The Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing

The United States spends 663,255,000,000 on defense. It’s 43% of world military spending. To put it in perspective, our nearest rival,  China, accounts for only 6.6.% of world military spending. We spend over seven times more per year than our nearest rival. We were spending that much, roughly, before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan–despite the collapse of the Soviet Union.

What if we were to imagine this not as “defense” spending, but as social spending? Job training, socialized healthcare benefits, cooperative discounted shopping at the PX:  this isn’t something I’m making up, the Army advertises itself this way. See here, or  here or here. The Army advertises itself as both a fighting force and a giant job corps.

And of course in many parts of the US the Army does what a social safety net does in Europe–it provides jobs. And not just the tens of thousands of jobs required to keep a modern army operating–food prep, auto mechanics, air conditioning repair, computer security, electricians, plumbers, guys who can do concrete work, etc.—it also employs people who service the bases. Where I live, in northern Virginia, it employs an vast array of military contractors in office towers up and down the major highways. And it provides secure pensions and subsidiary benefits for veterans.

This is what Eisenhower famously termed “the Military Industrial Complex,” the creation of a vast, permanent standing military apparatus. As a career military officer, Eisenhower knew perfectly well what a change this represented, a complete reversal of American tradition regarding the military.

Historically, while they admired military heroes Americans had always been deeply suspicious of large standing armies. England’s maintenance of standing armies in the colonies had been a major reason for the Revolutionary War. Armies were seen as an invitation to tyranny, and what’s more, service in the army, with its demands for instant obedience and its commitment to hierarchy, was seen as itself un-American. Revolutionary patriot Benjamin Rush wrote: “The militia began, and I sincerely hope the militia will end, the present war. I should despair of our cause if our country contained 60, 000 men abandoned enough to enlist for three years ” in the regular Army. A soldier in the Army surrendered all liberty and independence of mind, Rush thought; all the things for which the Revolution was fought.

So while Americans frequently elected  military heroes to office, they also tended to disband the Army as soon as convenient. After the Revolutionary war, the army shrank to a tiny, poorly organized force. After the War of 1812, it largely disappeared. The Mexican War saw a very rapid build up and a just as rapid break down, and the Civil War, the Spanish American War, and WWI followed the same pattern: a very rapid  build up followed by an equally rapid dismantling. The last thing Americans wanted was to pay taxes to support a huge, mostly idle Army.

After WWII, the historical pattern changed: indeed, the Cold War changed everything, as Eisenhower pointed out. Now we have thousands of soldiers stationed permanently all over the world, and military spending amounts to a permanent, institutionalized government stimulus plan.

Thinking in Keynesian terms, those billions of dollars go to hire people, to buy equipment and supplies. If you cut American military spending by, say, 50%, you’d vastly increase unemployment, depress manufactures, and  open up an enormous hole in the economy. But you could also dramatically decrease the deficit and decrease taxes, which should have tea party activists scrambling to cut military spending.

But mostly they aren’t, because military spending enjoys a special exemption form other kinds of thinking about the budget. Americans, it turns out, seem to love socialism when it’s dressed in fatigues.

This is not an anti-military argument. Military service is honorable and essential. But what if we rethought of military service in the wider frame of social service? We could gain a lot if we rethought how military spending functions in our economy. If we looked at the armed services as both “military” and as a social services network/social safety network, the United States would look more like Europe than generally assumed.

UPDATE: I suppose what I’m arguing here is that rather than fight it, progressive types should go with it.

First, cutting military spending has for years been a bugaboo of the right: “liberals are soft on defense;” liberals spit on the troops etc. This tactic works largely because the military is the thinly disguised social safety net for lots of places. Bellicosity about military spending disguises that fact, and it’s been a really effective tool for beating liberals.

Second, the military industrial complex is most obviously not going anywhere. The horse has left the barn: we have and probably always will have an economy in which big government military spending is crucial to virtually everything.

So rather than try to return to a lost era, the logical course for progressive types would be to embrace the govt./military relationship. The military is now forced to do this anyway–it’s the testing ground for various types of social engineering: for example: racial, gender, and now same-sex integration. The military does charitable emergency work worldwide, for example in Japan. It offer college aid programs; it funds hi tech research of all kinds.

