Sunday, February 15, 2009

Barney Frank: Cut the Military Budget

Cut the Military Budget


by Barney Frank


I am a great believer in freedom of expression and am

proud of those times when I have been one of a few

members of Congress to oppose censorship. I still hold

close to an absolutist position, but I have been

tempted recently to make an exception, not by banning

speech but by requiring it. I would be very happy if

there was some way to make it a misdemeanor for people

to talk about reducing the budget deficit without

including a recommendation that we substantially cut military spending.


Sadly, self-described centrist and even liberal

organizations often talk about the need to curtail

deficits by cutting Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid

and other programs that have a benign social purpose,

but they fail to talk about one area where substantial

budget reductions would have the doubly beneficial

effect of cutting the deficit and diminishing

expenditures that often do more harm than good.

Obviously people should be concerned about the $700

billion Congress voted for this past fall to deal with

the credit crisis. But even if none of that money were

to be paid back--and most of it will be--it would

involve a smaller drain on taxpayer dollars than the

Iraq War will have cost us by the time it is concluded,

and it is roughly equivalent to the $651 billion we

will spend on all defense in this fiscal year.


When I am challenged by people--not all of them

conservative--who tell me that they agree, for example,

that we should enact comprehensive universal healthcare

but wonder how to pay for it, my answer is that I do

not know immediately where to get the funding but I

know whom I should ask. I was in Congress on September

10, 2001, and I know there was no money in the budget

at that time for a war in Iraq. So my answer is that I

will go to the people who found the money for that war

and ask them if they could find some for healthcare.


It is particularly inexplicable that so many self-

styled moderates ignore the extraordinary increase in

military spending. After all, George W. Bush himself

has acknowledged its importance. As the December 20

Wall Street Journal notes, "The president remains

adamant his budget troubles were the result of a ramp-

up in defense spending." Bush then ends this rare burst

of intellectual honesty by blaming all this "ramp-up"

on the need to fight the war in Iraq.


Current plans call for us not only to spend hundreds of

billions more in Iraq but to continue to spend even

more over the next few years producing new weapons that

might have been useful against the Soviet Union. Many

of these weapons are technological marvels, but they

have a central flaw: no conceivable enemy. It ought to

be a requirement in spending all this money for a

weapon that there be some need for it. In some cases we

are developing weapons--in part because of nothing more

than momentum--that lack not only a current military

need but even a plausible use in any foreseeable future.


It is possible to debate how strong America should be

militarily in relation to the rest of the world. But

that is not a debate that needs to be entered into to

reduce the military budget by a large amount. If,

beginning one year from now, we were to cut military

spending by 25 percent from its projected levels, we

would still be immeasurably stronger than any

combination of nations with whom we might be engaged.


Implicitly, some advocates of continued largesse for

the Pentagon concede that the case cannot be made fully

in terms of our need to be safe from physical attack.

Ironically--even hypocritically, since many of those

who make the case are in other contexts anti-government

spending conservatives--they argue for a kind of

weaponized Keynesianism that says military spending is

important because it provides jobs and boosts the

economy. Spending on military hardware does produce

some jobs, but it is one of the most inefficient ways

to deploy public funds to stimulate the economy. When I

asked him years ago what he thought about military

spending as stimulus, Alan Greenspan, to his credit,

noted that from an economic standpoint military

spending was like insurance: if necessary to meet its

primary need, it had to be done, but it was not good

for the economy; and to the extent that it could be

reduced, the economy would benefit.


The math is compelling: if we do not make reductions

approximating 25 percent of the military budget

starting fairly soon, it will be impossible to continue

to fund an adequate level of domestic activity even

with a repeal of Bush's tax cuts for the very wealthy.


I am working with a variety of thoughtful analysts to

show how we can make very substantial cuts in the

military budget without in any way diminishing the

security we need. I do not think it will be hard to

make it clear to Americans that their well-being is far

more endangered by a proposal for substantial

reductions in Medicare, Social Security or other

important domestic areas than it would be by canceling

weapons systems that have no justification from any

threat we are likely to face.


So those organizations, editorial boards and

individuals who talk about the need for fiscal

responsibility should be challenged to begin with the

area where our spending has been the most irresponsible

and has produced the least good for the dollars

expended--our military budget. Both parties have for

too long indulged the implicit notion that military

spending is somehow irrelevant to reducing the deficit

and have resisted applying to military spending the

standards of efficiency that are applied to other

programs. If we do not reduce the military budget,

either we accustom ourselves to unending and increasing

budget deficits, or we do severe harm to our ability to

improve the quality of our lives through sensible public policy.


Barney Frank represents the 4th District of Massachusetts in Congress and is chairman of the House

Financial Services Committee.


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