"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. . . . We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people."
Dwight David Eisenhower , "The Chance for Peace," speech given to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Apr. 16, 1953
In a Wall Street Journal editorial on June 8 bemoaning the failure of the Obama stimulus package, Martin Feldstein wrote:
Experience shows that the most cost-effective form of temporary fiscal stimulus is direct government spending. The most obvious way to achieve that in 2009 was to repair and replace the military equipment used in Iraq and Afghanistan that would otherwise have to be done in the future. But the Obama stimulus had nothing for the Defense Department.
You can't make this stuff up. The most obvious way to stimulate the economy is to replace military equipment? And the Obama stimulus had nothing for the Defense Department? When veterans' benefits and other past military costs are factored in, the military now devours half the U.S. budget. If military spending is such a cost-effective stimulus, why have the trillions poured into it in the last decade left the economy reeling?
The military is the nation's largest and most firmly entrenched entitlement program, one that takes half of every tax dollar. Even if "national security" is considered our number one priority (a dubious choice when the real unemployment rate is over 16%), estimates are that the military budget could be cut in half or more and we would still have the most powerful military machine in the world. Our enemies (if any) are now "terrorists," not countries; and what is needed to contain them (if anything) is local policing, not global warfare. Much of our military hardware is just good for "shock and awe," not needed for any "real and present danger."
Military spending is the very essence of "built-in obsolescence": it turns out products that are designed to blow up. The military is not subject to ordinary market principles but works on a "cost-plus" basis, with producers reimbursed for whatever they have spent plus a guaranteed profit. Gone are the usual competitive restraints that keep capitalist corporations "lean and mean." Private contractors hired by the government on no-bid contracts can be as wasteful and inefficient as they like and still make a tidy profit. Yet legislators looking to slash wasteful "entitlements" persist in overlooking this obvious elephant in the room.
The reason massive military spending is considered the most "obvious" way to produce a fiscal stimulus is simply that it is the only form of direct government spending that gets a pass from the deficit hawks. The economy is desperate to get money flowing through it, and today only the government is in a position to turn on the spigots; but there is a tourniquet on government spending. That is true for everything but the military, the only program on which the government is allowed to spend seemingly without limit, often even without oversight.