and defense critics aren’t lying when they say that this year’s defense budget will be the largest since World War II. Though it’s not quite true after taking inflation into account – more money went to the Pentagon at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in and around 2010 – it’s not exactly wrong, either.
At the same time, however, these numbers don’t tell us whether America can afford to spend as much as it does on defense. There are two other ways to look at the issue: defense spending as a share of the overall economy and as a share of the overall federal budget. Each of these measures comes with its own set of problems; the economy can shrink, for instance, as it did in during the 2008 financial crash and the 2020 pandemic lockdowns. New bursts of federal spending – think the big COVID relief packages of the past few years – can make defense spending seem like a smaller part of the federal budget than it would be under more normal circumstances.
Still, these data points do give us a better sense of whether or not the United States spends more on its military than it can reasonably afford – and the answer here seems to be a fairly strong no.
Take defense spending as a share of the overall national economy: according to the Pentagon’s own figures, America dedicated a third of its national economic output to the military during the last three years of World War II. The military’s share of the economy quickly dropped 3.9 percent before ramping up to a post-war high of 11.4 percent during the Korean War. It’s only been downhill from there, with military spending taking up less and less of America’s expanding economy as the years and decades passed. Neither the war in Vietnam nor the 1980s defense buildup could push military spending as a share of the national economy back into double digits.
By 1999, a combination of post-Cold War defense budget cuts and go-go prosperity reduced defense spending to just 2.8 percent of the overall national economy. Not even the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could push military spending over 5 percent of the economy, reaching just 4.5 percent in 2010. The Biden administration’s defense budget request for 2023 amounted to 3 percent of gross domestic product, or about what the country spent on the military as a portion of its economy in 1997. To put it another way, America devotes about as much of its national resources toward defense now as it did in the late 1990s – and significantly less than it did during all the years of the Cold War.
In terms of our national economy, then, an $800 billion Pentagon budget can’t be considered unaffordable or even unprecedented. It covers everything from personnel pay (over $173 billion in this year’s, or roughly a quarter of the defense budget) to maintenance of aging equipment and research into new technologies to new planes, ships, and tanks. When it comes to defense spending as a share of the overall federal budget, things get a bit trickier – but the overall story is similar.
In 1944, as American troops stormed the beaches of Normandy and fought their way across the Marianas Islands in the Pacific, the military accounted for some 83.1 percent of all U.S. government spending. With the Cold War under way in the 1950s, roughly half of the federal budget went to defense. But even then, that share started to decline, slipping below 50 percent in 1957 and never reaching that level again – not even during Vietnam. By the time of the 1980s buildup, only a quarter of federal spending went to the military. Since the end of the Cold War, the portion of overall U.S. government spending allocated to defense has consistently remained below 20 percent. For its part, the Biden administration’s defense budget request for 2023 amounts to just 13.2 percent of its total budget request for the federal government as a whole.
Here, however, it’s important to note that this particular figure fluctuates for a number of reasons. During World War II, for instance, the federal government didn’t have as many spending obligations as it would take on after the war – President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved Social Security’s first major expansion in 1954, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Medicare and Medicaid into law in 1965. Obamacare and COVID relief spending over the past decade have also likely made the defense share of the overall federal budget smaller than it would otherwise have been. The point here, though, is that defense spending has not crowded out spending on other national priorities – whether major social insurance programs or investments in science and technology.
What does all of this mean?
First off, it’s important to view the daunting defense budget topline as just one piece of a broader mosaic that tells us how much America can afford to spend on its national priorities – including the military. After all, the overall federal budget is enormous, with President Biden requesting some $5.79 trillion in spending for 2023 alone. But we need other data to make informed judgments about whether or not we’re spending enough or too much on our military, and those data include defense spending as a share of our economy and the federal budget as a whole. There are problems with each of these data points when viewed on their own, but taken together they can give us a better picture of how many dollars we can dedicate to defense – and other national priorities, for that matter.
Moreover, the United States can afford to spend what the Biden administration and Congress propose to spend on the Pentagon – if not more. Huge defense budget toplines notwithstanding, the United States today spends far fewer resources on its military than it has in years and decades past. In many ways, that’s a reflection on the strength of an American domestic economy that for all its faults and problems – some of them glaring and harmful – continues to expand and provide the country with sufficient resources to pursue and accomplish a wide variety of national priorities. None of that means those resources will be spent wisely, of course, but it does mean that our debates over the defense budget should focus less on headline-grabbing numbers and more on making sure we get the most bang for our buck.
That’s what’s truly important about our defense budget debates – not whether overall numbers seem too big to comprehend, but whether our spending actually delivers what it’s supposed to and makes America and our allies more secure.
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