Tthe Pentagon is seen from air from Air Force One. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
Columnist

The military-industrial complex isn’t bankrupting us — though some on the left still cling nostalgically to the belief that it is. It’s fiction. We need to be clear about this. As I’ve written before, one of the great uncovered stories in Washington is the defense budget vs. the welfare state. Defense is getting drubbed, exposing us to long-term risks.

Whether this lesson takes hold in the campaign is unclear. The omens aren’t good. The latest anti-Pentagon tirade comes in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books by Jessica T. Mathews, former president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. It’s headlined “America’s Indefensible Defense Budget.” Here are some of her conclusions.

“Defense spending crowds out funds for everything else a prosperous economy and a healthy society need.”

“Defense spending now accounts for almost 60% of the budget: everything else is accommodated in the remaining two-fifths.”

“We still spend more on defense than the next eight largest spenders combined — China, Saudi Arabia, India, France, Russia, Britain, Germany and Japan.”

By this account, “high” levels of military spending are crippling the rest of society. The trouble is that each of these statements is false, deceptive or incomplete.

Let’s start with the notion that defense is crowding out other national priorities. The reality is just the opposite. Expanding government spending on health care and various “entitlements” is crowding out other priorities, including — but not limited to — defense, the FBI, the national parks, scientific research, federal courts and much more.

Over time, government has transformed itself. In 1960, defense spending accounted for 52 percent of federal outlays. “Human resources” — which covers Social Security, Medicare (not yet created in 1960) and other entitlements — were 28 percent. By 2018, defense’s share had sunk to 15 percent, and human resources had climbed to 71 percent. Moreover, the aging of the population is constantly raising Social Security and retirement spending, squeezing other programs and requiring higher taxes or bigger deficits. The trends would be similar if the costs of nuclear weapons were added to the basic military budget.

Next, let’s debunk the contention that defense represents 60 percent of the budget. In the preceding paragraph, the number used is 15 percent. Both can’t be right. The way Mathews gets to 60 percent is by ignoring entitlement spending — the largest and fastest-growing part of the budget — and comparing defense outlays only to so-called discretionary spending.

Naturally, defense looms larger when counted against a smaller amount. Budget wonks (people such as me) can spot this misleading trick. But most people wouldn’t have a clue.

(My normally sensible colleague Fareed Zakaria wrote a column praising Mathews’s essay as “superb.” That’s a wild exaggeration. Also, a note for policy wonks: The statistics above come from the Historical Tables, published annually by the Office of Management and Budget.)

Finally, there’s the oft-repeated claim that U.S. defense spending exceeds the amounts of the next eight countries combined. Though this may be technically true, it’s a statistical fluke.

Our prices for paying for the military (troops, tanks, aircraft) are higher than foreigners’ comparable prices. That’s one burden of a volunteer military: Other countries get more bang for their buck. “The U.S. defense budget buys much less than it once did,” notes Rick Berger, a defense analyst at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute.

Adjusting for these price differences (under a technique called “purchasing power parity”), our spending would not exceed those of the next eight countries.

What Mathews has given us is an anti-defense mythology that, if believed, would justify gutting the system we have today. But it shouldn’t be believed, because its purported facts are mostly fictions that are completely at odds with the world we can observe. This includes a China that is building a high-tech military, a Russia that is modernizing its forces, possible conflicts with Iran and North Korea, acts of terrorism, and cyberwarfare.

None of this warrants a blank check for the military. Mathews is correct that there is waste in the system, including (as she says) weapons systems and bases that are preserved mostly because they have powerful political sponsors. But there is waste in many federal programs — Medicare, student loans and Amtrak, as examples — and they shouldn’t be used as a pretext for stalling needed defense spending.

Diverting defense dollars to building a wall on the southern border is an especially bad idea. Finally, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remind us that money alone can’t ensure battlefield success.

There is a larger issue here that Congress and presidents have assiduously avoided for decades. What is government for? Until the 1930s, the main answer was national security, with a lesser role for economic development. Now we have a security state, a welfare state and a whatever-else-you-want state. It would be nice, though unlikely, if the next election could decide between what’s essential and what’s simply convenient.

Read more from Robert Samuelson’s archive.