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William Hartung: Republican Math and the Pentagon Budget

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Math has never been my strong suit, but even I can see that the Pentagon -- whose officials treat "weapons program" and "cost overrun" as synonyms -- has a monster math problem. Not surprisingly, it's also a place that has never successfully passed an audit. Its top officials have talked endlessly about the giant cuts they are making in future Pentagon planning to fit the changing financial mood of the country. And the media, which seems similarly weak on its math foundations, has been highlighting these claims with headlines featuring major Pentagon "cuts" and significant budget "slashing."

Only one problem, which former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb put this way recently: "[O]ver the past two years, Defense Department officials... bragged about all the cuts they were making and the risks the country was already taking with those reductions. So by how much did the FY 2012 defense budget -- which the president signed on New Year's Eve -- shrink? The answer: not one penny."

As it happens, weak math skills may increasingly be an American trait. TomDispatch regular William Hartung, author most recently of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex, the definitive account of how that company came to lord it over our national security world -- you have to read it to believe it -- decided to check up on how the Republican presidential contenders were doing when it came to the math basics. I'm afraid that on his report card their grade is a dismal F. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Hartung discusses how to manipulate Pentagon budgets, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

Throwing Money at the Pentagon
A Lesson in Republican Math
By William D. Hartung

If you've been fretting about faltering math education and falling test scores here in the United States, you should be worried based on this campaign season of Republican math. When it comes to the American military, the leading Republican presidential candidates evidently only learned to add and multiply, never subtract or divide.

Advocates of Pentagon reform have criticized President Obama for his timid approach to reducing military spending. Despite current Pentagon budgets that have hovered at the highest levels since World War II and 13 years of steady growth, the administration's latest plans would only reduce spending at the Department of Defense by 1.6% in inflation-adjusted dollars over the next five years.

Still, compared to his main Republican opponents, Obama is a T. rex of budget slashers. After all, despite their stated commitment to reducing the deficit (while cutting taxes on the rich yet more), the Republican contenders are intent on raising Pentagon spending dramatically. Mitt Romney has staked out the "high ground" in the latest round of Republican math with a proposal to set Pentagon spending at 4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). That would, in fact add up to an astonishing $8.3 trillion dollars over the next decade, one-third more than current, already bloated Pentagon plans.

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Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal engaged in polite understatement when he described the Romney plan as "the most optimistic forecast U.S. defense manufacturers have heard in months."

In fact, Romney's proposal implies that the Pentagon is essentially an entitlement program that should receive a set share of our total economic resources regardless of what's happening here at home or elsewhere on the planet. In Romney World, the Pentagon's only role would be to engorge itself. If the GDP were to drop, it's unlikely that, as president, he would reduce Pentagon spending accordingly.

Rick Santorum has spent far less time describing his military spending plans, but a remark at a Republican presidential debate in Arizona suggests that he is at least on the same page with Romney. In 1958, the year he was born, Santorum pointed out, Pentagon spending was 60% of the federal budget, and now it's "only" 17%. In other words, why cut military spending when it's so comparatively low?

Of course, this is a classic bait-and-switch case of cherry-picking numbers, since the federal budget of 1958 didn't include Medicare, Medicaid, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The population was 100 million less than it is now, resulting in lower spending across the board, most notably for Social Security. In fact, Americans now pay out nearly twice as much for military purposes as in 1958, a sum well in excess of the combined military budgets of the next 10 largest spending nations.

Of course, in a field of innumerates, Santorum's claim undoubtedly falls into the category of rhetorical flourish. It's unlikely that even he was suggesting we more than triple Pentagon spending -- the only way to return it to the share of the budget it consumed in the halcyon days of his youth. (Keep in mind that profligate Pentagon spending in that era ultimately prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to coin the term "military-industrial complex.") Still, Santorum clearly believes that there's plenty of room to hike military spending, if we just slash genuine entitlement programs deeply enough. He would undoubtedly support a Pentagon budget at Romney-esque levels, as would Newt Gingrich based on his absurd claim that the Obama administration's modest adjustments to the Pentagon's record budgets would result in a "hollowing out" of the U.S. military.

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Mitt Romney at Sea

But let's stick with the Republican frontrunner (or stumbler). What exactly would Romney spend all this money on?

For starters, he's a humongous fan of building big ships, generally the most expensive items in the Pentagon budget. He has pledged to up Navy ship purchases from 9 to 15 per year, a rise of 50%. These things add up. A new aircraft carrier costs more than $10 billion; a ballistic missile submarine weighs in at $7 billion or more; and a destroyer comes with a -- by comparison -- piddling price tag of $2 billion-plus. The rationale for such a naval spending spree is, of course, that all-purpose threat cited these days by builders of every sort of big-ticket military hardware: China.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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