Is This The End of the American Century?

This site features updates, analysis, discussion and comments related to the theme of my book published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2008 (hardbound) and 2009 (paperbound).

The Book

The End of the American Century documents the interrelated dimensions of American social, economic, political and international decline, marking the end of a period of economic affluence and world dominance that began with World War II. The war on terror and the Iraq War exacerbated American domestic weakness and malaise, and its image and stature in the world community. Dynamic economic and political powers like China and the European Union are steadily challenging and eroding US global influence. This global shift will require substantial adjustments for U.S. citizens and leaders alike.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Can We Cut Defense Spending to Pay for Health Care and Education?

I received the following email, from a retired medical school professor, raising the question of budget priorities, and whether we might be able to help pay for health care reform and/or education by reductions in the military budget. My response follows the letter:

Professor Mason:

I've been reading your book, "The End of the American Century," these past
several days and am finding it very readable and informative, albeit a bit
depressing. I'm a biomedical scientist by training and trade (and a fellow
academic and resident of Indianapolis; see below), and am much in need of an
uncomplicated, understandable discussion of economic principles. Your book
meets those criteria very well and I appreciate having it available.

Now to my question. Since retiring from the university, I've enjoyed engaging
in online "discussions" of issues political from time to time. Most
recently, during a discussion of how we might pay for health care reform, I
innocently -- and sincerely -- suggested that we might consider closing a
few of our military bases around the world. I've read Chalmers Johnson's
trilogy on the American empire and am quite sympathetic to the view that
we've way overspent on the military. In any case, my opponent dismissed my
suggestion as naïve and irrelevant by citing government figures
( that military spending--as a percentage of GDP--is a mere 3.7% of GDP and has
actually declined in recent years. His point, of course, which was not
supported by any data, was that domestic social spending far outstrips
military spending. I find this notion preposterous but I'm puzzled by the
data he cited. Should I surmise that the percentage spent on, say,
education, is several times less than 3.7%? Or is this rendering of the data
simply misleading? Can you help me to sort this matter out?

Thanks. I'm sorry to trouble you with this question, but you DID manage to
get me to pick up and read your book...


Lynn R. Willis

Dear Lynn,

Nice to "meet" you and thanks for reading my book, and for the compliment.

On the question of defense spending, it is true that it is a relatively small share of GDP. But in terms of spending priorities--the question you are addressing--I think the more appropriate comparison is defense spending as a proportion of the budget, not the GDP. In the TruthandPolitics page you mentioned, if you scroll down to Graph 2 (Defense Spending as a Percentage of Discretionary Spending), you will see that defense spending is about half of the entire "discretionary" budget of the U.S. government. So defense constitutes more than all other categories COMBINED, and is far more than that spent for education, welfare, etc. "Discretionary" spending refers to those categories that Congress has some authority over, as opposed to "Mandatory" programs (funds already committed) for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Debt Interest, etc.

You can get a better sense of this if you look at a discretionary spending pie chart, or for a more authoritative and detailed source, look at the actual federal budget summary at:

There, you will see (Table S-3) that for 2009, the Defense Department budget is $666 billion, and ALL other programs get only $613 billion. Education (Table S-7), gets a mere $41 billion.

Incidentally, US defense spending also makes up about half of all defense spending in the world, so the U.S. outspends virtually all other countries combined.

So I agree with your point that a small cut in the defense budget could make a huge difference in some of these other programs, including education and health care.


Other comments welcome!

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