A star falls, and so does the military budget—slightly

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Just days after Whitney Houston’s untimely death, the president’s proposed budget was released on February 13. In the midst of the longest period of economic upheaval this country has ever experienced, President Barack Obama’s $3.8 trillion 2013 budget offered something for everyone to hate.

Confession Time: Bringing Whitney Houston into this is a long shot attempt to make the subject of this blog (the military budget) more palatable and exciting to the masses (you be the judge). And I wanted to watch the tribute videos. There is actually no connection between the two events. But now that I’ve got you…

Obama’s budget tries to rally the still-flagging economy and care for some of its casualties. It would end Saturday delivery by the U.S. Postal Service (I would miss it), raise taxes for the 1 percenters (no complaints here) and proposes cutting the military budget by $32 billion. That sounds like a lot of money to people like you and me—and maybe even to the late great Mrs. Houston. It’s even enough to put a medium-sized city back on its feet. But $32 billion in cuts to the military budget only represents a 1.6 percent decrease in funding from 2012 to 2013. As Charles Knight with the Project on Defense Alternatives points out, the cuts do “not begin to erase the significant growth in national security spending that began in 1998.”

President Obama’s 2013 budget is far from a done deal. In fact, the document is just at the first stage in a lengthy and byzantine process that will at some point involve 40 congressional committees, 24 subcommittees, endless hearings and numerous floor votes in both houses of Congress. Now, you can get into the process too. The National Priorities Project has a great new tool—“Build a Better Budget,” which allows web-surfers to choose between the three budget plans currently on the table (the Republicans’, Obama’s and the Progressive Caucus’) to build their ideal budget. It helps us see how there is enough money for (to crib from Gandhi) the need of all, but not for the greed of all.

The budget seeks to invest the “savings” generated by “winding down” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into financing for infrastructure projects stateside. Anyone with a vehicle and a backside knows that we need investments in infrastructure (more than $2.2 trillion over five years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers), but the president has been rightly criticized for counting the money saved by waning military commitments abroad even though those funds have not been spent yet. Maya MacGuineas, head of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, told NPR that “there’s no real savings there, because we never paid for those wars. This is funny money. And pretending that you can use the drawdown of the war to pay for other real spending priorities just digs the deficit hole deeper.”

Let’s look more deeply at the military budget, because it is one of the largest single components of this mind-boggling multi-trillion dollar budget. The president is proposing a “base budget” of $525.4 billion with another $88.5 billion for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Army General Martin Dempsey, who chairs the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress on Tuesday that the Chiefs love the president’s proposed cuts (it was, after all, Valentine’s Day). Dempsey explained to lawmakers that the proposed budget “will not lead to a military in decline. Rather, this budget will maintain our military’s decisive edge and help sustain America’s global leadership.” The budget includes proposals to pare down personnel in all of the armed forces (alongside increases in pay and health benefits), cut procurement of big ticket weapons systems, and begin a new round of military base closings.

Despite these four-star assurances, a lot of hands are wringing and the histrionics are high about these plans. In my neck of the woods, where the Groton-based Electric Boat is kicking out two Virginia Class submarines for 2012 at a cost of about $2 billion per sub. The president’s budget retains the two-submarine assembly line for 2013, but would decrease it to one for 2014. This is the kind of thing that everyone—okay, Connecticut lawmakers—is getting hysterical about. Why? Jobs, of course. The sub program supports about 5,000 jobs at the Groton plant. Senators Joe Lieberman and Joe Courtney, with Representative Sidney Blumenthal, issued a joint statement the day the budget was released, which reads in part:

We are concerned about the impact this change could have on the industrial base and our submarine force structure in the years ahead, and look forward to working with our colleagues and the Navy to find an alternative that could address this short-sighted move.

It is one of the masterful strokes of the military-industrial complex that Electric Boat’s parent, General Dynamics (stock price at $70.42, up .37 at the close of business on Friday), doesn’t even have to ask for statements like this or foment the attendant hue and cry from labor and local representatives. The system defends itself. And the big rationale is not national security or military utility, but job security. While building $2 billion submarines does generate economic activity, tying the fate of a community to outdated, outmoded and increasingly irrelevant weapons systems is not a solid plan for a healthy, functional and sustainable economy.

My former colleague and still mentor William D. Hartung of the Center for International Policy points out as much in a recent op-ed in The Sacramento Bee, writing:

As a recent study by economists at the University of Massachusetts has documented, military spending is a particularly poor job creator. Virtually any other use of the same funds, from a tax cut to education spending, creates more employment than Pentagon outlays. In an era of deficit reduction, every dollar we spend on the Pentagon comes at the expense of a dollar for education, or infrastructure, or energy research, or essential state and local government services. That means that unnecessary military spending can result in a net loss of jobs nationwide. Even after taking into account the adjustments proposed by the administration, we are slated to spend well in excess of $5 trillion on the Pentagon over the next decade. Spending on that scale imposes huge opportunity costs.

So, you say, this is all very interesting, but can she bring it all back to Whitney Houston? No, not really. But Houston was a riveting and gifted performer who fell hard. Rest in peace, Whitney. The rest of us? We have our work cut out for us if we want a federal budget that reflects our priorities and not the priorities of the Electric Boats, General Dynamics and Joe Liebermans of this country.

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