Philosophy Weekend: Military Spending in the USA is a Big, Big Problem

Some truths have a tough time landing. They hover overhead, drifting uncomfortably in the air. People stare up at these truths, squinting. “Yeah, that looks like a truth.” “Hope it doesn’t get any closer.”

One of these truths is hovering heavily over our heads right now, here in the United States of America. Our government spends an incredible, ridiculous, unsupportable amount of money on the military. The chart above (chosen by Andrew Sullivan as the #1 nominee for 2012 chart of the year) shows how much the USA spends compared to the other powerful countries on the planet. This certainly is the #1 chart of the year, and the data point about our overspending is the single most important data point we need to discuss as our Congressional debate over taxation and deficit spending proceeds.

But this truth — the truth that we spend way too much on preparations for war — has no home. It’s a homeless truth. Andrew Sullivan found the chart in a Mother Jones article aptly titled “And You Wonder Why We’re Broke?“, and Mother Jones is an excellent liberal/progressive publication that supposedly has some influence within our Democratic party. But our Democratic party establishment won’t touch this truth, because proposals to cut military spending will not help win elections and will feed into the damaging misconception that liberals are weak on defense.

Meanwhile, don’t even bother asking if the Republican party establishment will go anywhere near this truth. Ron Paul will, which is the only reason I sometimes like Ron Paul, but none of the so-called “fiscal conservatives” who want to “get tough on spending” will. Why? Well, of course, because Ronald Reagan. That’s usually where the discussion ends, if a Republican politician is anywhere nearby.

It’s particularly galling when self-proclaimed “fiscal conservatives” refuse to discuss cuts to military spending while also criticizing entitlements and the welfare state. In fact, military pay and benefits is a form of entitlement, and it has already taken root within American society as a quasi-welfare state. It’s how we send kids to college, how we provide free or subsidized healthcare to countless military families, how we pay monthly checks to retirees. But this is a form of welfare that rewards conformity over individuality, that literally demands cultural and political indoctrination in return for financial sustenance. And yet, incredibly, so-called conservatives who claim to despise welfare states and fear cultures of government indoctrination cling to the military welfare state as if it represented the best of what this country can offer.

Our tangled national mindfuck over defense spending needs to end, but we citizens and bloggers and journalists and street protestors will have to fight for this change ourselves. None of our politicians will lead the way. They are stuck. The important fact that we need to significantly cut our military spending to help balance our budget hangs in the distant sky, barely visible through the thick, thick fog.

But even our cultural influencers and citizen protestors often appear to be meek or confused about the question of military spending. Can they possibly really believe that we need to spend six times more than every other country in the world in order to keep America safe? If not, why won’t they speak up about this?

When I try to talk to either liberal or conservative friends about this, I hear the same murky, mystified responses. Nobody believes it’s possible to cut military spending, even though our Congress is currently in an absolute spasm over how to cut spending in general, and even though military spending is our biggest cost. The level of popular pessimism and defeatism about this issue is tremendous.

We fight for the environment (against industrial pollution, against fracking, etc.). We fight corrupt capitalism and plutocratic abuses (the Occupy Wall Street movement was especially strong in this area). We fight for human rights, for the right to health and reproductive privacy, for the right to marry. So why can’t we fight against the culture of militarism and its terrible costs, against the harm it does to our economy, our culture, our standing in the world?

Right now, this fight only exists at the fringes of popular politics — though it’s good news that it exists at the fringes of both the Republican and Democratic parties. Perhaps these fringes may find a way to come together on this issue, though it would seem like a miraculous occurrence if this were to happen. There’s a whole lot of fog to cut through.

But I’m going to keep speaking up about this, even though I feel like I’m shouting into a cloudy void, and I hope you will too. The truth that the USA is addicted to military overspending, and that this (not Social Security or Medicare) is the single greatest cause of our budget problems needs to get out there, needs to become a meme. I believe we can make this happen. There’s this great idea called pacifism. It’s not dead yet.

14 Responses

  1. Great article – definitely a
    Great article – definitely a perspective that warrants more air and attention! It’s funny, as you say – that our military budget is obscenely bloated is the sort of truth that somehow is both overtly obvious to all of us, and yet seemingly impossible… it’s like a collective attitude of, “Well yeah it’s crazy, but if we’ve been spending so much (and increasing our spending so much) for so long… it must be necessary… right?…”

    Great infographic.. thanks for sharing!

