Billions & Billions

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 01-17-2021
There was an article out the other day calling for a shift in federal spending. This is, of course, in anticipation of the incoming administration’s certain efforts to amend the budget request for Fiscal Year 2022. FY 2021 began in October as you will recall, and every “next year’s budget” is well in work long before any administration turns the White House over to the next administration; this is a huge, prolonged process. The article pointed out that some 3/5ths of the budget is the national security budget. Hmmm? Really?
Once you scanned down a bit, smaller print corrects that obviously misleading statement by noting that this was “3/5ths of the discretionary budget,” that is, the part of the budget that Congress pretends to manage every year. In fact, most of the budget - more than 70% - is included in what are know as “entitlement programs,” or “mandatory spending.” And, in fact, only 15% of the total planned federal budget for 2020 was for defense.
It’s further important to note that that was the “planned” budget, not what US Government spending was for 2020. In addition to the nearly $4 trillion that was in the “planned for” budget, the US Government spent an additional $3 trillion. And already, Mr. Biden is talking about additional large scale spending this year. 
Not to get too into the weeds of budgetary language, which I do not claim to know well, and never want to know well, but technically, the entire budget, no matter what anyone says, is discretionary, that is, Congress could rewrite the laws, and end this or that program. If Congress wanted to (it doesn’t) they could end Social Security payments tomorrow. But it doesn’t. Monkeys will learn to fly before that sort of thing happens, but it is interesting to remember that all of this spending remains under the de facto control of Congress, no matter what they say.
But, over the years, Congress has shifted large portions of the activities of the government, and large portions of the government spending, under legislation that allows them to not really appear responsible for what is happening. Thus, no matter what happens, trillions of dollars are spent and no one is, from their perspective, responsible. Social Security checks go out, Medicare payments are made, student loans, housing loans, etc., etc., whether or not there is any money in the till.
This is important. With Mr. Biden taking the helm from Mr. Trump, he recently called for an additional $1.9 Trillion in spending this year. This will push the national debt up to about $30 trillion. Of course, “about” is an important modifier; depending on how you calculate the debt, it’s larger, in some case much, much larger. But we’re now in the universe of creative counting so, who knows…
But, meanwhile, there are folks clamoring to cut the DOD budget as an effort to be fiscally responsible.
Let me make a point here: there is all sorts of waste in DOD. There is all sorts of waste in every single agency in the US Government. No one is exempt. And if given the chance there are all sorts of things I would do to the DOD to redirect spending. But cutting spending because the rest of government is expanding and spending like the proverbial drunken sailor? Perhaps not. Let me just give a few numbers.
Since 1930 total national security spending - everything, to include estimates for 2021, totals a bit under $24 trillion. If you add in ALL government spending before 1930, from 1789 to 1930, you can add about another $60-70 billion. So, we’ll round up, be generous; all DOD (Army and Navy before 1947) spending, plus various other elements (the intelligence agencies, the Veterans Administration, elements of the Department of Energy, everything having to do with national security since we booted the British, through 2021, plus All Other government spending prior to 1930, still comes to less than $25 trillion. So, if you eliminated every dime ever spent on defense or in any way associated with national security, you would still have a $5 Trillion debt at the end of this year.
Meanwhile, some other numbers.
Since 1973 total (government and private) spending on education has exceeded national security spending, with the exception of 4 years under Reagan where Defense  spending briefly rose above Education. Total spending on education now totals twice what is spent on defense. And on top of that, current spending on health care (again, the total, private and government) is almost 3 times that spent on national security. 
Yet we hear voices calling for reduced spending on Defense - as if Defense spending has caused our deficits - so that more money can be spent on various domestic programs.
Are there programs in the DOD that need to be trimmed? Yes. The Littoral Combat Ship comes immediately to mind. There are many others - in every service - that need “another turn on the winch.” But to suggest that cutting the Defense budget in both the name of fiscal integrity AND so that more might be spent on domestic programs that will, over the course of 2020 and 2021 consume something on the order of $11 trillion, at least 8 times more than what we will spend on national security during the same period?