In Defense of Defense Spending

I am not a fan of pointless contrarianism. So, this isn’t a post meant for vomiting up a bunch of sentences that begin with “actually…” around your liberal friends so that you can try and  prove your private school education really was worth it. But, see, I am also not a fan of pointless tropes. They are two of a kind and I dislike both.

And for a long time, you’ve seen bumper stickers like wondering when the air force will have to hold a bake sale for a bomber and a school will get all the books it wants. The whole idea is that the economics and politics of these are mutually exclusive. That’s cute, but naive.

It would seem that building a huge military just begs for its use. But that’s not really true. Military strategists from Plato to Napoleon to Clausewitz to today have believed “si vis pacem, para bellum.” In other words, a larger military probably makes war less likely.

A large military isn’t the cause of pointless wars. The most pointless wars in the world are now going on between guerrilla groups with light arms all over Africa and Asia. There are virtually no shooting wars today involving combatants with heavy armor and air forces.

It wasn’t a bunch of idle equipment sitting around that got us into Vietnam, either. We had to draft up hundreds of thousands of men and by the end of the war had an almost entirely different arsenal. Iraq as well was less about the “military industrial complex” than it was about the worldwide oil-based political economy. The sustained and inflation-adjusted increase in oil prices since then has benefited oil companies more than military contractors. Private contractors who provide services to the military for their own profit benefitted as well, but to me that actually argues for more spending on the military. Soldiers should be doing those jobs.

Why? Well, for all of the crying on the left about military recruiting in poor areas, few jobs in the military actually involve actually being shot at. On the other hand, they all involve training, learning how to work with people, and offer decent pay and benefits (including healthcare) which the post-industrial post-union economy is not offering to those same people. Thanks, liberal white totebaggers!! I feel so much safer in my crime ridden ghetto than I do in an air force base in Florida learning how to work on aircraft, on a secure base, with good schools for my kids, and healthcare.

The military provides the jobs that the New Economy does not. More people should be in it, not less. As for defense contractors, they provide exactly the kind of knowledge jobs that we should be striving to create. For every time you read about how many things we use in our daily lives were invented by the Apollo project so therefore NASA is a good investment. I agree. But a lot of things invented for military use also make it into our daily lives as well. So, that’s not an argument. Also, a lot of these engineers that hone their skills there go on to do things that don’t involve war. Also, they spend money they earn and put it into the economy like everyone else. If you’re tired of knowledge worker jobs getting offshored, please consider that defense is one thing we are less likely to offshore for security reasons.

So, everyone wins, right? More spending on putting soldiers in the military provides a potential legup into the middle class for many and a securing footing in it is provided by those who can work for the better engineering firms.

But couldn’t we spend all that dough on education? Sure. That would be great, but that’s not what happens. The government doesn’t say, “we’re going to spend $1T this year, now let’s cut it up.” There are separate appropriations bills (11 to be exact). Some things get more than others. When it’s time to cut, it’s unlikely that reducing defense by $1B means $1B more for education. What it likely means is $1B less spent into the economy, which is bad when unemployment is this high.

There is a simple litmus test for being a liberal: does what you’re doing benefit the lives of the most people? Most people need good paying jobs. So, a shorter version is: is this good for workers? Sometimes, you have to get into balancing tests: does shutting the polluting factory outweigh the well being of its workers? If it means they are all in serious danger, then yes. But for some grand vision like “world peace” (which we are not, unfortunately, even on the verge of) just to feed good jobs to the idea? That’s not good for the middle class. It’s good for totebaggers feeling better, but it’s not better for the family down the street with the American car.

If you’re in a depressed economy with otherwise responsible leaders, there is no spending you want to cut. Not right now. And even in better times, it’s hard to conceive of any magic pony plan that will convert all of our defense budget into the schools. This mentality is part of the whole disease of contemporary liberalism. We ask “why are they getting more?” instead of “why are we getting less?” The latter is more apt when there is so much plenty to go around. Fund both. Neither the air force nor the schools should need a bake sale. That one has the political power to make that so isn’t caused by the other.

The entire reason the Democratic Party was feckless and lame for most of our lives was that they did not following this formula, abandoned labor and decided that identity politics, pacifism, and other single issues like “environmentalism”  (with no specific reference to which policies) all of which are easily traduced into NIMBY self-parodies when they lose reference to the 99% and become applause lines for dogooderism at Wall Street fundraisers. Thanks, McGovern commission. Thanks, DLC.

