Cut US Military in Half

To politically balance my previous suggestion to cut US medical spending in half, let me now suggest we cut US military spending in half.   I haven’t researched this subject anywhere near as much as medicine, so I can’t argue as strongly.  But the simple argument seems compelling: The US with 27% of world product has about 46% of world military spending (up from 40% in 2000).  Yet our "defense" needs are few, as we are rich, isolated, have friendly neighbors, and haven’t been invaded for centuries.  And it is hard to see how "offense" spending at this level could possibly be cost-effective. 

A bit of web search finds a 2005 William Nordhaus essay making similar points:

The U.S. has approximately half of total national security spending for the entire world. The runners-up appear to be China, with about $50-200 billion of spending for 2004, and Russia, with about $15-50 billion in recent years.  In one sense, the $590 billion for national security is not a "large" number, because it constitutes only 4.8 percent of GDP, which is smaller than the U.S. spent in earlier hot or cold war periods. On the other hand, national security spending is "huge" by absolute standards. It constitutes about $5000 per family. …

The question I would like to contemplate is whether the country is earning a good return on its national-security "investment," for it is clearly an investment in peace and safety, as well perhaps in oil supply and exports. The bottom line is, probably not. …

Is it plausible that the United States faces a variety and severity of objective security threats that are equal to the rest of the world put together? I would think not. Unlike Israel, no serious country wishes to wipe the U.S. off the face of the earth. Unlike Russia, India, China, and much of Europe, no one has invaded the U.S. since the nineteenth century. We have common borders with two friendly democratic countries with which we have fought no wars for more than a century. Only one country has nuclear weapons that can seriously threaten our existence. One conclusion from this thought is that either the U.S. has a vastly exaggerated sense of threats to it; or that other countries, even the richest ones, are universally neglectful of the threats to their security.

Additionally, it might be that national security is a global public good that the U.S. is supplying for the rest of the world. This is a complicated issue. During the cold war, some countries probably felt that the U.S. was indeed protecting them. The U.S. did go to war to defend or liberate dozens of countries over the last century. However, more recently, many countries, even our traditional allies in Western Europe, and especially their populations, appear to believe that our supply of the public good of security is in fact harming their security rather than enhancing it.

Here are two recent arguments on the other side from the Heritage Foundation.  One

Not spending enough on defense also creates the reality and perception of American weakness, which will increase risk, hinder economic growth, and lower stability in the world. Indeed, robust defense spending saves money. President Ronald Reagan’s defense buildup and steady defense funding throughout the 1980s helped to win the Cold War and enabled the U.S. to quickly defeat Saddam Hussein in the Gulf War.

and two:

The United States is engaged in a long war against Islamic terrorists that could extend for many years into the future and therefore is similar to the Cold War. The United States also needs to build the military capabilities necessary to respond to possible future threats from actively or potentially hostile states. … With the future of free peoples at stake, spending 4 percent of the national economy for defense is well worth the cost.

These arguments seem paranoid and thin.  Are there better analyzes out there on the pro-high-spending side?

Added:  Though of varying quality, there are a great many detailed and quantitative analyzes of the marginal value of aggregate medical spending.  In contrast, the lack of even remotely similar analyzes for military spending is really quite stunning.

Added: I’d most like to see an itemized budget detailing the expected annual costs the US would suffer in a world that had adapted to the US only spending $300B/yr on defense.

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  • Joe T


  • dix

    I wouldn’t call this a pro high spending analysis. More like a high spending explanation. We spend orders of magnitude more money on defense than other countries but seem to have similar (or fewer, comparatively) men under arms or tanks or planes than other countries. Why? We spend billions to develop missiles and systems that will take out one house on a block while leaving the others undisturbed when we could spend one tenth as much and wipe out the whole block. We spend billions on a stealth bomber that for all intents and purposes will not be shot down when we could probably spend less, send more cheaper bombers but risk losing pilots. I believe this is done for political expediency of using military power and creating the illusion (and sometimes reality) of a surgical strike where only the bad guys get killed. See the current trend in military technology of the UAV drones. We won’t even risk the pilot anymore.

  • Jim

    Not to argue the spending, but terrorism is fundamentally not a military problem. The “return” on spending would be better put elsewhere, into other programs and methods to reduce terrorism.

  • SK

    I have a slightly different perspective. My view is that military spending also constitutes a source of funding for research programs e.g. in engineering. So simply reducing military spending my have other side-effects.

  • Floccina

    How do we get this message out? We are so strong relative to the likely threats that is a waste to keep spending as much as we do on military. The USSR is gone.

  • savagehenry

    I think dix might be on to something. If we are paranoid about anything it is loss of life, especially our own. It would be interesting to see how much of the spending that goes towards the military is designated for programs and equipment designed to protect our soldiers and civilians. I suspect that we could drastically lower the cost of our military if we took a bomb the hell out of everything and not care about unnecessary casualties sort of strategy. It’s unlikely that other nations take that approach (at least I hope they don’t), but they as Robin mentioned, most other nations don’t have a military presence just about everywhere like we do so their risk of loss of life is far less than ours overall so they might not even need to consider spending money to prevent unnecessary death like we seem to do.

    I say that our current level of military power is just fine. It’s how efficiently it is used that is likely the problem. Out of the billions of dollars spent it seems like an awful lot is wasted (it’s 8 AM and I haven’t slept and for the life of me I can’t remember, but I know I saw something in the news recently about millions/billions of dollars simply being unaccounted for or wasted that were supposed to go towards the military). Perhaps we could get nearly the same amount of military power for less money if we just cut out things that were wasteful.

  • Savage, is there some analysis or argument that persuades you that “our current level of military power is just fine”?

    SK, we could cut military spending in half while leaving military research spending uncut.

  • Eric Falkenstein

    The problem with ‘cut by half’, is summed up in that old marketing phrase: “half of my marketing expenditures are wasted, I just don’t know which half.” And so it is with medicine, military. The key to reducing spending in these areas are accepted metrics of performance. You really have to be an insider to opine on the relevance of various programs for the military. For medicine you need not only mortality or quality of life data, but the ability to argue that at some price, more life is not worth it, and this is very unpopular (see Sicko, where a point of government meanness and ineptitude is shown when they don’t pay for a bone marrow transplant for a man in the advanced stages of kidney cancer that had spread to his liver, longs, lymph nodes, etc.).

