Saturday, January 12, 2013

Strange Bedfellows Say ACA and Defense Spending Incompatible

David Brooks and Mark Steyn aren't normally fellows that reach similar conclusions, but they have within days of each other, opined that the U.S. can afford entitlement spending, especially on healthcare, or current military spending, but not both.  Both commentaries are prompted by considering what the nomination of Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary might mean.  Here is Brooks:
Medicare spending is set to nearly double over the next decade. This is the crucial element driving all federal spending over the next few decades and pushing federal debt to about 250 percent of GDP in 30 years.. . .As the federal government becomes a health care state, there will have to be a generation of defense cuts that overwhelm anything in recent history. Keep in mind how brutal the budget pressure is going to be. According to the Government Accountability Office, if we act on entitlements today, we will still have to cut federal spending by 32 percent and raise taxes by 46 percent over the next 75 years to meet current obligations.. . .Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.

Mark Steyn is more entertaining, but reaches the same conclusions:
That’s why Obama’s offered him the gig. Because Obamacare at home leads inevitably to Obamacuts abroad. In that sense, America will be doing no more than following the same glum trajectory of every other great power in the postwar era.. . .You can have Euro-sized entitlements or a global military, but not both. What’s easier to do if you’re a democratic government that’s made promises it can’t afford — cut back on nanny-state lollipops, or shrug off thankless military commitments for which the electorate has minimal appetite?
Mark Steyn also agrees that Defense spending needs to be cut on the theory that it is not very effective at winning wars, despite the lopsided advantage in technology and material that America has.  I agree, actually, but as usual, the Administration is acting childish, proposing across the board cuts, so that all programs will limp along, spending money, but not delivering anything, because they have all been cut.  We need more big cuts to failed programs in Defense in order to save money for research and for programs actually working.  For example, in 2011, the Joint Tactical Radio System was cancelled, because defense planners bet against the market about the need for a software radio that could do everything.  See an excellent analysis at Ars Technica.

Ultimately, America is going to have to decide if it wants fewer soldiers and sailors, because the big bill comes from the cost of labor.  Defense isn't immune to the same analysis that face many other businesses.  Fewer soldiers mean we can't put boots on the ground again like we did in Iraq.  That may or may not be a good thing, depending on your point of view.  But we are going to have to live with toppling dictators, if we choose, but not controlling the outcome, like in Libya.  Rather than shaping the post-war landscape, like in Iraq.  Given the expense of the latter, one might argue that boots on the ground are a luxury we can no longer afford.  However, adversaries are going to notice, and it will change the calculus of world politics.  If you think America is the source of all that's wrong in the world, you might like that.  I think it will make the world more dangerous; but I also think we never thought hard enough about what force composition and programs were necessary for our national security strategy and ended up wasting a lot of money as a consequence.

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