The case for the sequester’s defense cuts

February 26, 2013

After the Korean War, the base defense budget fell by 43 percent. After the Vietnam War, it fell by 33 percent. After the Soviet Union toppled and the Cold War ended, it fell by 36 percent.

That's the pattern of military spending in America. It rockets in times of war but falls back down in times of peace.

Over the past decade, we’ve been at war. And our spending went way up. In 2001, under President George W. Bush, the military budget was $287 billion. In 2012, after accounting for the military budget and the war spending, it was about $700 billion. That’s a bigger increase in spending than we saw for either the Vietnam War or the Cold War.

And here's where it left us: $700 billion is more than China, the U.K., France, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia and Canada spend on their militaries combined.

Our wars are ending. Officially, the war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan is drawing down. Osama bin Laden is dead. Typically, at this moment, spending drops by somewhere between 33 percent and 43 percent.

If the sequester goes into effect, the full cut to the defense budget will be about 31 percent. Think about that — during the war on terror, the defense budget increased by more than it did during the Cold War or the Vietnam War, and even with the sequester, the cut to the defense budget will be less than it was after either of those.

Kind of puts the doomsaying in perspective, huh?

Now, sequestration is a really stupid way to cut the defense budget. I’m not arguing that. But a $500 billion cut is not necessarily a stupid amount by which to cut the defense budget. And cutting $500 billion from the defense budget is not necessarily a stupid way to reduce the deficit.

Compare it, for instance, with the other options. When the Democrats talk about tax reform, when they say they want to replace the sequester and almost all of the defense cuts with tax revenue, what they’re saying is they want to limit what are called itemized deductions for the rich.

That doesn't mean much to most people. But when you hear that, here’s what you should hear: Democrats want to limit subsidies for rich people to donate to charity, pay their state and local taxes and buy big houses. That’s what those itemized deductions are really about: They’re overwhelmingly made up of the charitable deduction, the home mortgage interest deduction and the state and local tax deduction, and we’re talking about cutting them for rich people.

When Republicans talk about their sequester replacement, they're talking about policies — they've proposed a couple of them — that move the cuts over toward domestic spending. Food stamps and Medicaid are prominent targets in their bills, as are policies that simply tighten the caps on domestic discretionary spending — which would mean bigger cuts to education, infrastructure  and other priorities.

The sequester is bad economic policy, and for that reason, I’d like to get rid of it altogether. If we do keep it, we absolutely have to give agencies the ability to make decisions about how to make those cuts — something Congress is discussing. But if you gave me a choice between getting $500 billion by cutting defense spending, or by cutting spending on houses and charities and state and local taxes, or by cutting spending on social services, I’d take the defense cuts.

Moreover, there are unsettling implications to the argument that even though the wars are ending, America needs to break with historical precedent and keep its defense budget high. That's an acceptance of the idea that we're now in a permanent state of semi-war, with all that that entails. In the long run, I think that's a dangerous mindset. Bringing down the defense budget is one of the few ways to decisively reject that reimagining of America's posture toward the rest of the world.

Further reading:

— America's defense budget, in charts.

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Brad Plumer | February 26, 2013