  • Eric, I was quite explicit to list several crude ways to cut medicine I thought are good enough. With government military agencies it is even easier; just cut their budget in half and let them figure out what specifics to cut.

  • Rue Des Quatre Vents

    Of pro-military spending, Robin sez: These arguments seem paranoid and thin.

    Why? Please elucidate and give some reasoning.

  • Rue, “thin” means short and with little detail. I want to see calculations and analysis. Why would “perception of American weakness … hinder economic growth”? On “paranoid, why wouldn’t we be just as safe from “Islamic terrorists” as other nations, if we spend similarly to them? Why would we be at so much more risk from “possible future threats from actively or potentially hostile states” than other nations?

  • One counterpoint is that when we went into Iraq, we didn’t really commit as much as we needed to get the job done, and we still haven’t. This almost suggests a case for more military spending. Go deeper, and the problem may be wasting what we have: stationing troops in Germany as a cold war hangover, when they could be in Iraq doing some good.

  • Alex

    If the US loses X amount of “stuff” (people, physical assets etc) per year at the current level of spending, what will that go up to with only half as much going into preventing those losses?

    If you are running an economy that is successful (the success of the American economy is a point that can be debated ofc) then any change which might reduce the power of an institution as significant and deeply entrenched as the US militiary is going to be met with scepticisim.

    In the UK if the government proposed cutting spending on the NHS by half there would be uproar. How many people would be made unemployed by such massive cuts for example?

  • Rue Des Quatre Vents

    Without being qualified in even a superficial sense to offer a pro-spending argument, let me at least probe further. I concede the first point against correlating perception of weakness with slow economic growth. But the second point misses the mark.

    Why do we want to be just as safe as other nations? Perhaps they’re not safe enough, no? Isn’t the absolute level of safety more important?

    And second, of course we’re at more risk, not only because of America’s perceived imperialism, economic or otherwise (I happen to think the idea of economic imperialism quaint, and useless, but if people are acting on it, then we must consider it), but also because of our sheer visibility.

    Imperial Hubris by Michael Schuer lists all the demands Osama Bin Laden gave to the U.S. prior to 9/11. Our presence on the Saudi peninsula evidently irritates the man. So if by “reduced military spending” you mean, “withdrawing our military from Saudia Arabia,” then I’ll concede that our risk may decrease with decreased spending. But that seems more tactical than budgetary, no?

  • I agree with you Robin. I made some related arguments here, although during the time I am discussing the U.S was not the undisputed global superpower.

  • jeff gray

    We are so strong relative to the likely threats that is a waste to keep spending as much as we do

    Americans are likely to overestimate how secure their position truly is.
    SavageHenry is right that it is more useful to consider
    how to reduce military spending while minimizing any marginal loss of real & perceived American power.

    RobinSavage, is there some analysis or argument that persuades you that “our current level of military power is just fine”?
    This question only seems relevant if current spending and power are related 1:1. The goal is to reduce spending, not power, no? and per dix, our aversion to death leads us to spend huge amounts to replace/protect persons with consequent diminishing marginal returns as technology improves.

    It is obvious that military spending efficiency could improve but the assertion that we could halve spending without ill effects, esp. long term, needs to be quantified.

  • michael vassar

    I’d be very happy with 50%, or even 70% reductions in military and medical spending, and really see no credible counter-argument, but realistically both have vast vested interests in greater spending so this seems unlikely to happen.
    It seems to me that an ideal military spending policy would be for the US to commit to spending no larger a share of total global military spending than our share of the global GDP, unilaterally disarm to that level, and encourage other nations to lower spending still further with credible promises to do the same. The initial reduction required to take us to parity with other nations would be about 55%, and it seem reasonable to suggest that this could produce good-will to inspire another 33% reduction in foreign military spending which we could match. Obviously we couldn’t do this all at once, but we could credibly commit to doing it over 8 years, if there was a “we” who was influenced by reason, cared about national interests and made policy decisions. Of course, there isn’t making the point moot.

  • Joshua Harris

    Colin Gray is the most persuasive advocate of large military spending (see some of his work here). Economists Rosefielde and Mills have also advocated a robust military capability to deal with any type of potential threat unilaterally.

  • The US presently functions as a planetary police force. The commissioner is corrupt and the police are widely disliked, but it’s still the police force. Yanking out the police force is going to have effects on international stability…

    …I think. I learned a while back that I don’t understand a damn thing about international relations. Any readers from the State Department care to weigh in on this?

  • Thomas Thorn

    A negative externality of decreasing military spending would be increased maritime crime. Without fear of naval retribution, piracy would become an increasing problem. Imagine police refused to leave the towns and cities they protected– an easy way to make money would be to wait outside of towns and cities for trucks full of goods, and seize them.

    It could very well be the case that the increase in trade efficiency associated with the US Navy policing the oceans could offset most of the cost.

    Even with the US Navy being as strong as it is, piracy is still on the rise.

    There are a number of benefits derived from military spending which are not immediately apparent. This may not be the case with medical spending.

    (I’m a non-American with little-to-no stake in the American military.)

  • The Common Sense of Defense Cuts

    As an equal-opportunity offender, I’m finding it harder and harder to keep up with the competition. After arguing that we…

  • Chris, no matter how much we spent on the military, it would be possible to fail because we tried to do too much with that military.

    Rue, surely cutting our military in half would require a lot fewer foreign bases, such as in Saudi Arabia, which would reduce the “perceived imperialism” that you suggest puts us at risk.

    Thomas, even with a reduced military our financial losses from piracy would remain tiny compared to our military spending.

    Joshua, quick surveying the sources you cite I find no argument whatsoever about either why the US should spend more than other nations, nor any calculation of an ideal military budget. Can you find such things?

    Eliezer, if we functioned as a planetary police force, we should expect to see gratitude from those protected, and should expect others to take up a lot of the slack were we to provide this function less.

