Safety Isn't Everything: An Addendum on the $46 Billion in Pentagon Cuts

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Why Congress should stop sequestration, then make smarter cuts that add up to the same dollar figure

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Last week, I argued that $46 billion in defense cuts shouldn't make us less safe, given the gulf that separates American military spending from the rest of the countries in the world. Many readers responded as if my piece was a defense of the scheduled sequestration cuts. Let me correct the record. I still insist that the most dire warnings about the dangers of sequestration are exaggerated by a ruling class that regularly tries to stoke an atmosphere of crisis. America spends so much on its military that even $46 billion in inefficient cuts shouldn't make us less safe, largely because so much of what we spend has little to do with defending our homeland

That doesn't mean sequestration won't negatively affect missions we've chosen to undertake. Make no mistake. Sequestration will result in cuts being made in an inefficient, even idiotic fashion.There won't just be $46 billion in cuts, but "$46 billion in cuts under the wacky rules of the sequester," as one reader put it, rightly arguing that my initial piece should've made that clearer. Said frequent commenter M W: "I support cutting the defense budget, but making an across-the-board cut because Congress has failed to act in a responsible way is a pathetically poor way to do it." That's right. Even if you want to cut the Pentagon's budget, as I do, there are much better ways to do it, though Congress never actually summons the will to make those smarter cuts.

So to be perfectly clear about my position: Congress should stop sequestration from taking effect, and then make smarter cuts of equivalent size. Congress should stop it because it is inefficient and needlessly focuses some of the pain of cuts on people who volunteered to fight on our behalf.

Now for some reader emails on the subject:

DoD receives funds for specific activities -- an amount for military construction, an amount for maintenance of facilities, an amount for purchasing new equipment, an amount for military salaries, an amount for civilian salaries, etc.  Under current law, sequestration mandates proportionate cuts from every line item (with a few exceptions like military pay). When sequestration hits, I personally will take a 20% pay cut. That's no problem, because I can shift resources from one line item of my budget (vacations) to cover the deficit in another, more important line item of my budget (mortgage). But if I were cutting my budget the same way DoD is, I'd have to say nope, can't shift money from vacations -- I just have to tell the bank I can't pay my mortgage anymore.  That means I have to sell my house and buy a smaller one, incurring lots of easily avoidable costs along the way.  Same thing with every other expense where I have a contractual obligation -- I have to terminate my cell phone contract and pay penalties, etc.  I incur additional costs by being forced to cut things in a stupid way.

Oh, and DoD is also prohibited from doing other things like closing bases to remove excess infrastructure, despite the resource constraints.  To use another rough analogy, I wouldn't be allowed to sell things I own to cover the 20% cut as well.

And remember that since:

1. the cuts are proportionate, and

2. there is no authority to redirect funds from one area to another, and

3. it is difficult to purchase 1/2 of an aircraft carrier, whenever you reach below a certain threshold, you simply buy one fewer carrier/aircraft/tank.  So you could theoretically have an 8% cut to ship procurement that left you $1 short of the money you needed to buy a Nimitz carrier, so you can't spend the other $4,499,999,999 either.

The most inefficient thing in my area will be when we pay full salaries to our military members to come out and work, but since all the civilians they supervise will be gone, there will be nothing for them to do. We'll be paying a one-star general to command about 200 active duty soldiers under his command, while the other 8,000 civilians are home updating their resumes.

Here's another one:

The US military enforces the law of the sea and backs global trade. It maintains huge combat bases abroad. It operates a gigantic intelligence operation. We expect it to show up rapidly and in force if there's a big natural disaster in Turkey or Pakistan or Haiti. It has a massive R&D footprint: I spent some time last year with a researcher from Australia's Defense Science and Technology Organization, which handles all their defense research, and he was awed at how much larger a single, relatively small US Army-only medical research facility is.

We spend much more than the rest of the world because we task our military with grossly more. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with our spending. It might mean that there's something wrong with our mission -- certainly I think you can and should take away or reduce aspects of the US military mission. But when you say, hey, we can cut a whole lot of money, well, all I'm saying is (1) it is unjustifiably foolish to get to that conclusion by looking at other governments, whose militaries don't have the same job, and (2) you have to accompany it with saying which parts of the mission you want to cut (or which efficiencies you want to put in place).

In closing, a point of clarification.

The point of comparing the U.S. military budget to what other nations spend isn't to imply that every dollar America budgets over and above what China spends is wasted, or that the military of every country does the same job. It's almost the opposite. What readers should take from the comparison is precisely that the Pentagon is spending money doing a lot of things other militaries don't.

I favor some of that spending.

But every time the Pentagon budget comes up, it is treated by politicians and pundits as if it's sacrosanct because the U.S. must be secure, and national defense is government's foremost obligation.

That logic should only apply to a fraction on the defense budget. Spending on basic security really should be our priority. Comparing the Pentagon budget to what other nations spend on their militaries helps to show how much of what we do goes beyond the "keep us safe" threshold. Some of the extra spending is prudent. Some is wasted. But the fact that spending is part of the Pentagon budget doesn't make it special. We should evaluate most Pentagon spending in the same way as every other type of federal spending, precisely because so many missions given to the Pentagon far exceed basic tasks like repelling foreign invasions.

The military-industrial complex knows that "keep us safe" is a priority of almost every American, so its members regularly try to obscure the fact that they could achieve that narrow mission with fewer resources.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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