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There's No Such Thing as "Non-Defense Discretionary Spending"


My friend Chris Hayes likes to say that "non-defense discretionary spending" is the most pernicious phrase in Washington. It means, essentially, that there's spending, which we can cut, and then there's defense spending, which we cannot cut, and shouldn't even talk about. Defense spending, however, accounts for about 20 percent of federal dollars. Add in the wars of the past few years and it's accounted for even more than that. Saying you can't touch defense spending is like going on a diet but letting the milk industry say that you can't cut back on dairy. All of which came to mind when I read this post from Matt Yglesias:

Chris Preble had a good post up on the Cato blog yesterday praising Barack Obama’s veto threat over the F-22 issue. I continue to hope that folks will stay engaged with this question, because I think it’s more important than it first appears. I know that a lot of people, both on the progressive left and the libertarian right, would like to see a more ambitious cutback of the American defense posture than what you see in this initial budget proposal. But viewed in that light I think you need to see the issue on the table right now as whether or not the political system can impose any discipline on the military-industrial complex at all. If it can, then bigger change may be possible in the future. If it can’t, then it can’t.

Cutting defense spending is frequently framed as, well, a defense issue. And in some ways, it is. But it's also an economic issue. Resources are scarce. The country has a lot of priorities. A fighter jet shouldn't simply be evaluated on whether it is a good investment for the United States military, but whether it is a good investment for the United States. There aren't "defense dollars" and then "non-defense dollars." There are only dollars, and we need to figure out how best to use them.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 17, 2009; 5:38 PM ET
Categories:  Budget  
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It is not true to say "then there's defense spending, which we cannot cut." We cut it all the time. In 1962, defense spending was 9% of GDP. By 1977, that had fallen to 4.5%. Under Reagan, it went back up to around 6% by 1985 and after the end of the Cold War, it fell to a low of 3% by 2001. It's now around 4.7%.

It's actually health care spending "which we cannot cut." That just goes up as a percentage of GDP.

It may be hard to cut defense spending *right now* for all kinds of political reasons, and there's no doubt that we *should* cut defense spending. But it's simply wrong to say that we don't cut defense spending. It may be the easiest thing in the world to cut.

Posted by: robbins2 | July 17, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

"Fewer F-22s, more bullet trains" seems reasonable to me. Especially since we'll need fewer F-22s if we need less oil.

Posted by: bluegrass1 | July 17, 2009 6:15 PM | Report abuse

I agree that we need to look at making cuts everywhere, including defense. However, isn't the reason Congressmen are voting against cutting F-22 spending because they want to keep jobs? And haven't you been continuously blogging that we need another stimulus for job creation? This could be way oversimplified, but didn't Keynes say the best kind of stimulus is defense spending, because it happens much faster than say trying to build highways?

Certainly we need to ask the question is it a good investment for the United States, but I think if we are going to look at limiting spending, we should look at all of it, including other seemingly untouchable entitlement programs.

Posted by: BradBlasiar | July 17, 2009 7:28 PM | Report abuse

Well if the "defense" budget were really for defense, then it would make sense to view it as an off-the-table, existential budget necessity.

But it's not. The territory of the United States could be perfectly well defended by F-4 Phantoms, let alone F-15's 16's and 18's.

The F-22 is really for offense, against a very short list of countries who we shouldn't be attacking anyway. It's the first thing that should be cut to help pay for health care.

Posted by: Aatos | July 17, 2009 10:51 PM | Report abuse

"There are only dollars, and we need to figure out how best to use them."

Don't worry; we'll make more.

Posted by: thehersch | July 18, 2009 1:01 AM | Report abuse

I thought "Defense" Dept budget was printed on Monopoly money?

Posted by: ajw_93 | July 20, 2009 10:15 AM | Report abuse

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