All the National Security Americans Don't Want to Pay For (but Do Through Lost Jobs)


040519_armedservices_hmed_7a.grid-6x2.jpg Wall Street Journal economics correspondent David Wessel published a roster of what he calls "digestible morsels" to help Americans better understand what is at play in the federal budget.

Among the realities he notes are that "two-thirds of annual federal spending goes out the door without any vote by Congress" and that "the U.S. defense budget is greater than the combined defense budgets of the next 17 largest spenders."

I'm glad Wessel touched the stratospheric defense budget, and I'm looking forward to reading his forthcoming book, Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget, but there are dimensions to this national spending account that are often overlooked.

First of all, the costs of America's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have not been offset by either raising taxes or from financial contributions from other affected countries. It's important to remember that in the first Gulf War, Japan wrote the United States a check for $13 billion to pay the costs of that conflict.

Secondly, if one takes the approximate amount the United States was paying to "feel safe" on September 10, 2001 and account for inflationary growth since, the cumulative amount in just defense spending since is roughly $2.7 trillion. That doesn't include other domestic expenditures for Homeland Security which would make the collective bill even higher.

One could call this $2.7 trillion the "Bin Laden effect," and while it is appropriate for the U.S. to modify its defense and security infrastructure to deal with threats that are emerging rather than clinging to dissipated threats from the past, this level of spending not supported by tax dollars is staggeringly consequential.

155507-at-issue-u-s-unemployment.jpgWhile there are apples and oranges problems in comparing defense spending and the number of soldiers, private contractors, technologists, uniform manufacturers in Tianjin, corrupt foreign government officials, and others employed by that spending -- it is indisputable that the same amount of economic spending and activity in the private sector would be managed more efficiently and contribute more significantly to America's job base and GDP growth.

To put the comparison in context, $2.7 trillion in economic activity in the private sector equates to approximately 6 million jobs sustained over the period between the 9/11 terror attacks and today.

Big, costly, unpaid-for wars are undermining the economic health of the country -- and are robbing growth and opportunity from the future to pay for these military objectives today. 

It is a good debate to have whether the invasions of Iraq and the ongoing 'ownership' of the Afghanistan conflict have been worth the investment or not -- but not tending the economic health of America's core has been a strategic failure of enormous magnitude.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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