  2. One – The graphic is not even
    One – The graphic is not even accurate, see

    Two – presenting it in this manner and not as a function of GDP percent is meaningless for the argument and intellectually dishonest

    Such distortions are the realm of propagandists and is beneath you. 

    Levi, it is a valid discussion on decreasing military spending. Why do you feel the need to not come to the issue in an honest and informed manner?

    Or does Mother Jones propaganda actually fool you?

    I don’t want to mean, but this post is empty polemic at the best. 

  3. TKG, I’m willing to look at
    TKG, I’m willing to look at military spending statistics from all angles. Some statistics will reveal certain truths, others will reveal others. So, okay, we look at military expenditure by GDP instead of gross $$$, and we see that instead of leading the world as #1 in military spending, the USA is now #2, second only to Saudi Arabia. That’s what I get out of the Wikipedia link above.

    Is being #2 to Saudi Arabia in military spending much better than being #1? Don’t you think we could be more fiscally conservative? Why would we want to cut Medicare and Social Security (which is what the majority of so-called conservatives and Republicans are calling for us to do) instead of cutting this expense?

    I don’t know why you say I’m being dishonest. I am trying to open a discussion. I will look at any statistics you can cite. But showing that we are #2 to Saudi Arabia instead of #1 doesn’t help your case very much.

  4. The graphic that shows
    The graphic that shows defense spending among countries without normalization for size of nation and economy is distortive. 

    When normalized the US spending is still larger than most, but the differences aren’t as extremely distorted as presented in the circle graphic. 

    Personally, I don’t think comparisons to other countries should have much influence in our decision one way or the other, but if you are basing your argument that the US spends too much on defense  on comparable outlays by other countries, then such comparative analysis must be normalized to accurately compare and contrast. 

    But the different sizes of the circles wouldn’t be so huge if that were done.  So MoJo uses the distorted graph for visceral effect. 

    Other factors to think about in such an analysis are  percentages of all outlays.  In the US the defense outlay has dropped hugely over the past 50 years and is now about 20%  which  is less than medicare and about the same as social security.

    If we are to make arguments based on comparisons to other nations, then those data for the other countries would be of interest. 

    Levi, actually Saudi Arabia isn’t #1, Eritrea is at a whopping 20% of their GDP. A lot of other countries spend more as a percent of GDP than the US.  They all seem to be middle eastern or North African. 

    I think if one wanted to be demagogic one could present the US defense spending per GDP compared to Eritrea and mock disbelief at how little the US spends compared to little Eritrea. 

    I don’t like speciousness on any side. 

    Personally I think there’s plenty of pork all around to find cuts for defense as well as other expenditures. 

    Ron Paul is indeed all for cutting defense, but his position still is that defense spending should be the most with almost nothing spent on anything else. 

      The idea is that the role of government is clearly defined in the Constitution and providing for defense is one of the few actual roles of government. That’s why the willingness to spend on defense but not on other things exists.  It’s  not hypocritical but based on a given understanding of the role of government.  

  5. Even on your own terms, US
    Even on your own terms, TKG, US military spending is ludicrously high. As a % of GDP, it’s way higher than that of, say, S. Korea, a country that is supposedly facing a huge threat only 30 miles from its capital and main center of population. Tell me, do you believe the US is one of the more vulnerable countries in the world, or one of the more secure? If you think 4.7% of GDP is a reasonable figure to spend on defense, what you’re saying is the US is in a position of more danger than S. Korea, Russia, India, and basically every country in the world except Saudi. On the list of all countries, the US % is exceeded by Eritrea, Saudi, Oman, UAE, Israel, Chad, Jordan, Iraq, and Georgia–all small countries that face serious, nearby threats. Is the US’s security position really as bad as that of these countries?

  6. I’m glad we’re having this
    I’m glad we’re having this discussion, and airing these different statistics out.

    I agree with everything Ezra says. The other countries with high ratio of military spending to GDP are among the most oppressive, most violent and most war-torn countries in the world. Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Oman, Israel, Chad, Iraq, Georgia, United Arab Emirates … and the United States of America. Is this the company we want to be in, when it comes to military spending? (By the way, North Korea should certainly also be on the list of high military spenders, but nobody knows how much they spend.)

