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Posted at 2:34 PM ET, 02/15/2011

Americans think we're spending too much on defense, in one chart

By Ezra Klein

From Gallup:


So why are we spending so much on defense, and protecting it from real cuts even as Pell grants go under the knife? The problem isn't the polls. It's a learned understanding of the politics. Democratic presidents believe they need the secretary of defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff on their side if they're going to make major changes to the Defense Department. This is how the Obama administration proceeded on "don't ask, don't tell," and it's what they wanted to do here. But Secretary Robert Gates wouldn't go for more than $78 billion. And though the administration was willing to tell a lot of agencies that they couldn't have what they want over the next few years, they weren't willing to say that to the Defense Department. They're not sure they could win that fight. But looking at these polls, I wonder if they're not too pessimistic on that.

By Ezra Klein  | February 15, 2011; 2:34 PM ET
Categories:  Budget, Polls  
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"Americans think we're spending too much on defense..."

Well, they're just wrong, and I've got the advertising cards from all over the Washington Metro to prove it.

Posted by: davis_x_machina | February 15, 2011 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Maybe this could be revisited when we're no longer floating war in two theaters off of the national budget?

Posted by: arm3 | February 15, 2011 3:26 PM | Report abuse

Here's one part of the DOD budget that should be increased tenfold DARPA.

Arguably the most successful government-private partnership ever, here's some of what they've accomplished:

“DARPA started the Saturn rocket engine program that gave the United States the ability to go to the Moon less than 10 years later. DARPA also started satellite projects such as Discoverer and Corona, classified programs that kept Presidents informed on Soviet activities for years,” notes DARPA’s current Director, Dr. Tony Tether. “Everyone has heard of the ARPANET, a 1960s idea that originally had only a few connections. It led to the Internet, now approaching billions of connections,” says Tether.

“Or stealth airplanes, such as Have Blue, which fundamentally changed air warfare, and the Predator and Global Hawk, unmanned air vehicles flying today in Iraq. And more recently, the Grand Challenge which demonstrated that driverless vehicles can operate safely in traffic with other manned and unmanned vehicles. All of these are DARPA accomplishments, ” Tether said.

Other DARPA achievements are less well-known: new materials such as gallium arsenide, used in high-speed circuits; new metals, such as beryllium, stronger than steel but lighter than aluminum; solid-state photon detectors, from visible to long wavelength, which led to night-vision capabilities, microwave and millimeterwave monolithic integrated circuits, the essence of today’s cell phones and miniature GPS receivers; lithography that allowed the number of transistors to reach 100 billion on a chip smaller than the size of a thumbnail.

Two DARPA technologies -- very large-scale integrated circuits, or VLSI, and graphic-design software -- were originally developed, in part, to manage daunting controls faced by military pilots who made split-second decisions in advanced jets but that work also helped create the computer workstation industry, including such companies as Silicon Graphics and Sun Microsystems, DARPA said."

Let's just be careful what we cut from DOD please!

Posted by: johnmarshall5446 | February 15, 2011 3:33 PM | Report abuse

This is a good, concise post that points out a couple important things that probably get overlooked when people consider 'defense' spending. But there's a very common assumption underlying all this budget talk that President Obama would like to cut defense spending, but can't for some reason. I see very little evidence that Obama has ever seriously considered realistic cuts to military-industrial spending. From what I've read secretary Gates came out months ago, basically giving his permission for a tiny reduction to his budget, Obama accepted it, and now he's taking the axe to pell grants and all kinds of other good programs. Ezra seems to believe there was this 'fight [the administration] couldn't win', but where is the evidence that such a fight was ever even considered? Obama should be judged like anyone else in his position, i.e. by his actions, and I think that liberals who are so cautious about criticizing him should be honest about the fact that he's perfectly willing to trade more and more missiles for less and less quality education. Whatever rhetoric he offers about 'winning the future' is just that.

Posted by: andrewbaron78 | February 15, 2011 3:46 PM | Report abuse

There are all sorts of weapon systems and other spending programs the Pentagon doesn't even want, but are imposed on it anyway by the Congress because the spending is done in the particular congresscritter's district. This is an outrage that needs to be stopped!

And defense? Don't you mean OFFENSE? 763 bases maintained all over the world! It's a freakin outrage I tell you!

Posted by: rjewett | February 15, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse

Democrats won't say 'no' to DoD.
Republicans can't say 'no' to DoD.
And no one's incentives point towards saying 'no' at any time, for any reason.

Posted by: ctown_woody | February 15, 2011 4:25 PM | Report abuse

If we weren't in Iraq and Afghanistan right now I think it would be easier politically to go after.

Posted by: beerose | February 15, 2011 4:28 PM | Report abuse

Come on, Ezra. The correct answer here is $$$!

Poor people aren't flooding the political system with money. They won't run 'Citizens United' ads. They won't have 2000 lobbyists.

And, unfortunately, they won't be warm next winter.

Obama is better than the (crazy) alternative, but lets call a spade a spade. An airplane that doesn't fly, but is built in 300 different congressional districts, is just a great priority! America needs more, and sometimes we need a second engine for that plane, too!

Posted by: rat-raceparent | February 15, 2011 4:43 PM | Report abuse

It's not the military, it's the defense contractors.

