Saturday, February 13, 2010

The zero-cost military

This is a bit old, but it made the rounds a bit earlier this week and it merits discussion:
Indeed, total spending (actual and planned) after 2001 appears much above the average for the preceding five decades. The Obama administration is contributing substantially to this trend. It plans to spend more on defense in real (inflation-adjusted) terms than did any administration since 1948 – a period encompassing the entire Cold War, including two large-scale, protracted regional wars: Korea and Vietnam.
This chart sums it up nicely.

There's something interesting here about the fact that, until recently, the US was willing to spend about the same real amount on war-fighting over a pretty long period of time: roughly 550-600 billion 2010 dollars, give or take. What's even more interesting is to consider the devaluation of what that money can buy. In 1953, it bought a stalemate with the People's Republic. In Vietnam, it bought a pretty miserable quagmire where the only way to end it was to leave. In the 1980s, the actual effect foreign policy-wise was pretty much zero except that Bush the Elder was able to fight and win the Gulf War with Reagan's leftovers.

Indeed, America's major successes during the entire post-WWII period are almost entirely political, and not military -- the creation of NATO and the UN, the negotiation of an alliance with Japan and South Korea, etc. That's not to say that a high level of military spending wouldn't have been necessary for those successes as well: there's a lot of evidence to suggest that the immediate demobilization after WWII helped convince the Soviets and DPRK that the US wouldn't or couldn't intervene in their attempt to unify the peninsula.

Nevertheless, those charts suggest to me that the point of diminishing returns on 20th century global hegemony is somewhere around $350 billion US 2010. Spending that much gets you a pretty uncontested playing field, while spending more just gets you in to a point where you're chasing good money with bad. And we're now looking at a future where the sustained spending is something like $600-700 billion, even as the US winds down one and maybe two wars.

Or, to put it another way, the difference between America's usual "resting rate" military spending and the planned future spending will be double what the Congressional health care proposals will cost even if the savings estimated by groups like the CBO never materialize. That's the most pessimistic assumption possible: that the $100 billion or so per year that the Congressional plan budgets isn't offset in any way by the projected savings.

And this is all basically uncontroversial, even though it's a sum that would be madness for any other country to spend. Meanwhile, spending a small fraction as much for the moral cause of helping the sick and poor is tantamount to eating babies.

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