  • I think it’s important to look at the margins. For instance, the US fields roughly the same 2 million in forces as China, if you count US reservists. But the air power and air support spending between the two countries is highly disparate.

    I like an all-volunteer force (a la Greenspan, Moynihan, et al) as I think it is truly democratic and forces the government and the generals to value a soldier’s individual life more than if more soldiers could be had cheaply through coercion (i.e. conscription).

    But if the US places a higher value on the life of its soldiers, then it’s got to spend a lot more things like air support (which reduce casualties and increase medical recoveries). Cutting our spending will only cause more deaths. I can’t get behind that in good conscience. I am biased against externalities which increase death, and to a lesser extent, poverty.

    (Original comment posted over at Asymmetrical Info)

  • Actually, according to the latest figures, France and Britain are nearly tied in second place in spending behind the US, with China just having surpassed Japan for fourth place. Russia is in sixth place. For a blog on “overcoming bias,” this was a pretty large slip regarding the facts here.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Barkley, where are you getting your figures? A quick search for “military spending by nation” backs Robin up.

  • Constant

    It’s a horrendous idea any way you slice it. If you cut our military men and women in half, it doesn’t matter whether the cut is vertical or horizontal, it will seriously impede their ability to perform their jobs. I don’t know what possessed you propose this insane idea. Are you trying to double the number of boots on the ground? Well, it won’t work, because cutting them in half will not double the number of boots. A better idea to increase the number of limbs on the ground would be to encourage the enlistment of horses, or for the area, camels.

  • 1. I think we were invaded about 6 years ago and 3000 were murdered.

    2. The biggest reason our military is so expensive is because of manpower costs.

    It is far easier for the Chinese to conscript millions of peasants into its army than it is for the US to recruit volunteers who have far greater alternatives. It’s about economics. The conscript is paid $500/yr in salary, while the US volunteer requires $80,000/yr in salary and benefits.

    So it’s not really fair to compare military spending among countries in absolute dollars when one country has a volunteer military. It is very misleading. A more honest way is to look at it as a fraction of GDP.

    3. A very large part of manpower compensation is medical care for service members, retirees, and their families. It’s no different than it is for GM.

  • Eliezer, if we functioned as a planetary police force, we should expect to see gratitude from those protected

    Is this remarkable assertion based on a generalization from history, or extrapolation from social psychology?

    I didn’t say the US military was a good planetary police force. But a planetary police force it is, and a centralized one that responds selectively to local problems. The various local militaries that cost so much less are the equivalent of private security forces guarding the front desk of an office building. Imagine how much it would cost if every country needed their own real military.

  • spencer

    But we have already done this. In the 1950s & 1960s the defense budget was some
    8% to 10%, or more of GDP. Now it is only about 4% of GDP–up from a low of
    about 3% before 9/11. Under Reagan it was around 6% —
    the Reagan defense budget was a smaller share of
    GDP then every other Cold War administration but Carter.

  • spencer

    The primary reason we can not establish security in Iraq — and so are losing the war —
    is that the revealed preference of this administration is that its’ tax cut are more important than giving the military the resources and/or manpower they need to win.

  • ZAG

    1. Iran, China, N. Korea, Syria and Russia are not our friends. China, N. Korea, and Russia all have nuclear capabilities, as do India and Pakistan.
    2. There are certain Muslims (Wahhabi) who truly believe it is their holy duty to make Islam the only religion in the world. In fact strict Wahhabis “beleive that all those who don’t practice their form of Islam are heathens and enemies.” (
    3. Wahhabis are interpsersed throughout the world and number at least 30 million.
    4. Keep in mind:

    a. London-7/7/05 bomb blasts in transportation system
    b. London-2007 bomb attempts.
    c. Spain-March, 2004, 192 killed, 1421 injured.
    d. Algeria-April, 2007 23 killed.
    e. Jordan-11/9/05 bombing.
    f. Pakistan-7/19/07 33 killed.
    g. Bombay-July, 2006 174 killed

    5. What would be the economic impact of a small dirty bomb in one of our fair cities?
    6. What would be the economic impact of just 12 suicide bombers setting off bombs in 12 shopping malls? I think for a prolonged time consumer spending would drop significantly.

    7. My $5K a year seems a small price to pay in light of these things.

  • W

    Given the expense of maintaining our security apparatus and the inescapable moral hazards involved in traditional full-scale warfare and occupation in the mode of Operation Iraqi Freedom, should we be revisiting less expensive and less disruptive methods of deploying violence to achieve those ends for which we deem violence necessary? Assassination leaps to mind as an relatively humane alternative to OIF-style invade-and-occupy operations. Beyond that, if our moral imperative is to minimize the loss of life among our forces and civilians while working to achieve those goals for which we are nonetheless willing to kill large numbers of people, maybe it’s more rational for the U.S. to be engaging in terrorism rather than declaring war on same. I don’t think that’s the conclusion I would prefer to draw, but I can’t see an obvious fault in the argument.

  • Eric Hansen

    I’m a bit surprised no one has mentioned anything about the Pentagon’s New Map by Thomas Barnett. The idea is that there are countries that function in the world economy, that are safe and stable, and there are countries that don’t, that tend to be unsafe and unstable. In fact being a greater part of the world economy requires a greater degree of stability to minimize risk and make trade economically feasible.

    Countries entering the world economy is good for America by enlarging the economic pie.

    America is the only country that can export security globally. It can represent the interest of the global economy and influence stability in countries. This allows for benefits in standard of living in failing states and growth of the global economy.

    The Iraq snafu notwithstanding, think the Balkins instead.

    I don’t know if the a percentage of the growth in GDP could be identified as being directly caused by growth in our trading partners, but if it could I suspect it would dwarf defense spending.

    Whether the spending is effective at stabilizing countries? Well that’s a different matter, regarding the feasibility of the implementation.

  • ZAG, how do conventional armed forces reduce terrorism? Isn’t the point of terrorism to avoid engaging the conventional army entirely?

  • J Thomas

    First off, we need to be careful about arguments based on fraction of GDP. Measure of GDP has changed over the years (perhaps for political reasons) and is done in different ways in different countries. It is too undependable a measure to say that we spent x% of GDP one year and y% another year, or that we spend x% while another country spends z%. Those comparisons are too misleading to argue.

