Defense Spending: Reagan/Bush I vs. Clinton vs. Bush II

My blogging arch nemesis, The New Conservative, used a previous post from my homebase concerning America’s readiness to see military reform focused not on spending more, but on spending better as an excuse to hammer Clinton for failing at the very same task. And while I’m not going to disagree that Clinton could have done more to reform the military, it’s inarguable that Clinton did, in fact, significantly reign in military spending. Here are the relevant numbers:

  • $453 billion – the average annual defense budget for the nine years before Clinton took office.
  • $377 billion – the average annual defense budget during Clinton’s time in office, a 16.7% decrease.
  • $496 billion – the average annual defense budget during Bush’s time in office, a whopping 31% increase not even including the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are largely funded through supplementals not included in the official defense budget.

These numbers are in GDP adjusted dollars to make the comparisons as fair as possible. The raw data for these calculations is available here. If anyone finds trouble with my math, please let me know.

Now, we all know that cutting defense spending is second only to cutting Social Security on the political no-no list. The military industrial complex employs several hundred thousand employees. It frequently helps to prop up the economy. And they are represented by some of the best lobbyists in the business.

But couldn’t we get those same economic results by investing in technology we all know we need? Like a new transportation infrastructure — high speed rail in certain areas, new roads and bridges, a new high-bandwidth internet that reaches deep into even the most rural communities. Why not spend on that? Our military will never be able to protect us from economic threats. And frankly, a bloated military still mired in Cold War thinking is ill-equipped to protect us from terrorist threats. But if we give our citizens access to the best technology, if we invest in green technologies, we could create jobs that don’t require us to build unnecessary implements of death. We could scale back our overseas campaigns, engendering good will. And we can knee-cap the terrorists’ agenda by bringing genuine humanitarian aid and progress to those parts of the world most susceptible to terrorist recruitment. Our foreign policy should be based on stability, preferably in democratic systems, as well as the economic and educational development of the poor and powerless countries strewn throughout the Middle East and Eurasia.

I don’t see why this needs to be a partisan issue. I think both sides should be able to agree that spending just under a half trillion dollars on defense (more if we include Iraq and Afghanistan) is too much by any standard. And of course, the more we spend on military equipment, the more persuaded we are to put it to use, which only escalates the cycle.

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3 thoughts on “Defense Spending: Reagan/Bush I vs. Clinton vs. Bush II

  1. It always amuses me when the nega-cons try to blame Cheney’s downsizing of the military on Clinton, when the Republican Congress helped to continue the process right through to the start of the Dubya years. Just tonight on D.L. Hughley, on CNN, James Carville was asked about the criticism of Obama choosing former Clinton staff to fill his administration. Carville wanted to know what problem people had with the Clinton administration, was it the peace, or the prosperity?

    The way to turn the economy around the quickest, is to spend tax dollars on infrastructure, as you say, Big Blue. But just putting out a large number of contracts isn’t all that can improve the economy. Mandate that the businesses that recieve those contracts be U.S. owned companies that don’t have off-shore tax-dodge headquarters in the Carribean, for instance. Mandate that the equipment used to build those bridges, roads, railways, or whatever, be built HERE, from components made HERE. Even if the firms have to purchase used equipment, if it is used U.S. made, it raises the resale value for all of its brand.
    I work for a manufacturing facility and I’m happy to say we just took delivery of two new Haas VF-3 machining centers. Manufactured in Oxnard, California, and sold at a competitive price while paying competitive wages to their employees, in the U.S.!

  2. I think like Howard Zinn when he says, “Why do we need to be a military superpower? Why can’t we be a humanitarian superpower? Instead of helicopters killing people, we will send helicopters with food.”

  3. There’s little to argue about when it comes to reigning in defense spending. Defense funds, spent wisely, without compromising force readiness is key. I believe that like all other government programs, defense is susceptible to pork barrel spending and special influence from lobbyists. If you remove the ability to influence spending by special interests, you break the lock of lobbyists and things like no bid contracts are reserved for emergency use only rather than SOP. The military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned of, was not some secret cabal of the Bilderberg’s set to initiate a coup d’état from the halls of the White House, rather warned of the influence that deep pockets of defense contractors.

    There is a slash and burn mentality that freely permeates the arguments to cut defense spending but history shows us that this is indeed a mistake unless we concede that we will abandon our current treaties and mutual defense agreements (Taiwan, Israel, South Korea, etc.) Force modernization, research & development, deployment readiness are key areas that we should be focused on.

    Make no mistake there will be a challenge to America’s military supremacy and will to project force abroad within the next generation (retooled aggressive Russia, nuclear armed Iran). How we choose to appropriate defense spending now will determine our ability to face future threats.

    The idea that we may somehow become a humanitarian superhero is commendable, but not realistic. For instance the reality is that no matter how many Marshall Plans we engage in, there will well funded elements in the world that for purely ideological and strategic reasons want to see the downfall of America. There are Islamo-fascist elements of the middle east will never rest until the US is completely withdrawn from the sphere of influence of the Islamic world.

    The peace in our time that Chamberlin promised by appeasing Hitler did not work then and it will not work now. This is the basic reason why you don’t compromise with hostage takers or terrorists, the more you appease, the more empowered they become. We certainly can do much to improve our image through diplomacy, but diplomacy and good works are only as good as the military that sits as the iron fist beneath the velvet glove.

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