Opportunity Cost: $1 Trillion
Here’s what I was hoping the president would say on Tuesday night: “I’ve got the answer. We need to spend less money, we need to invest in our infrastructure, our economy, education and jobs. So we need to look very carefully at what this nation needs and what it doesn’t need.”
The president’s own deficit commission concluded that military spending must be on the table when our elected leaders look at what this nation really needs.
But the president barely mentioned the commission’s recommendations on cutting back military spending. He could have remarked on the reports coming from moderate to conservative bi-partisan groups that are calling for military spending cuts in the range of $970 billion to $1.1 trillion over the next ten years. He could have quoted former Secretary of State Colin Powell, or fiscal conservatives like Sen. Coburn and Rep. Cantor, or even David Stockman — Ronald Reagan’s budget guru from decades ago. All agree that military spending cannot be given a pass in this season.
There are no mysteries about the military spending that we don’t need.* You don’t have to be a liberal or a pacifist to ask why our country is maintaining so many bases and so many troops in Europe, while we bring the members of the National Guard from home to fight in wars overseas. It’s reasonable to wonder why the U.S. military budget is more than two and a half times the size of all of the nation’s potential adversaries’ budgets combined. It makes sense to ask why taxpayers continue to pay military contractors for weapons that don’t work, with cost-overruns far beyond their advertised price, under “cost-plus” contracts, with no audits. Taxpayers do want to know why the Pentagon has never been subject to the kind of federal audits that every other major cabinet agency has to go through.
It makes sense to ask how many nuclear weapons this nation actually needs. The U.S. has nearly 2000 deployed strategic warheads — when senior Air Force strategic planners say that a few hundred — 311 — would be sufficient to achieve real deterrence. Because of the global danger these weapons pose, many (including FCNL) would argue that zero is a better number — but certainly this nation doesn’t need more than it has right now.
And it makes sense to ask why the U.S. continues to send troops to a war that no one wants and that, according to military leaders, cannot be won with troops. In order to fund the wars, we cut our support of diplomatic and development programs that have great potential to avert future wars before they start. As a nation, we spend so much on the wars that we don’t have enough to care for the wounded veterans that the wars produce, or to provide jobs to the veterans when they return home.
There’s not much mystery about what this nation actually needs, either. We need jobs. We need infrastructure repair — we need to replace those 40 to 60 year-old pipes that keep bursting in major cities around the country and washing cars and businesses away. We need to keep our classrooms open, all the way through the college years, because more of us will need college and other specialized training in the future. The president talked about all of this — and we all know it. But what he missed was the opportunity to say how we can make these investments and still bring down the deficit.
The president had a unique opportunity in this time of deep and scary deficits and mountains of debt. In this time when there is bi-partisan agreement on this one issue – military spending, this was the time to say, “OK, I’ve got the answer. Let’s look at what this nation really needs and put our dollars where they need to be.”
In the coming year, we need to work to persuade the president and Congress that getting a handle on military spending is an opportunity worth seizing.