What Price Dubious Glory?
The United States is in the midst of a deep and prolonged recession. That is certainly news only to those who have spent the last three years deep in the recesses of a cave somewhere far underground and inaccessible to cable television (not necessarily a bad condition). As the midterm elections approach, much of the political approbrium is over who caused this situation, who is continuing to make it worse, and how the situation can be overcome. That debate is, of course, acrimonious even in the terms of the acrimony that dominates what now passes for “normal” political dialogue.
There seems to be one thing that all sides agree on, at least in principle and in the long run: the government cannot continue to spend sizably more than it collects in revenues indefinitely; mega-deficits and a burgeoning debt are unsustainable. Democrats and Republicans, of course, disagree on how much and how soon this needs to be reversed: Democrats (at least the President) seems to think the problem can only be attacked once the current crisis is suromunted; Republicans, with no current responsibilities for managing the economy, think it should be done sooner.
But how? That question brings us to the title of this entry. How does the government go about bringing government revenues and expenditures into line with one another? The answers, easy to lay out, are a) to spend less, b) to collect (tax) more, c) both, or d) neither. Eliminate d) for starters, although that is what we are basically doing now, since it will simply perpetuate the present problems. That leaves three choices.
Spending less is the GOP solution, but it is flawed by the way it segments the candidates for reduced spending. My personal congressman, the notorious Joe (“You lie!”) Wilson says that we should reduce all discretionary spending by 20 percent of the next six years, and the result will be a balanced budget. But wait a minute! “Discretionary” spending presumably means controllable spending, or, in other words, spending that must be appropriated annually explicitly and which thus is done at the discretion of Congress. The largest item in the controllable budget–a good 2/3 of the total–is defense spending, and since Joe is a loyal Republican, he would exempt that from cuts, in which case his proposal would not even come close. Reduced spending without a defense contribution is simply empty rhetoric in budget reduction terms. Period. Raising taxes (allowing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy) to expire is the Democratic solution, but by exempting everyone else from higher taxes, it is the equivalent of exempting defense from cuts. The responsible, adult solution, of course, is c), but that is politically difficult and, well, adult, so it can be eliminated for the time being.
Ted Koppel has recently reminded us that we are defense spending ourselves into the ground, fighting a “war on terror” that is bankrupting us while Al Qaeda sits in its caves sniggering at the amount of resources we are fecklessly expending on them. Others have suggested that the federal debt would not look so bad had we not spent an official $3 trillion in Iraq (probably more like $5 trillion), and whatever the tab now is in Afghanistan. When asked how he would deal with the current crisis, Ron Paul (with whom I rarely agree otherwise) sagely says we could solve it all by cutting back drastically on overseas involvements, expecially military involvements.
Such suggestions are treated by establishment types as pure heresy, the rantings of the naive, but are they? The United States currently spends almost as much as the rest of the world in basic defense spending, and that does not include most of the expenses for Iraq (those 50,000 troops still there are not free) and Afghanistan.
Fantasize for a moment. Imagine the state of the American budget if the United States no longer had any troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and if the defense budget was subjected not only to the small cuts that Secretary Gates has suggested, but something like Joe Wilson’s 20 percent (roughly $100 billion) cut. Suddenly the shape of the budget is changed dramatically: spending cuts can be cut, and additional taxes might be unneeded. Option c) might actually yield to option d).
Heresy, you say! We cannot our defense without leaving the country at unacceptable risk. That is the conventional argument, but are its assumptions valid? At heart, the counter argument assumes that we are actually getting a real benefit from each dollar, and that each dollar in reduction emperils us. But is that true? Is the United States really more secure for a $3-5 trillion expenditure in Iraq? If so, how much more secure? Can anyone seriously argue that the additional security we have attained in Iraq is worth that enormous amount? What about the trillion or more already spent in Afghanistan? What has it bought? Is it worth the price?
In other words, What Price Glory? (For those too young to remember, that was the title of a motion picture about WW I that answered the question negatively.) Given that the military adventures we have and continue to undertake have not been unequivocal ttiumphs, that glory itself may be open to question. Thus, What Price Dubious Glory? Is it really heresy to suggest that this is a fair question?