Guns Versus Butter -- Our Real Economic Challenge

Guns versus butter. It's the classic debate that really tells us a lot about our priorities that we set for the kind of society we can expect to live in -- how much money a country spends on the military versus how much money is expended on non-military, domestic needs. To perhaps explain the obvious, buying a gun (or missile defense or a sophisticated bomber) means you don't have those dollars for butter (or a national health care plan or free college education).

At some basic level, we all know that those tradeoffs exist but, sometimes, numbers bring home the meaning of this equation in stunning fashion. What made me think of this is a set of revealing numbers that jumped out at me the other day -- numbers that underscore why there is, in my opinion, something lacking in the message of most of the Democratic presidential candidates and our party's leadership.

The numbers come from an article in the June 30th edition of the well-known left-wing magazine, The Economist entitled "The Hobbled Hegemon." The theme of the article is that, surprise, the Iraq war and occupation have weakened the U.S. militarily but, The Economist reassures its readers, "America is likely to remain the dominant superpower." What struck me in the lengthy piece were three pie charts.

The first chart details what major countries spent on defense in 2006, as a percentage of the total worldwide defense expenditures of $1.2 trillion (which, on its own, is a staggering figure):


U.S.: 45.7 percent
China: 4.3 percent
Japan: 3.8 percent
India: 2.1 percent
Rest of the world: 28.3 percent

The second chart measures world gross domestic product (GDP), as a percentage of the total of $48.2 trillion in 2006:


U.S.: 27.5 percent
China: 5.5 percent
Japan: 9.1 percent
India: 1.8 percent
Rest of the world: 38.6 percent

Finally, the third chart lays out world population shares, of the total of 6.5 billion people:

U.S. 4.6 percent
China: 20.2 percent
Japan: 2 percent
India: 17.4 percent
Rest of the world: 50.5 percent

So, what are some of the lessons from those numbers? If you want some solid explanation to explain why our country is in trouble in foreign policy, why 47 million Americans lack health care and why we don't have money to do basic infrastructure upkeep on road, bridges, water mains and our energy system, these numbers tell a lot.

Though our country shells out almost half of the money spent worldwide on war-fighting (and, I would add, our defense industry supplies the lion's share of the stuff that the rest of the countries buy), we account for only a little bit more than a quarter of the world's GDP. That is, our share of military spending as a percent of the whole in the world is about twice our share of GDP as a whole (which, obviously, also includes military spending -- which is counted as economic activity). China's GDP, on the other hand, is larger as a percent of the whole than its share of military spending.

Or take Japan. With a tiny population, its GDP as a share of its piece of the world pie is almost three times the amount it spends on the military as a share of the world's outlays. Anyway, you get the picture -- it's pretty crystal clear.

I suppose one view of this could be that the U.S. plays an important role as the world's "cop" and steps up to the plate more than the rest of the world. That would certainly be the view of Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Mitt Romney and the impeachable leaders in the White House.

My own view is that if we want to truly have a different image in the world, part of the road to reach that goal is to stop invading or occupying countries, or maintaining a large and growing military force throughout the world. In foreign policy and domestic policy, most of the world would like the U.S. to stay away and, at the very least, do no harm. My belief, expressed much more eloquently by many analysts and thinkers around the world, is that the threats to the U.S. are enhanced, not eliminated, by our military posture around the world -- and that analysis predates the Iraq catastrophe.

What is troubling is that the prevailing view in the Democratic Party too often supports the idea that our country's problem is that the military is not big enough. There continues to be a strong sentiment in our party that "national defense" means larger and larger budgets for the Pentagon, that the threats to the U.S. in foreign policy require building an even larger military and that to be seen as "patriotic" the party has to be seen as a chest-thumping, flag-waving promoter of ever-rising military budgets.

I believe, with the exception of Dennis Kucinich, no one is questioning the size of the military. Barack Obama, for example, calls for a new foreign policy yet, at the same, wants to expand the military:

Our men and women in uniform are performing heroically around the world in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable. But the war in Afghanistan and the ill-advised invasion of Iraq have clearly demonstrated the consequences of underestimating the number of troops required to fight two wars and defend our homeland. That's why I strongly support the expansion of our ground forces by adding 65,000 soldiers to the Army and 27,000 Marines.

I am neither urging support for Rep. Kucinich nor singling out Sen. Obama because he is not alone; Sen. Clinton also wants to dramatically expand the defense budget and the number of people serving in the military. The point is: why is Obama -- along with most other party leaders -- unwilling to question the basic premise that the U.S. should have a posture of having to prepare to fight two wars? And what does it really mean to "defend our homeland?"

What's interesting is that, politically, the public is ready to significantly cut military spending and reduce the size of the military. The Project on Defense Alternatives pointed this out recently, citing a March 2007 Gallup Poll :

For the first time since the mid-1990s, a plurality of Americans said that the country was spending too much. The surprising result of the survey shows current public attitudes to approximate those that prevailed in March 1993, shortly after former President Bill Clinton took office. Today, 43 percent of Americans say that the country is spending "too much" on the military, while 20 percent say "too little". In 1993, the balance of opinion was 42 percent saying "too much" and 17 percent saying "too little."

But, sadly, the Project also correctly says our political leaders are behind the times:

What makes this result especially surprising is that few leaders in Congress and no one in the administration today argues that the United States can or should reduce military spending. Quite the contrary: leaders of both parties seem eager to add to the Pentagon's coffers, even as public anti-war sentiment builds.

And the media is only fanning the continued build-up in military spending:

And Congress is not the only institution that appears insensitive to the shift in public opinion. The Gallup survey also drew little attention from the news media. Indeed, a Lexis-Nexis database search shows almost no coverage of the poll, which was released on 02 March 2007.

There are a variety of proposals circulating that would significantly reduce the military budget, from the relatively modest cuts proposed by Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities or Foreign Policy in Focus to the National Priorities Project which looks more deeply at the question of military spending (you can, for example, see how your state would benefit from a different definition of homeland security and find a whole set of helpful links).

So, at this point, count me as one voter who is not impressed with our party's foreign policy vision. Our party's vision should not be judged by the low standard that it is simply better than the Bush administration. That is effectively saying we can do better than a bunch of incompetent, dangerous ideologues. What we should be arguing for is a foreign policy that completely resets the framework and jettisons several generations of a strategy that has bankrupted us both morally and economically.