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The Most Pernicious Phrase in Washington


Over dinner last night, my friend Chris Hayes, who's also the Washington editor of The Nation magazine (his blog is here), made a very nice point on one of the more villainous turns of phrase in Washington's ongoing budget conversation. I e-mailed to ask him if he could repeat the point for you fine folks. He was kind enough to comply:

Sure. Basically I said one of the most pernicious phrases in Washington, one you hear all the time in any discussion of the budget is: "non-defense discretionary spending." Of course, that's less than quarter of the federal budget. Half of the budget is non-discretionary spending in Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, both of which are administered with a remarkably small amount of staff and quite efficiently. (Also: both are very popular, so it doesn't behoove politicians to take the axe to them).

But the majority of discretionary spending is, of course, defense. It's always struck me that if you're a libertarian, the national security state is/should be enemy number one. It features all of the worst aspects of Big Government: a bureaucracy that metastasizes, one which is constantly sprouting new arms and offices to solve the problems it itself creates. It is connected to a massively cartelized, cronyfied network of defense contractors, the most rent-seeking sort of Big Business there is. It sucks up tremendous resources, it can constrain freedom (as in: go kill and die) in a way that no other aspect of the state (save, arguably the criminal justice system) can. And, worst, there simply is no mobilized constituency to stop its spread except for the Quakers, Code Pink and lefties.

The implication of "non-defense discretionary spending" is simple enough. That's the stuff you can cut. Stuff like, say, education, or roads, or home heating assistance. Defense spending, however, is too politically dangerous for Congress to muck with. It's not like education, or roads, or home heating assistance. It gets it's own category. The conversation, in other words, begins from the premise that you can't question defense spending. That's a crazy premise.

(Graph credit: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.)

By Ezra Klein  |  May 21, 2009; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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When bringing up the strange fact that defense spending is sacrosanct, I never hear any areas ripe for cutbacks. However, I just realized this may be a result of the wretched atmosphere there is in any discussion of defense spending levels. Remember when a smaller increase in defense spending earlier this year was billed even in news media as a cut?

Posted by: Dan_B | May 21, 2009 4:25 PM | Report abuse

I like this version of the pie chart:

It makes it more obvious that trick that LBJ pulled to hide the true cost of the Vietnamese war is still working. Before his subterfuge SS and Medicare/Medicaid were not part of the budget at all. This makes sense since the government only acts in a clerical sense with these programs. It collects dedicated tax revenue and uses externally defined rules to make payments.

I call these government-administered programs. Military spending, on the other hand, is 100% determined by choices made by the government. The competition for funds and the high degree of corruption associated with it shows the pernicious effect of so much money sloshing around with little oversight.

Posted by: robertfeinman | May 21, 2009 4:52 PM | Report abuse

I am in fact a Quaker. In the rush to the Iraq War, the biggest resistance I found was not on the left but at Ron Paul was a big hero there and many of the contributors were Libertarian. My guess is that those particular Libertarians are no longer big fans of George Bush.

Posted by: paularock11 | May 21, 2009 5:01 PM | Report abuse

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