    Other things equal, we can expect military expensives to rise according to Parkinson’s Law. In the absence of any change in goals or change in technology etc we can expect the number of people and the value of resources required to fulfill the same mission to increase by maybe 4% a year. As the military gets better at its job, it inevitably needs more people and more resources to do that job.

    I can’t say whether this is a conscious choice, but somehow we have chosen a military strategy that involves spending a lot of money. Here is a rationale for it: When we develop new military tactics or technology, there’s a chance that others will copy us and do it better. For example I read that an american particularly developed blitzkrieg tactics, but the american and british armies weren’t interested — it was the germans who actually tried it first. So we should develop methods that work better for us than for anybody else. And expensive methods do that. Nobody can copy us without spending more money than they want to. And if they develop special tactics to stop us, those tactics won’t particularly work against anybody else. As long as we can afford a super-expensive army and nobody else can afford that, we do better to use successful tactics that nobody else can copy than tactics that might be used against us.

    We have a lot of people who want to be soldiers. Up until the iraq fiasco we had more wannabe soldiers than we could use. We were forcing good people out of the army to make room for new ones. “Up or out.” To cut the army in half we’d have to throw out a whole lot of dedicated soldiers, and they would be outraged. They want to be soldiers. And they want short sweet victorious wars to fight. They are a pretty big voting block and politicians who make a show of giving them what they want have an advantage.

    Concluding, our military is expensive but it’s hard to actually count the costs. We have big goals but it’s very hard to tell whether our military can meet those goals. Our military is a cultural phenomenon, people do it mostly because they want to, and they come up with justifications afterward. Take away their toys and they will be angry. This is not a subject that leads to easy rational argument — the data mostly isn’t there, things that look like data tend to be designed to justify previous desires, and military supporters will make extreme emotional claims not just by calculation but because they feel extreme emotions themselves.

  • dix

    I think one primary cost driver is the expensive weapons systems which are expensive primarily to reduce collateral damage as well as protect our own soldiers. Examples are cruise missiles, B-2 bombers, precision guided munitions, etc. Another cost driver is force projection which means carrier battle groups (what do we have, like 8?) and overseas military bases. Then there are the domestic military bases. If we want to maintain the same amount of firepower, however that may be measured, cutting the weapons budget may result in higher collateral damage or higher casualties for our soldiers. Of course, this may also result in less likelihood of using them due to the political ramifications. Reducing our force projection capability may be interesting. Which sections of the world should we withdraw from? Europe? Korea? Middle East? Domestic military bases? Even Ted Kennedy turns into the second coming of George Patton if anyone tries to close a military base in Massachusetts.

  • Robin:

    First off, many countries (including wealthy ones like South Korea, Israel, many European countries) have mandatory military service. Therefore, we should conclude that the official figures from those countries based on government spending understate the economic loss of defense spending.

    Second, a decent amount of US military spending is done on behalf of US allies, who then free-ride on the US military. Given economies of scale and specialization, it may well be a logical choice that’s better for all considered to do so. OTOH, it may be appropriate for Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and other to shoulder more of their own burden. However, I am unconvinced by an argument claiming that “we have X% of GDP, but produce Y% of this good,” even a public good. One could just as easily claim that money spent on space exploration, or the GPS satellites, or anything else that is a public good is misspent, much less specialization in private areas.

  • Thomas Thorn

    Robin: It’s not just our direct losses to piracy– increased insurance costs against theft and kidnapping, extra security personnel on ships, increased uncertainty, etc. The magnitude of the impact of these costs, as well as the friction it would create for transactions, isn’t something easily estimated. (Admittedly, my comment about it offsetting the cost of the navy is a pretty big exaggeration.)

    Consider also America’s response after the tsunami. Having such a strong navy made humanitarian intervention easy.

    George Friedman of Stratfor offers this argument against cutting naval spending:

    “The argument for slashing the Navy can be tempting. But consider the counterargument. First, and most important, we must consider the crises the United States has not experienced. The presence of the U.S. Navy has shaped the ambitions of primary and secondary powers. The threshold for challenging the Navy has been so high that few have even initiated serious challenges. Those that might be trying to do so, like the Chinese, understand that it requires a substantial diversion of resources. Therefore, the mere existence of U.S. naval power has been effective in averting crises that likely would have occurred otherwise. Reducing the power of the U.S. Navy, or fine-tuning it, would not only open the door to challenges but also eliminate a useful, if not essential, element in U.S. strategy — the ability to bring relatively rapid force to bear.

    There are times when the Navy’s use is tactical, and times when it is strategic. At this moment in U.S. history, the role of naval power is highly strategic. The domination of the world’s oceans represents the foundation stone of U.S. grand strategy. It allows the United States to take risks while minimizing consequences. It facilitates risk-taking. Above all, it eliminates the threat of sustained conventional attack against the homeland. U.S. grand strategy has worked so well that this risk appears to be a phantom. The dispersal of U.S. forces around the world attests to what naval power can achieve. It is illusory to believe that this situation cannot be reversed, but it is ultimately a generational threat”

    (source: )

  • I would like it if Greg Cochran chimed in.

    Bryan Caplan’s old post here seems relevant.

  • jpe

    If you cut our military men and women in half, it doesn’t matter whether the cut is vertical or horizontal, it will seriously impede their ability to perform their jobs.

    Oh no! Then how would we repel an invasion by those dastardly Canadians!


  • jpe

    Consider also America’s response after the tsunami. Having such a strong navy made humanitarian intervention easy.

    This is simply insane. If your argument is that the military makes humanitarian intervention easier, let’s just make a humanitarian force and cut out the middle men of Grumman etal taking gazillions for weaponry. Your argument is prima facie absurd.