The logical course of action would be to argue for an enlarged military presence. Compulsory military service, coupled to domestic infrastructure improvements and educational benefits. This would not be welcomed by most career officers, who quite reasonably want to preserve the military as a volunteer fighting force with high standards. But they also want to preserve their budgets, and of course, rarely turn down money.





  • Meredith wrote:

    I think you’re going to like Jennifer Mittelstadt’s forthcoming book, which does just that–imagine the US military as a component of the welfare state. I was on a panel with her several years ago at AHA, where the military history/buff crowd showed up. It was supposed to be a roundtable discussion, but 80% of the discourse involved Jennifer having to defend her use of the term “welfare” as a descriptor of military service. It was ugly.

  • It’s interesting the way the military works as like the private labor market, in that service is voluntary, and like a socialist cooperative, in which big government spending confers benefits. As you know, the discourse around veterans makes this kind of discussion difficult if not impossible. At the same time, everybody knows that this is a large part of what the army is/does: it’s front and center in their own recruitment

  • “The Mil­i­tary Indus­trial Com­plex,” I saw it first time. This is an military argu­ment. Mil­i­tary ser­vice is hon­or­able and essen­tial social ser­vices network/social safety net­work. Thanks!

  • I completely agree, and things Ian and I talk about a lot. It’s one of those dirty little secrets.

    The switch to an all-volunteer force increases the need for incentives and advertising to attract young people seeking to leave their hometowns with the promise of good pay and tax-free liquor.

    It also is a major scholarship program, way better than Pell grants, w/GI bill dollars and ROTC, military academies, and med & law school scholarships. All of this is fine, but wouldn’t it be great if other service jobs, like social work, could be rewarded with such scholarships for work-years completed?

  • It’s the govt. aid that dare not speak it’s name.

    Lots of countries have compulsory military service which ends up being social service. I suppose one progressive argument might be to just go with, expand the army so it’s doing what the CCC used to do. The CC was army-like anyway. But then hard core military officers hate that idea, and politically it can’t be mentioned

  • Perhaps some special task force
    unit. The Navy has been pushing humanitarian missions, so maybe something on
    doing good at home & abroad, but focus more on home.

  • what may still be overlooked is the degree to which the military ‘contributes’ and orients the amount of research done at home and abroad. It really does have a major impact on developing a critical mass of business and technology know-how that they feel is appropriate in order for them to achieve their goals. Darpa isn’t the only military branch actively doing this type of capitalistic investments. (… “directly managing a $3.2 billion budget”)

  • Stories like this recent NYT piece — you’ll have to fight past the inevitable condescension of anything they publish concerning the little people — essentially never make the connection that you describe, and probably for just the reason you note: it’s too distasteful for progressives to countenance defense spending as a social good. In this particular Ohio hellhole, which sounds pretty much like the entire United States outside of a handful of cities, the military isn’t just a safety net: apparently it’s the best option around.

  • Servius wrote:

    “If you cut Amer­i­can mil­i­tary spend­ing by, say, 50%, you’d vastly increase unem­ploy­ment, depress man­u­fac­tures, and open up an enor­mous hole in the econ­omy. ”

    Broken Window Fallacy. The resources currently used in the manufacture of military goods would be used to provide more desirable goods if we cut military spending by 50%.

    Not that I think we should cut military spending but your argument here is a well known fallacy.

  • Of course you would increase unemployment–and of course in the longer term those employment holes would be filled in, by something. It’s not really the point. The point is, military spending has become central to the American economy. And the other point is that Americans have come love big govt. socialism when it wears fatigues

  • Servius wrote:

    People like having the military to defend them. If we could get the same services for half the cost we’d be better off.

    Be focusing on the increase in unemployment you are only looking at what is seen. What is not seen is that the money we save would be spent or invested in more desirable businesses and jobs to replace those dependent on the military would follow.

    A good economist looks at both what is seen and what is not seem.

  • Tom King wrote:

    It’s difficult to imagine that this could be easily implemented. These powerful defense contractors won’t suddenly go away. They have tremendous political sway and congress is always hesitant to cut any defense project since typically some part of any given defense item is usually manufactured in all 50 states. That way any defense cut can always be argued to be a job-cutting measure and local political pressure can always be applied to stop it.

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