In a column on the main site, Rich makes the case for a $1 trillion defense budget. Without getting into the debate on the merits of significantly increasing our military expenditures (or the national-security case for and against doing so), I just want to take a moment to comment on the fiscal reality. And that reality is that we cannot afford it.
When the Reagan-era defense buildup began in 1981, debt as a share of the economy was 25 percent. Now it’s four times that amount — or about 100 percent — meaning that our public debt is roughly equal to a year of economic output. That’s a level not seen since World War II. Only the difference is, once the emergency of World War II was over, the debt receded for decades. Currently, we are just in the early stages of the massive entitlement crisis, in which a rising retirement-age population and exploding health costs are putting us on an unprecedented — and unsustainable — fiscal course. And this is the status quo, before entertaining any conversations about defense spending.
Increasing defense spending to $1 trillion would add hundreds of billions of dollars to our annual obligations. Adjusted for the traditional ten-year budget window, we’d be talking about trillions of dollars — or something of the magnitude of President Biden’s original $3.5 trillion version of Build Back Better.
There are only three ways to accommodate the sort of spending Rich proposes. One would be to simply issue more debt, adding it on to the unsustainable mountain of obligations we’ve been accruing. Another would be to raise taxes by a staggering amount, which would have a destructive impact on the economy. And another way would be to drastically reduce current spending levels. While the latter option would be my preferred choice of the three, it would not make the super-charged defense spending cost-free. That’s because if we were really in a position to cut spending by trillions of dollars, we should be using it help tackle our debt problem rather than engage in new spending projects.
On top of all of these practical implications, there is also the political one. If conservatives get behind the idea of massive hikes in the military budget, it gives them a lot less credibility in arguing against the massive social spending being proposed on the left.
Rich makes a sobering case that the world is a dangerous place and getting more dangerous for the U.S., of course. But this is the position we find ourselves in after decades of fiscal mismanagement by both parties. I see no signs that the current Republican Party has any interest in fiscal responsibility. So we need to see a dramatic course correction on that front and actual improvement in our fiscal picture before proposing trillions of dollars in new spending, regardless of the cause.
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