  • Eric

    Our military is inefficient and incompetent, but so is every bureaucracy, including the military of Iran, China, or any other potential foe. Nevertheless, one of the fundamental purposes of government is protecting its citizens from foreign threats–individuals or their non-government unions can’t do that. Now transnational humanists like professors can’t imagine a foreigner wanting to bomb good natured Americans, but I think that’s naive (why would Germany get rid of the Jews? Who’d a thunk it? Answer: success makes people hate you). There are many fanatics, primarily driven by religion, who would destroy the USA given the chance, regardless of collateral damage to the Brent Brockmans of the world (“I, for one, welcome our new ant overloards”). In a generation, might there be a Chinese power who would do the same? I think it’s much more prudent than buying a Prius to project strength internationally because unlike Canada we can’t depend on someone else.

    But I do agree that military spending should be reduced massively, but by changing the strategy from ‘promoting democracy’ to ‘defending America’. That is, Iraq was a mess under Saddam, its a mess now, it will be a mess later. So too Africa, Russia, etc. But cutting the military’s budget by 50% doesn’t imply they will change their priorities like I think is optimal. They may just apply half their efforts to everything.

    Infiltrating and destroying terrorist cells is a dirty business, so if we play by a chivalric code derived from the ACLU, while terrorists slice throats because someone’s nose looks funny, we lose. So it isn’t ‘cheap’ to fight terrorists because our intelligentsia naively yet effectively argued that we are dealing with reasonable people who want the same things we do, and they have rights like OJ Simpson; Miranda rights, rights to counsel, trial by jury, meals according to their religion, and only plastic gloves handling their holy scriptures. That’s a losing battle I don’t expect to change, so a big nuclear bomb, or massive airpower, is essential backup.

  • We have tried cutting defense and intelligence spending in actuality before and there is a pretty strong argument that it didn’t work out very well:


  • Thomas Thorn

    jpe- I’m not arguing that the only reason to have a strong Navy is to be prepared for a humanitarian crisis. My argument is that, because it already has a navy, America does not have to set up the kind of separate organization you suggest. If one of America’s goals is to provide humanitarian relief after disasters, it might as well take advantage of the fact that it already has an infrastructure that can deal with such problems. America can thus achieve two goals for around the cost of achieving one. For a bit more than the cost of providing national defense, it can provide national defense AND humanitarian relief.

    Also, your suggested organization wouldn’t be able to withstand political reality. Cutting it would be a top priority for every politician with a drop of fiscal conservatism in their blood. A widespread, well-manned, humanitarian force with stockpiles of perishable supplies and expensive capital goods (ships, etc)? Not exactly the top priority of either political party. Better to use that money on tax cuts or social spending.

    Because America has a strong navy, it has the benefit of being able to provide the kind of expedient humanitarian relief that it did after the tsunami. Without a strong navy, this would be a political impossibility.

  • Those who are focused on our having volunteer soldiers, consider that if we could save $10,000 a year on two million soldiers, that would only save us $20B/yr, out of $600B/yr.

    For those focused on our role as global cop, I’d like to see an itemized budget listing the expected annual costs we would suffer in a world that had adapted to our only spending $300B/yr on defense.

    Brian, 9/11 and Pearl Harbor were attacks, not invasions. Invaders intend to hold territory.

  • J Thomas

    Thomas Thorn, the reason our navy could drop everything and do humantarian aid was that we weren’t using it for anything more important at the time. Most of the time we don’t need the navy we have. The argument for it is that when you do need a strong navy, you *really* need one quick and you can’t build one quick.

    So it’s very hard to measure the benefits. It’s like an insurance policy for one nation — if there were a hundred thousand nations with similar navies we could do statistics about how well they do. But there’s only us. The data isn’t good so we decide how much to spend based on raw emotion and on Parkinson’s Law.

    When the time comes that we can’t defend our aircraft carriers will we mothball them or keep them going for their tremendous nondefense potential? I’m afraid you’re right that we’ll just shut them down. Or worse, try to bluff with them and hope nobody sinks them.

  • Those who are focused on our having volunteer soldiers, consider that if we could save $10,000 a year on two million soldiers, that would only save us $20B/yr, out of $600B/yr.

    Yes, but surely that’s not the real way to count it, because that wouldn’t be comparing true economic costs; that would only be ignoring some of the US economic costs as well. The proper way to count it is to determine how much extra the other governments “should” be spending, to approximate the hidden deadweight loss of their mandatory service. Would that method of counting be significant? I think so; labor costs are a higher proportion of defense spending in other countries because they spend less on hardware as well. Therefore, counting the true economic costs in other countries would have a significant effect on the rest of the world’s defense spending, and thus on the proportion of the world’s defense spending made up by US spending. (As far as the US goes, there’s also the secondary effect that a country with draftees tends to spend less on hardware designed to protect their safety, so the potential accounting, but not economic, savings could be more than $20B/yr.)

  • Buzzcut

    The interesting thing about the Hansonian “cut medical spending in half” argument is that decreased spending has a 50-50 chance of IMPROVING the medical outcome of patients (because so much of medicine makes people sicker. You go to the hospital for a cold and die from flesh eating bacteria, for example).

    Can you say the same thing about military spending? Do we have a 50-50 chance of being SAFER if military spending is cut arbitrarily, and with no corresponding spending increase elsewhere?

    I can see arguments both ways. If our military spending is provoking the Islamists, or the Chinese, or whatever, cutting spending could make us all safer.

    What other areas could we cut spending arbitrarily and improve outcomes?

    How about Social Security? The elderly as a group are the wealthiest segment of American society. While some people rely of SS for their entire finances, others don’t really need it.

    If Social Security were cut in half, what are the chances that the average recipient would be BETTER off? 50-50?

    Does anyone question that the economy would take off if, say, the employer portion of the SS tax were eliminated? How would elderly stockholders benefit from such a change.

  • g

    Buzzcut, I question it. It certainly could be true, but the economy is Bloody Complicated and very little to do with it is *unquestionable*. Elderly stockholders would probably benefit; elderly nonstockholders, not so much. So to avoid redistributing money from the poor to the rich relative to the present system (note: maybe you’d be in favour of such redistribution, but I wouldn’t) you’d need to make the payouts more uneven, and naively I’d have thought that that means making the system more complicated and less efficient.