    TKG, it’s weird that you use harsh terms like “speciousness” and “demagogic” to describe Mother Jones’s original chart, which simply shows how much each country spends. This statistic is not at all specious or demagogic — it shows who has the biggest military footprint in the world (the USA) and forces us to face the question: why does one country need to spend so much more in real dollars (not as a percentage of GDP, but in real dollars) than every other country? When you presented a different statistic and chart, TKG, I didn’t deny that your statistic was also valuable. Both statistics are valuable. So why use heated terms like “demagogic” when a magazine publishes accurate and surprising statistics?

    Also, we can see right in this discussion how easy it is to play games with statistics. TKG, you pointed to a Wikipedia page with two charts. The top one lists military spending as GDP ratio for the most powerful nations in the world. On this list, Saudi Arabia is #1 and USA is #2. I pointed this out in my response above. You then wrote, as if correcting me, “Levi, Saudi Arabia isn’t #1” because you are looking at the second chart on the same page, which shows not the powerful nations of the world but all the nations of the world. But don’t you see that there is also a chart on this page in which Saudi Arabia is #1? Are you so exacting about what statistics to use that you send a link to Wikipedia page but then insist that we only look at the second chart on the page, not the first?

    It sounds to me like you’re trying to shield yourself from a truth you don’t want to accept, TKG. No matter which way you slice the statistic, the USA spends an abnormal and shocking amount of money on military — money that our own Congress admits we can’t afford to pay.

  7. Even without charts, common
    Even without charts, common sense tells us that the United States spent an abominable amount of money in the Middle East and will continue to spend heavily on the soldiers who have returned with physical and mental problems.

  8. When McGovern died his life
    When McGovern died his life story dominated local news coverage. The Argus Leader printed several long articles in his memory.

    He was too soft. I’m not advocating Joe McCarthy but I honestly believe the Soviet’s posed a threat to all of humanity.

    Stalin was a bit worse then George Bush Jr (who has to be the more terrible modern American president).

    One of the big reasons no one openly covets American vitality is because we can kick your already stone age asses back to the Jurassic Age.

    We are a Rome of sorts…it seems like 500 billion would be enough to defend ourselves and then some…

    Why do still have the arsenal to nuke Russia? 8 new large landing ships/aircraft carriers?

    I’m all of F-22s and F-35s but so much of the defense spending has this Stalin like element to it…State socialism of weapon making….just billions of dollars spent in the most trivial way having more to do with earmarks then actual threats.

    I believe both a strong defense and a policy of non intervention unless it is a policy of self defense…no more Iraq’s.

    But even beyond that I believe in winning wars without politics.

    Iraq could have been easily transformed into a secular client state.

    South Vietnam was holding till the Congress cut off aid.

    I understand why American has gone to war and it sometimes was a good idea.

    Even things like the Mexican American war benefited more then it harmed. Nothing against our Amigos south of the border—but American works better as a country…Could Mexico have Austin and Dallas without Americans?

    You don’t see a mass immigration movement to Mexico.

    I think American drug policy is the major reason for Mexico’s troubles…absolute believer in the Monroe doctrine in that I believe that our neighbors should have democratic free market economies.

    Meaning that if the Mexicans wanted a defense to maintain order in the areas near the border 82nd is all theirs.

    There’s is such a thing as effective military intervention ask the people of Haiti or New Orleans.

    I’d actually increase the foot power of the Army…as peace keepers first. If we would just turned the electricity on in Iraq, feed the population, stimulated the economy and then left there would be pro American there.

    Fuck I saw that the French still honor the American WWI vets.

    But even then I don’t know why we keep troops in Korea. The Koreans don’t need our help unless China gets involved. The same thing is true in Japan but their position is a bit weaker.

    But in the end I believe major reorder of our defenses needs to be completed. Money shouldn’t be spent in a such a foolish manner.