And it will go straight back there even given this alleged insurmountable demographic wave if it does that again. Women, Latinos, and Blacks want good jobs too.

3 thoughts on “In Defense of Defense Spending”

  1. This post isn’t “pointless contrarianism,” but I respectfully submit that it’s contrarianism nonetheless. There is a direct connection to be drawn between this blog post and the one that follows it, a connection that I shall proceed to elucidate.

    Call me a totebagger if you wish, but “the crying on the left” that I hear isn’t because those recruited from poor areas are somehow being taken advantage of — no, they’ve gamed it out like good little Homo Economicii, and made their choice exactly according to the logic of this post (and it is a logical argument, so far as it goes). Obviously, the choice between flipping burgers for minimum wage and “Being All You Can Be” is no choice at all.

    The cry from the left is that, if a third option existed between poverty and military service, a whole lot of people would probably rather NOT be a faceless cog in an imperial war machine, thank you very much, even if they knew they could do it without ever getting shot at. Now what was that about the relentless campaign to destroy the working class again? And what does that have to do with the existence of so many “poor areas” for the military to draw its recruits from? Could there be some type of cause-and-effect relationship at work here?

    You see, while you correctly note that a dollar from our Uncle Sam may spend just as green as any other, I’d like to remind you of what George Orwell correctly observed in “1984” (Part 2, Ch.9 to be specific):

    “The problem was how to keep the wheels of industry turning without increasing the real wealth of the world. Goods must be produced, but they must not be distributed. And in practice the only way of achieving this was by continuous warfare… The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour. … Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed.”

    So yes, defense spending does create jobs, and it may even be be the best option for job creation available in our present, dysfunctional political environment… So, as you say, that leads us to a balancing test…. but not between moral absolutism and utilitarianism. Just as in your example of the polluting factory, the balance has to be struck between short-term benefits and long-term costs, and we need to be clear about what those costs are.

    On the issue of defense spending, then, the long-term cost to be weighed isn’t any grand vision of world peace… That’s the moral absolute, and very moral it is, too. The real long-term cost of defense spending is that it allows the State – indeed, encourages it – to *subsidize the destruction of the working class.* Or, to quote again from Orwell’s magnum opus: In principle the war effort is always so planned as to eat up any surplus that might exist after meeting the bare needs of the population. In practice the needs of the population are always underestimated, with the result that there is a chronic shortage of half the necessities of life; but this is looked on as an advantage.”

    There is an old joke that “1984” was meant to be a warning and not an instruction manual… FDR may originally have created a “war economy” to prevent riots and/or starvation caused by an economic depression, but at some point during the Reagan years, The Powers That Be realized they could *create* an economic depression, then use the (pre-existing, and by “our” 1984, well on its way to continuous) war economy to obviate the riots and/or starvation that might otherwise have resulted. Your contrarian argument is merely a description of the process used. It’s workable, but that doesn’t make it desirable in a utilitarian sense let alone right in an abstract one.


  2. Except the devil is in the details: if you aren’t restricted by a surplus (i.e. you spend with deficits when available) and you are putting that money into the economy instead of encouraging hoarding and saving, you are making things better for workers and debtors.

    The stereotypical left complaint does not focus on the economics. It focuses on (1) absolute pacifism and (2) a liberal but white-elite view of economic racism and (3) the idea that more military means more war, which is untrue.

    I’d love to live in a world where none of this mattered, but the point that this is probably the best we can do is about as far as my reply really needs to go.


  3. P.S. Yes, it’s “contrarian” in the sense that I’m taking a dump on classic liberal tropes. But it’s not pointless in that I didn’t just generate it for the sake of taking that dump, or because I want to be seen as “smart” or because I want to show how independent or fair and balanced I am.

    I actually think that doing the best we can do for labor is the font of everything liberal and progressive. It’s sure a lot easier for hard hats to accept their factory closing for an endangered snail if they know they’ll find another equally good job, won’t lose health benefits, have unemployment to bridge the gap and keep their house, etc.

    Driving inequality simply makes us all slaves desperate enough to sell out the common good quicker, cheaper, and with more self-believed glee than would be the case if we were secure.


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