    When you say that the elderly are the wealthiest segment, how are you measuring wealth? has tables that suggest that the median elderly person in the US at present has total assets somewhere around $200k and income somewhere around $20k. (That’s total, not just liquid, assets; I’m not sure how to make those figures consistent with one another, unless that income includes some erosion of the assets or pension fund holdings are excluded from the assets. Probably the latter.)

    I’m pretty sure that that income figure is substantially below the national median; as for total assets, see e.g. which shows median total assets being greatest among the 55-64 age group.

  • ZAG


    Regarding how conventional forces would counteract terrorsits. It was suggest by some military guy on Fox that we should supplement our troops with a lot of special forces, who are well trained to combat terrorists. That may or may not be what we are doing now.

    However, I should point out that during an Arab revolt in 1938 the British put down the uprising by being even more brutal than the Arabs. They would kill the Arabs, then dismember the bodies. I’ve been told that according to Islam, one can’t get to heaven if the body is dismembered. That seems to make sense in view of the fact that the Saudis publically behead adulterers and other offenders of Islamic laws. This tells a passionately religious population that not only will offenders be killed, but they have no chance to go to heaven. It also makes sense when we see terrorists beheading captured jopurnalists and marines. They in effect are telling their own people, this is what we will do to anyone who gives aid to U.S. We will kill you and you have no chance to go to heaven. That’s a powerful statement.

    But to get back to the subject. We should have special forces kill, then decapitate the terrorists. The Marines were successful in WW II against the Japanese because they had a reputation for brutality (many of the marines wore necklaces of human teeth). I imagine that’s why they’re called “devil dogs.”

    I would go even further and completely dismember the terrorist body and send the various parts to surrounding towns. That would make an impression. However, they would have to disguise themselves as Arabs–not too hard to put on Arab dress and “tan” the exposed parts of the body.

    So the short answer to your question is that we engage the terrorists on there own level, but do this “discretely.”

    Conventional troops need to be there if for any thing else as a show of strength.

  • Protecting the oil-rich allies in the Middle East, not to mention the misadventure in Iraq, would probably triple to true cost of barrels of oil from that region.

  • We spend more on the military for three primary reasons. Some have a lot in common with why we spend so much on health care.

    Firstly, because we can do so without suffering too much. The US is wealthier and thus spends more per capita on cars, homes, toys, sports equipment and in many other categories. We also spend more than we strictly “need” to on the military and on health care, even though marginal benefits can be considered lower the more we spend.

    Secondly, because of the free rider effect. Since the start of the cold war, the US has played world policeman and alternate defender of other countries. Europe and Japan especially responded by reducing their military spending and using the US military to make up the perceived difference. Why should they pay for as much R & D and world-wide force levels if the US is going to pickup the tab? This has turned into a habit and has continued past the fall of the Soviet empire. So if you compare the relative defense expenditures of another rich nation like Japan to that of the US, of course Japan is going to be lower when the US is actually paying for most of Japan’s perceived defense “needs”.

    Thirdly, the military spending/utility curve isn’t smooth. This isn’t a grapic medium and it’s a little hard to illustrate without a graph, but think of military spending levels as falling into multiple utility zones. Above a certain level (US spending), you get to push anyone else you want around militarily and get most others to go along with what you want in non-military areas as well. This is the 2.5 major wars spending level that the Pentagon likes to convince congress to maintain. Below a certain level of spending, you are spending less than a reasonable estimate of the maximum forces you will face at one time. If you calculate that level properly (which is another huge debate), there isn’t much more utility to be gained from additional spending, except perhaps as a means of insuring future military preparedness in the face of future spending cuts. Let’s call this level “US”.

    Just below that spending level there is a sharp drop-off in your military influence, because you suddenly have to be much more careful in your world actions. Still, you are safe, but have much less world influence. There isn’t much loss in the utility gained from your spending until you reach the level where you can no longer defend yourself from your most likely enemies. Let’s call that level “EU”.

    There is very little additional utility in a nation spending just above the “EU” level to increase their spending unless they have decided to jump all the way to the “US” level of spending.

    Dropping below that level in spending all the way down to the level where your military can’t realistically defend the nation from attack, but can serve as a creditable deterrant to others (your most likely foe may win the war, but it’ll cost them more than they’re likely willing to pay), is a little smoother utility curve, because you can argue that a little more deterrant value is useful for a little more spending.

    Aggressors are sometimes not completely rational actors, so anyone who can afford to spend at least the EU level instead of lower levels will do so unless they can get their defense in another manner. Japan’s spending is really low, for example, because they rely on the US to assist them. If the US overnight dropped that commitment, Japan would embark on a massive military spending binge.

    So cutting the military spending in half, while actually a good idea in terms of economic efficiency, would have to be accompanied by a policy shift that makes the US no longer provide free rider benefits to the rest of the world. At that point, instead of 1/2, it would make the most sense to cut all the way to the EU point.

    Of course, an alternative proposal is that since we’re providing world policeman services, we should explicitly start charging for them and make the military pay it’s way more. That was the model used in the first gulf war, where we provided the bulk of the military and other nations primarily provided the cash to fund it all. If we made that arrangement more explicit and accepted, so that Japan paid X amount to us so that they didn’t have to have their own military, we’d benefit from not having to spend the cash ourselves, while at the same time reaping all the policy benefits of being the most powerful military in the world. The US could provide it’s “international arbitration” services along the same lines.

    The main obstacle to that proposal seems to be other nation’s national pride and their level of trust/distrust of the US.

  • Acad Ronin

    1) As others above have observed, we are the de facto world’s policeman, and others are free-riding on that. Also, capital is cheap, whereas in a country where the modal family has two children, life is expensive.
    2) We expect to be able to put boots on the ground anywhere in the world, and rapidly. That means we have a lot of logistical tail to teeth. Many other militaries have a better ratio of teeth to tail, but fall back on us when they need to move and support troops.
    3) We don’t know what threats we will face in the future and have to maintain a broad spectrum capability. Many other countries have much more narrowly defined missions.
    4) As Harold Brown (one-time Sect. of Defense) said in at least one speech (the one I heard), “I wish there was line in the Budget for “Waste and Fraud”. It would then be easy to cut it out.” Much of the waste in the military budget is mandated by Congress. Try closing a base, or cancelling a weapons system that the military doesn’t want but that is built in some senator’s state, and see what happens. Or try buying some vessels or planes built oversees and see how Congress reacts. All of these can be done, but it is a fight.
    5) Corollary: As a former infantry lieutenant, I have a deep belief in boots on the ground, but Congress prefers big ticket items that have to built in plants in Congressional districts, not lots of cheap Soldiers.
    6) Service – Congress dynamics. There was a proposal some years ago to build aircraft carriers that were half the size, and half the effectiveness of the current carriers. The Navy ran from that, fearing that rather than replacing the existing force two for one, Congress would go for a one-for-one replacement. They are both carriers, after all.