Walk around the Capitol, and their ubiquity is crazy. You will see event after event sponsored by them. You will see their ads in every Hill publication not just in budget season, but all the time. Check out the various lunchrooms. And it's been going on for DECADES.

I don't know how to explain it except if you're a staffer, they're in your head like the monster in a 4 year old's closet.

There is a genuine belief that this isn't just how it is in DC--they are this powerful everywhere. This industry is politically unstoppable, and so it's been decades since anyone challenged them.

Now, they may in fact actually be politically unstoppable, but it's been decades since anyone challenged them...I think we'd find out they're not paper tigers, but not an irresistible force.

Posted by: theorajones1 | February 15, 2011 5:07 PM | Report abuse

you're right we are spending too much but its amazing how it dips in times of crises. See around 2001 and 1980.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 15, 2011 5:25 PM | Report abuse

The President really, really would like to do something good, but he does something bad instead. Ezra (and Matt Yglesias, and Steve Benen, and the rest of the veal pen) leap to defend his actions. Obama's just being savvy and pragmatic. He's not betraying Democrats. No: "It's a learned understanding of the politics."

Isn't this the 659th time you all have used that excuse? Surely your personalized White House kneepads need to be replaced.

Posted by: stonedone | February 15, 2011 5:34 PM | Report abuse

(1) Ignore national polls on this issue. First, cut-defense respondents likely are concentrated in heavily Democratic big cities. Second, and related to that, Obama and fellow Democrats know that, nationally, Republicans, abetted by the media, would beat them upside the head with the indestructible Democrats-are-weak-on-defense stereotype and take their lunch money if they tried on their own to cut the LEVEL of defense spending. That's why having Gates, nominally a Republican and broadly respected across partisan lines, as a front man in merely proposing to reduce the RATE OF INCREASE in defense spending, not the level, is essential. Thus, Gates holds -- especially in a time of war -- all the trump cards, and Obama knows it.

(2) National polls don't map the power of the military-industrial-POLITICAL complex, which manifests that power congressional district by congressional district and state by state without regard for political party. On a local and state level, defense spending is all about jobs, jobs, jobs -- and communities and unions that depend on those jobs. On the ground domestically, defense spending often constitutes make-work programs, always tough to oppose even when the economy is at what economists call full-employment. Now? Forgetaboutit.

(3) What about overseas defense spending? For Iraq, Gates and the Joint Chiefs make the spending decisions based on Obama's pull-out schedule, to which they agreed long ago. Double ditto for Afghanistan, given that Afghanistan can truly be said to be Obama's War.

(4) Overseas defense spending in areas other than war zones? Exploring cuts in those areas would be an interesting exercise for the media, think tanks, and anti-defense-spending activists. A broad discussion would draw in the State Department. And it should tap into Americans' aversion, wildly misinformed as it is, to foreign-aid spending, thus perhaps creating a positive feedback loop between that aversion and the chart Ezra shows in this post.

From the Founders on, spasms of isolationism periodically pop up in American history. Buttressed by the Ron Paul cult among young people and, perhaps, Tea Party sentiment in Congress, the feedback loop hypothesized above might result in some minor cuts in the Obama's proposed FY2012 defense budget.

But that's not likely. More likely is that the military-industrial-political complex will flex its muscles and Obama's proposed spending level will be increased by Congress.

Like entitlement spending, defense spending awaits the possible clarification of the electorate's will in the 2012 election. For now, the political process is paralyzed. Democracy in action.

Posted by: fredbrack | February 15, 2011 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Defense spending is not spending. It is investing in defense.

Posted by: yokosuka1985 | February 15, 2011 5:48 PM | Report abuse

Our military-industrial complex does everything it can politically to ensure the US remains in perpetual war to justify its existence. It is jobs welfare program. Can you say Dick Cheney and Halliburton? One prime example. DOD contractors are so imbedded in politics that this boil will be extremely difficult to lance.

We seem to be moving the way of the former Soviet Union, where we continue throw our last remaining pennies of a deteriorating economy into a declining mega-military.

Posted by: gfoster56 | February 16, 2011 7:15 AM | Report abuse

Do you know how many jobs military spending maintains? Besides the million-plus people in uniforms there must be at least a million more contractors ranging from advanced weapon systems all the way down to janitors, with lobbyists and advertisers in the middle.

That and the prison-industrial complex is what keeps America without European levels of unemployment.

Posted by: gandalf_hah | February 16, 2011 12:01 PM | Report abuse

I always love how liberals whine about those poor government workers who'll lose their jobs due to budget cuts but don't see any problem what so ever with private defense workers and even soldiers who lose their jobs because of cuts to the defense budget. A liberal thinks every single government program is sacrosanct except of course for defense spending. Personally I think that the budget that ensures my safety in a dangerous and hostile world should get first priority in the budget and everything else should come in second. After all providing for the defense of the country is actually enshrined in the constitution. At no point in the constitution does it mention providing Pell grants to college students.

Posted by: RobT1 | February 16, 2011 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I think we should spend just as much as those scary Chinese do.

Oooops, they spend about $100 billion and we spend over $700 billion. But wait, they get to buy the cheap made-in-China weapons while we have to buy those bloated, over priced, don't quite work, American-made weapon systems to keep jobs here (and fund our politicians).

Hmmmmmm. Maybeeeee .......

Posted by: ronames | February 16, 2011 12:41 PM | Report abuse

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