Defense Spending: What’s another $54 billion between friends?
Written by Gabriel Rench on May 15, 2017
Recently President Trump delivered welcome news to defense contractors across the country when he announced that the Department of Defense (DoD) budget would increase by $54 billion in Fiscal Year (FY) 2018, representing a 10% increase in military spending (Cohen, 2017). This comes on the heels of a fiscal year 2016 that saw a 7% increase in defense spending, the only such increase since consistent reductions from FY2009 to FY2015 (Ellman, Cohen, Hunter, Johnson, McCormick, Sanders, IX, 2017). Though there are certainly legitimate reasons for increasing the budget, it makes one wonder just how big is the United States defense budget? And, from a Christian perspective, how big should it really be? I do not intend to fully treat the complex topic of US involvement in world politics. My aim is simply to point out a few facts and some commentary for us consider in such a discussion.
Firstly, we should all be aware that DoD spends a lot of money. In FY 2016 the DoD spent a recorded $296 billion paying soldiers, buying equipment, and building stuff (Ellman, Cohen, Hunter, Johnson, McCormick, Sanders, IX, 2017). That is such a gaudy number that it is hard to wrap our heads around at first. If we look at the total population of our nation in 2016, that is equivalent to $918 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Across the globe, the US military is currently stationed in more than 80 countries and has more than 800 military bases (Vine, 2015). Though we should all be thankful for the security we appreciate in our country, it’s worth stopping to ask whether we need to be spending a king’s ransom on tanks each year when the military already has 9,000 of them in inventory? Certainly, as the top international influencer and the strongest economy in the world, we need to maintain a strong military but do we really need to be bigger, badder, and better equipped than the next eight nations combined? For a thought experiment, next time you are reading Psalm 20, when you read “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God,” do a little mental modernization and change the words to “Some trust in Strike Eagles and others trust in Warthogs.” Though this may not be your particular temptation, that may be the exact temptation of your government representatives.
Secondly, once government spends money on something it is easier to pull a tire off a car with your bare hands than it is to get that money back. If we dare reduce the size or budget of the military you know that words like “essential” and “international security” are sure to follow. Recently it was reported that DoD could save $125 billion just cutting back office and Pentagon staff. According to a report by international consulting giant, McKinsey, the Pentagon has almost as many people working desk jobs as it does in the active military (Whitlock and Woodward, 2016). Why does this bloat happen? Because politicians love to have lucrative defense industry in their backyard. A local government employee I recently spoke to told me that he has no doubt that Boeing employs staff just to make sure that every member of the Senate Armed Services Committee is “represented.” In normal human speak that means, make sure to bribe politicians to do favors for you by hiring contractors to make tanks, guns, and bombs in their districts. It’s really quite embarrassing how blatant we’ve become with such activities. In my personal experience as a data analyst I frequently review defense spending data. One of the most common ways these data are presented is by congressional district. If our top priority is really defending ourselves from international terrorists, why would it matter whether Senator A or Senator B is getting a larger slice of the pie?
Thirdly, we must recognize that in the history of the world and our nation, threats of war are the best and fastest shortcut for politicians to wrestle more liberty away from its citizens. In the classic dystopian novel 1984 the empire has several mantras for controlling public sentiment. One of them is “War is peace.” The idea being that to quell fighting within your own nation, it is best to direct aggression toward an external enemy. There is also no better way to suspend constitutional rights or get people to voluntarily give them up. A certain type of government bureaucrat, rife within the halls of Congress, loves that kind of national unity. In the history of the United States, there has been no better time to make the constitution optional than during times of war. For starters, consider that even the venerable President Lincoln ignored or blatantly flouted an untold number of Constitutional liberties through the course of the Civil War, including hampering the due process of law, suppressing free speech, and printing money. This is not intended to pick on Lincoln exclusively; Presidents Wilson, LBJ, George W. Bush, and Obama (to name a few) didn’t fare much better.
Lastly, when expensive things are being built we should not see it as a categorical good for our country. The much-maligned F-35 Lightning II currently under development by Lockheed Martin costs an estimated $132.2 million per jet (Lockheed Martin). Given all the parts that are required and the paychecks provided to workers, the economic impact of that effort is probably two to three times that amount. When my wife bakes a birthday cake for one of my daughters it costs about $5. Her efforts, and those of the hundreds of thousands of other moms across the country, are chronically underappreciated simply because we cannot assign them a dollar value. Economists and politicians value things according to their monetary worth. However, in terms of their long-term peace producing value, I’d venture to say that those birthday cakes are worth more than an entire hangar of F-35 jets. In other words, official federal Gross Domestic Product statistics do not measure the daily acts of sacrifice made by loving parents but they do count (in triplicate!) the value of war machines.
Certainly, we don’t know the full details on all the good things that our military does and, to an extent, we just have to trust their judgement. But it is good to maintain some healthy skepticism about the necessity of excessive levels of defense spending or defense activity. The temptation for empire building is strong, especially when you are the strongest kid on the block. The book of 1 Chronicles records the incident of King David taking a census over all of Israel. The Bible does not equivocate about where his desire came from. “Satan rose up against Israel and caused David to take a census of the people of Israel” (1 Chron. 21:1). Why was it so important for David to know this? The seduction of building empires in our own name is strong. As with all things, the model of our Lord is ours to follow. Satan promises us the nations but only the Lord can truly deliver: “Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (Ps 2:8).
Cohen, Zachary. “Trump proposes $54 billion defense spending hike.” CNN. March 16, 2017. Accessed May 11, 2017. http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/16/politics/donald-trump-defense-budget-blueprint/.
Ellman, Jesse; Cohen, Samantha; Hunter, Andrew; Johnson, Kaitlyn; McCormick, Rhys; and Sanders, Gregory. Defense Acquisition Trends, 2016: The End of the Contracting Drawdown. Washington D.C.: Center for Strategic & International Studies, 2016. Accessed May 5, 2017. https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/170309_Ellman_AcquisitionTrends2016_Web.pdf?EOHx.4yzTSKOdaa9FMLs3KStHUSrIO5Q.
Vine, David. “The United States Probably Has More Foreign Military Bases Than Any Other People, Nation, or Empire in History.” The Nation. September 14, 2015. Accessed May 11, 2017. https://www.thenation.com/article/the-united-states-probably-has-more-foreign-military-bases-than-any-other-people-nation-or-empire-in-history/.
Whitlock, Craig, and Bob Woodward. “Pentagon buries evidence of $125 billion in bureaucratic waste.” The Washington Post. December 05, 2016. Accessed May 11, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/pentagon-buries-evidence-of-125-billion-in-bureaucratic-waste/2016/12/05/e0668c76-9af6-11e6-a0ed-ab0774c1eaa5_story.html?utm_term=.b2e030e73219.
“How Much does the F-35 Cost? Producing, Operating and Supporting a 5th Generation Fighter.” F-35 Lightning II. Accessed May 11, 2017. https://www.f35.com/about/fast-facts/cost.