    Or as Pogo once put it, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

  • J Thomas

    Sharper’s long post is extremely important. I will try to say almost the same thing shorter.

    The benefits of military spending depend on what your potential enemies are spending. If you have no military you must juggle your international policies so that no potential invader wants to bother. Costa rica does this well.

    If an enemy can defeat you, you might still deter them but you mustn’t taunt them. Presumably, the more you spend the more deterrent you get and the more independence you have.

    At some point you have enough deterrent that no one seriously considers attacking you. Sharper calls this the “EU level”. You’re safe but nobody’s afraid of you. At this point spending a little more is useless.

    Only one level of spending above that is useful, what Sharper calls the “US level”. When no one but you can successfully attack nations who’re below the EU level, you can influence every nation you can “project power” onto — they must persuade you not to attack them. But they can build militaries to deter you.

    Sharper ignored the case of two superpowers. Arms race. Both increase spending until one can’t keep up, and that one must attack now before it get worse, or else give up. Not inevitable but it’s the way to bet. Nobody much wins while there are 2 superpowers. Third parties can sometimes deter one by invoking the other; sometimes that fails and they might even get invaded by both.

    Sharper describes nations that trust a superpower to save them as “free riders” but I call them “client states”. If they can’t deter the superpower and even depend on the superpower to deter others, they are slaves — though maybe pampered slaves. They must pay whatever tribute the master demands or else develop a deterrent force.

    Not as short as I wanted but I hope it’s clear.

  • J, Sharper, and others: Let us agree that spending at the US level gives a nation more “influence” on other nations. The question is how that could possibly be worth the cost – I want to see an itemized list, with dollar values, of the “tribute” that we get because of our extra military spending.

  • J Thomas

    Robin, there’s no possible way to count costs or benefits of our current military spending. If some nation agrees to an unfair trade agreement out of fear, how will we know unless the CIA tells us? How can we count the benefit compared to a fair agreement? And how can we quantify their anger about it?

    Some war supporters make this argument: *Somebody* will have a US-level military. They will largely control the world, and nobody can make them stop without a world war, maybe a nuclear war, and they will start with a large advantage. Who in the world can we trust with that, except our own government?

    Moving right along, the next argument goes — if we have unquestioning dominance, everybody else should stay at an EU-level. They get nothing by having a second-best military; any time they project power we may choose to stop them. But if they try to be first then we get an arms race which is expensive for both sides and for the world.

    If we’re so strong that nobody else tries, we can be benevolent. Get in an arms race and the enemy decides how fast we expand our military — and maybe we can’t play Mr. Nice Guy.

    And if we come in second in that race it’s very bad. Lose a world war and you get no choice what happens to you.

    Say we spend a lot of money to have the world’s second-best navy, and we get into a serious dispute with the world’s best navy. Our navy goes to the bottom of the sea and our investment is gone. Whatever it costs to have the best navy, the cost-benefit for a weaker navy is worse.

    I’m somewhat swayed by these arguments. They seem to describe the world as it exists, and while we act this way the rest of the world has to go along. So that’s our world. I hope we can do better for ourselves and for the world. But this is the world Thucydides lived in. Over 2 thousand years of technological improvement and the politics are exactly the same. A strong argument that we’ll never change and that we have to use the same diplomacy with nukes that we used before gunpowder, or for that matter before iron. And still I hope that maybe now it can be different. It would take something new. Not just cut our military in half so China gets to arms-race levels quicker.

    Count the costs and the benefits? We can’t. Whatever we do, one cost is we might get genocided. Or maybe we go extinct with all the large mammals. We don’t know how to minimise that. When we can’t quantify that potential cost, it’s trivial that we can’t quantify most of the others.

  • Buzzcut

    g, regarding Social Security, regarding the payroll tax and the employer portion, I think that standard economic theory would tell you that, if it were eliminated, the money would go to employees in the form of higher pay. I would extrapolate that that would increase consumption, which would go directly to the bottom line of GDP, minus savings and imports.

    I don’t doubt that there would be redistributive effects amongst the elderly. Yes, stockholding retirees would make out way better than non-stockholding retirees. In that sense, perhaps it is slightly different than the Hansonian health care example, where pretty much everyone would have the same probability of being better or worse off (50-50, right?).

    Don’t forget about pensions, also. Even if retirees don’t own stocks directly, many recieve pensions that benefit from a rising stock market. For example, do you think that a GM retiree would rather have a lower SS check in return for getting a GM pension? Those are the kind of tradeoffs that might be possible with a Hansonian cut in SS benefits.

    Again, retirees as a group COULD very well be better off by cutting social security benefits in half. I think that that is the interesting take away. Don’t get caught up in the status of the individual retiree. And keep in mind that I said “could”.

    Also, if I was incorrect regarding retirees being the demographic with the highest amount of wealth, they still are a very wealthy group. Anything that increases returns on investments like stocks and bonds are going to make retirees even wealthier.

    Remember that Martin Feldstein projected that, if Social Security were privatized in 1980, by the mid 1990s the US economy would have been 50% larger than it was. The deadweight loss from the payroll tax is huge.

  • J Thomas

    Buzzcut, I believe you have listened to propaganda about SS, propaganda that has little relation to reality.

