by Keith Pennock
The headline for a Los Angeles Times editorial, "Too deferential on defense," wants readers to believe that defense spending is to blame for the federal deficit. That is where we'll find the "big money," it says. The actual editorial, however, is really nothing more than a predictable attack on national defense spending that ignores the lion-share of the federal budget, entitlements.
The newspaper misleadingly reports that 61% of the annual appropriations bill goes to defense-a distortion of the budget picture since entitlements aren't considered annual appropriations, but rather "mandatory" spending. Nowhere does the editorial say how to cut entitlements.
It's too bad the Los Angeles Times (and others) don't try a bit harder to provide a useful critique of entitlement program spending and structures. There is no shortage of data and analysis--from both the left and right--that shows we're in trouble.
As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (by no means a conservative or pro-military group) reports, 20% of the federal budget goes to defense in a time of two active wars. Contrast that with--according to Congressional Budget Office numbers found on CBPP's site--the 55% that goes to Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP and other Safety Net Programs. In the documentary " >IOUSA," former Comptroller General David Walker said if entitlement spending continues at its current pace, it would crowd out defense and all other "discretionary" spending by 2025. A GAO study is even more ominous, reporting that 92 cents of every dollar of revenue will go to maintain entitlements by 2019. The remaining 8 cents will be to service the interest on our federal debt.
For many on the political left the solution is simple, just raise taxes. But as a study by Veronique de Rugy at the Mercatus Center finds, historically the government can't net more than 19% of GDP in tax revenue for any length of time before taxpayers start protecting themselves by hiding money in non-productive tax shelters or simply sitting on it. If the political left is more interested in total revenues than tax rates, this is news they can use. The study showed even when the top marginal rates were high, it still netted the same amount of revenue--the only effect seemed to be to slow the economy.
As for the "big money" found in the defense budget and on which the Los Angeles Times' editorial team is focused, yes, there are certainly places to cut. The F-35 Alternative Engine by General Electric mentioned in the editorial is a good example of waste and pork barrel spending found in the U.S. defense budget--the kind that should be cut. The engine was a political concession to a company that contributed significantly to both political parties even though the Department of Defense didn't want it. More generally, changes in how the United States develops future weapons technology are needed, the days of blank check development costs need to come to an end, and military contractors need to be held accountable for cost overruns. But at the same time we need to do this in such a way that we don't repeat the mistakes of the "Total Package Procurement" folly of Robert McNamara when he was Secretary of Defense, which nearly left Lockheed bankrupt.
Given the importance of national security, a cut-at-all-costs mentality regardless of what it does to military readiness is irresponsible. Cuts simply in the name of shaving the ledger-- to programs like the F-22 Raptor--are reckless because they threaten our ability to maintain air superiority, upon which all of our defense plans are predicated. As Max Boot wrote in his excellent article about the history of past defense cuts, we seek to balance the budget on the back of the military at our own peril.
Establishing armed forces to provide for the common defense is a federal duty called for by the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8). But there are many things the federal government currently does that fall far outside the ambit of its mandated responsibility, and frankly that the states could more efficiently handle.
Historically the states have been charged with looking after their citizens' health and welfare under what are termed "general police powers." It's time to rethink inefficient, one-size fits all solutions to social problems imposed by distant bureaucrats. States and localities have, valuable local human intelligence, the flexibility to innovate and the agility to change as conditions on the ground dictate far more readily than Washington D.C. This, as Justice Brandeis noted, is the genius of our two-tiered federalist system of government that allows the states to be laboratories of democracy without putting the whole country at stake.
What is at stake is our country's ability to remain solvent, when the federal debt, not including future entitlement liabilities, is $14.1 trillion dollars (the same amount as the country's >2010 total GDP, or $120,000 per taxpayer).Perhaps it's time to think about those essential functions that the federal government is charged to perform. That's something the Los Angeles Times' editorial board might consider when it comes to balancing the budget.