  9. jeez, TKG. so the u.s. is
    jeez, TKG. so the u.s. is NOT spending a gigantic amount of money on the military? and you can say that with a straight face?

    tough to cut this ridiculous spending when the war industry is so huge (and shamelessly on the corporate dole).

    another thing: please leave social security out of any discussion about the federal budget. it’s funded separately.

  10. Government is seldom
    Government is seldom efficient at anything and I’m sure military spending is no exception. While we may not agree on the dollar amount the military budget should end up being, I think we can all agree that we need to keep our military at its peak to protect Americans and American interests.

  11. Hi Howard — well,
    Hi Howard — well, respectfully, I don’t agree that we should “keep our military at its peak”, because I don’t think an aggressive foreign policy or a bloated and self-interested military-industrial complex protects American interests. I think militarism is a terrible illness, and the cure is to draw down.

  12. The thing is, our military is
    The thing is, our military is already powerful enough, and has long been powerful enough, to defend our country in an all-out war. The problem is preventing terrorists from sneaking in and causing us harm. No amount of nuclear missles can do that. We need to work smarter.

  13. Glean your information from a

    Glean your information from a magazine article or glean your information from an internet source … or use any reputable source of your choosing but the bottom line is ‘the United States Government outspends any other country in cold, hard cash to prop up it’s Military Superiority against ANY country in the world.

    That singular fact is a feather in the hat of America that our government enjoys flaunting every chance it has when speaking of its greatness and success as a Nation only 237 years old.

    America is also a nation with the largest debt load of any other country on the face of the earth when we factor in every bit of debt the Government, the States, every government in each city in the country, the personal debt of every individual, etc… and we are so over-bloated that it is shameful that the drivel that comes out of the mouths of our elected officials will not speak of the truth of this $58.1 TRILLION debt ever citizen in the country is living under.

    The TRUTH of such an enormous debt load is – IT WILL NEVER BE PAID OFF! Period! Let the naysayers talk and lie and deceive… let the favored party of the year speak about the debt but all the words spoken regarding the total DEBT will never solve the problem if we do not recognize the fact our economy is unable to sustain all this debt has bought the country. This $700+ Billion for defense is paltry in comparison to the overall debt load this Nation is carrying.

    If we do not redefine what money is and revalue it much more realistically, this wonderful country will be unrecognizable in another 10-20 years. The way it stands today nobody can follow this $700 B towards military spending and unravel exactly where it is going… dollar by dollar, million by million. Money is being siphoned off by hook and by crook as it is within the banking/mortgage system. The truth is not an option but a course we have no other choice to follow in order regain our value system and strengthen it with honesty and transparency that we have never before engaged in. Without it, we are certainly doomed as the majority of the world who has invested in us. And it is important to know, austerity is not a path we need to follow. Austerity only cheapens and undervalues what the current economic system is propping up because that is all we collectively know and have heavily relied upon 200 years.

  14. IMHO…
    slowy, over many decades, the context changed.
    from a national one to a transnational one.
    when and where are 2 questions my thinking orbits around and that is the thinking of my own that i question when i enter there.
    george orwell and h. g. wells come to mind -see gutenberg’s collection.
    roald dahl and ian fleming also come to mind. their 1941 mission to america on behalf of BP et al eventually begat the CIA.
    presscot bush’s recall in 1941 from germany comes to mind (see webster tarpley’s book on the bush family).
    truman comes to mind, then eisenhower’s farewell address warning, then JFK’s assassination yes.
    kissinger comes to mind. often.
    etc etc…
    did i mention kissinger..?
    …reagan, yeah. that’s when things were amped up, for sure.
    socialized risk, privatized gain, privatization of government, all that, yep. but more. a whole paradigm shift was completed. to a transnat one. maybe TPTB felt it locked in, or should be, or something…

    anyway, i’m trying to briefly [*koff*] lead up to this url:

    from gangsters to banksters.
    some might say JFK was pivotable, i dunno. ‘our’ mob and the russian mob is an unknown history i think. the whole of all unknown history is the crux in these questions. 911 for example [*koff*]

    bill hicks put it well.

    in short, i don’t think the US has permission to do anything different with the holiest of holies, it’s ‘defense’.

    p.s.: Iron Sky was a great movie, not just for where it satirically went but also for what it so circumnavigated…

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