    Follow the money. When SS taxes are collected, the US government sells bonds that the SS money buys. The US government then spends the money. So, what would happen if we stopped collecting SS? The US government would either have to cut back its spending a whole lot, or else it would have to issue regular bonds to pay for the spending, or it would have to raise taxes. You are looking only at the first case. If government spending was cut back with no reduction in services, then everybody would be happy. But if the government issued more bonds to replace the SS money then the result would be about the same as we have now, except that we would have to persuade people to buy the bonds instead of just tax them. If it was new taxes then it would particularly hit the people who pay the new taxes who might not be the same as the ones who pay SS now.

    People talk like SS is in financial trouble. It isn’t particularly, except for the problem that the US government might choose to default on its SS bonds. The government has already spent the money and might choose not to pay it back. That’s the problem.

    And if we particularly cared about SS, the obvious solution is to instead buy bonds from countries whose credit is better than the USA, countries that we can be confident will pay their debts. And we could require the USA to start paying back existing SS bonds so we can invest the money in safer places. But the issue isn’t how to keep SS safe, the issue is how to fund the US government this year.

    Marty Feldstein was, basicly, lying. If SS had been privateered in 1980 and if government spending had been cut back proportionately with no reduction in services, then yes, the US economy would probably have been 50% larger by the mid 1990s than it was. And if Marty Feldstein had spent those years working three fulltime jobs each of which paid as well as his current job, he would have been more than twice as rich as he was not counting non-labor income, kickbacks, bribes, etc.

  • Buzzcut

    Those are some pretty strong words. Lying? And you know that based on what, exactly?

    Feldstein could be wrong. But lying? I don’t think so.

    Feldstein’s paper is available at NBER.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but the SS “surplus” is not anywhere near 1/2 of SS revenues. Thus, if we cut those revenues in half, with a corresponding cut in benefits, we’d still be ahead of the game, economy wise.

  • J and Buzz, this is not the place to argue about social security.

  • Buzzcut

    Sorry. But you could end the argument with your authority. Would a cut in SS benefits be Hansonian?

  • g

    Who cares whether it would be “Hansonian”? What matters is whether its effects would be good. Robin’s a very clever chap, but I don’t see any reason to think he can pronounce authoritatively on that question. (And I bet he doesn’t either.)

  • Buzzcut

    I care.

  • Buzz, state pension plans are a combination of transfer and forced saving. The forced saving has little long term effect, as people can compensate via other savings choices. The transfer is hard to evaluate, as it is not clear what would measure success for them.

  • Robin,

    I think you’re missing part of the point. You’ve got the cart before the horse.

    If you take a typical American two car family, you can easily make an economic/financial case that cutting their car costs in half will be of major economic benefit, especially over the long run. You can also point out that it’s not as difficult as they might think to only be able to use one car and perhaps rent a car for specific situations that absolutely require a second car, such as one driver needing to drive out of town for a long trip.

    However, you can’t start with “What if we cut your car expenses in half?” and then expect them to see the “obvious” benefits to losing the second car. You have to start by convincing them that they’re fine with one car. Once they’re ok with that idea, you can easily convince them to cut their car expenses in half, because at that point it will make sense to them.

    In a similar fashion, you’ll have to convince the American people that it’s just fine for the US to not be in control of what happens militarily outside of North America. Convince them to not demand we do something the next time some dictatorship invades someone else. Convince them that it’s ok if China, or Iran, or North Korea, takes over whichever neighbors it wants to. Once you’ve accomplished that task, it becomes a simple matter to cut the US defense budget down to the EU level.

    The reason for current US military spending isn’t just economic and defense benefits for the US, although those do exist. The reason is what US voters expect the US to do with it’s military, which is a much larger role. Change the expectations and the budget can be easily cut.

    You can’t change the expectations of the voters by cutting the budget in half. You have to cut the budget in half by changing the expectations of the voters. That task is of course complicated by the possibility that the voters may prefer whatever you want to call the utility they get when the US is a lone superpower to the utility of the smaller federal budget.

    For an extensive and detailed analysis of where we are and some of the near-future possibilities in US military strength and relations from a world economic and social standpoint, I’d suggest “The Shield of Achilles”, by Philip Bobbitt.

    And for the record, there are two adults and four children in my household and we do fine with one car in a semi-rural area. 🙂

  • Whoops, sorry about that. It’s here.

  • Thomas

    A lot of unnecessary spending in the military: bands, ceremonies, General’s secretaries, government employees hired to do nothing except take a pay check. Sure not a lot of money however if added up I bet it could make a difference – how can we get people in power to take a look at this?

  • Robin,
    The military is also a place where more boundedly rational people can have simpler environments in which to operate, in a society that doesn’t seem to much fund those programs otherwise (the other spaces are prisons and mental institutions). Something to keep in mind when halving military spending: we may have to do something with that less productive have other than allowing them to increase social risk as they operate unmediated in the civilian population.

    In similar vein, I think the military’s strongly deviant benefits and job security might be capitalists buying out violent but economically unintelligent people, in the similar way that highly paid legal work for law firms mostly to protect against other lawyers might be capitalists buying out excellent arguers/propagandists who also have limited economic aptitude or interest. May also be a factor to be considered when making adjustments to size of the military population or its benefits.

  • Carl Shulman


    The military is actually reasonably selective, and while it does recruit substantially from the bottom half (although for only a minority of its headcount) entrance requirements largely exclude the bottom third, so it’s not strongly competing with prisons and mental institutions.

  • To be clear, I didn’t mean that the military recruits substantially from the less productive half of the American population, I meant that presumably it would be the lesss productive half of the US military that would be fired/attritioned out of the military in Robin’s proposal.

    Also, I don’t think I reasonably implied that the military strongly competes with prisons and mental institutions for its recruits. Quite the contrary, I mentioned the latter two to illustrate how stark the options are for more boundedly rational citizens: folks who have trouble maintaining the economic planning and foresight necessary to maintain an apartment, save for retirement, or have a good work performance if they face penalties no more severe than fire-at-will. I suspect we’d have a consequentially better society with a stronger (but opt-outable) paternalist structure. The military currently seems to me to be the least extremely limiting/stigmatizing of the three public sets of institutions that provide relatively strong paternalism for adults that need it.

  • Carl Shulman

    The Cato Institute calls for a 50% cut to the U.S. military:

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