Thursday, March 13, 2014

Robert Samuelson's Fudgy Numbers

You can count on two things from Robert Samuelson: Arguments that any amount of social spending is too much, and arguments that any amount of military spending is too low. I say that while accepting that there may be some social spending programs that Samuelson would maintain at present levels, or perhaps even expand, and some military programs that he might cut, but he's not interested in writing about those issues. In a big picture sense, he dislikes social spending, while depicting military and war spending as easily afforded pocket change.

It thus comes as no surprise that Samuelson is adamantly opposed to the proposed cuts to the Pentagon budget and the size and scope of the U.S. military. Predictably, his outrage is expressed largely in the abstract, and he chooses to completely ignore the issues of waste or of out-dated or redundant weapons programs. Instead he presents dubious arguments and fudges the numbers. It's difficult to believe that he could hold a straight face while writing his opening paragraph:
The crisis in Ukraine reminds us that the future is unpredictable, that wars routinely involve miscalculation and that brute force — boots on the ground, bombs in the air — counts. None of these obvious lessons seems to have made much impression in Washington, where the Obama administration and Congress continue their policy of defunding defense and reducing the United States’ military power.
I would love for Samuelson to explain to his readers how much additional U.S. military spending it would take to deter Russia from acting in what it perceives to be its best interest, and exactly how that spending would have an impact on Putin's decision-making. The issue is not that we can't counter Russia in a conventional war. The issue is that Russia is a nuclear power, and even if a war to liberate Crimea were somehow (magically) contained to that region and did not involve nuclear weapons, the human cost of such a war would be massive. Samuelson is more than smart enough to know that a $400 trillion U.S. military budget would not have deterred Russia. What does it tell us that his opening position suggests otherwise?

Next up, Samuelson whines that as military spending drops, Social Security spending increases. First, as should be obvious to anybody who claims to be a writer on economic issues, the two are not related. It is possible to have both high Social Security spending and high military spending. Second, the funding mechanisms are different. Social Security is designed to be self-funding. But for Republican obstructionism, as cheered on by the "Burn it down" position taken by Beltway pundits such as Samuelson, we would almost certainly have seen a reform bill pass early in Obama's tenure that would have reduced the measure of inflation for future Social Security benefits and balanced the books into the very distant future. Third, if Samuelson can do math, he knows that Social Security and Medicare spending are closely tied to the number of elderly people in our society, and he should have no trouble figuring out that the problem is not so much that the spending is "out of control" as it is that Baby Boomers are reaching retirement age. Fourth, the reasons to maintain Social Security and Medicare have absolutely nothing to do with the reasons our nation might have to modify its defense budget.

Samuelson next claims that there are two reasons why the U.S. has a military: to deter conflicts and to defend national interests. On the issue of deterrence, Samuelson argues that any large military budget cuts "symbolically undermines deterrence." What a wonderfully convenient argument for him: We can never make more than token cuts to the military, as to do so would send the message to the world that they can engage in military conflicts. Perhaps Samuelson is still clinging to the false hope that the end of the Cold War somehow meant an end to war, as it's difficult to find a region in the world where nations seem particularly disinclined to engage in warfare when they believe it's in their best interest. One wonders, what military conflict does Samuelson believe the U.S. is presently deterring (perhaps a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or a North Korean invasion of South Korea?) and why does he imagine that the military cuts will even slightly affect deterrence.

The best examples Samuelson can muster are of China and Iran:
The United States’ military retrenchment won’t make China’s leaders less ambitious globally. (China plans a 12 percent increase in military spending for 2014; at that pace, spending would double in six years.) Nor will it dampen Iran’s aggressiveness and promote a negotiated settlement over its nuclear program. Probably the reverse. Diplomacy often fails unless backed by a credible threat of force.
If the best examples Samuelson can muster are that, if military spending is cut, China may go on an invasion spree and Iran will... do whatever it is that Samuelson imagines that they would do differently... you can see the weakness of his position. When you describe the current military actions taken by China, how can you suggest that those actions would be deterred if only we didn't reduce military spending from current levels? As for the notion that the U.S. would lack credibility to pose a military threat to Iran, post-cuts, that's absurd on its face. It's another assertion that Samuelson can't possibly believe.

Samuelson mentions that China is increasing its military spending by 12%, to support a ridiculous projection that at that rate they could double military spending in six years. His source tells us what such a theoretical doubling would mean:
Although the rise in the defense budget in the past three years has surpassed GDP growth, the share of military spending in China's GDP stood at less than 1.5 percent last year, well below the world average of 3 percent, Yin said, citing statistics.
A report released by London's International Institute for Strategic Studies showed the United States remained the world's biggest defense spender in 2013, with a budget of 600.4 billion U.S. dollars.
Robert Samuelson has been beating the military spending drum for a very long time. Back in 1997, he was complaining that 1996 military spending was a mere 3.6% of GDP. In 2012, by the CIA's measure, military spending was at 4.35% of GDP. While that number may decrease to 2.7% by 2017, a target that was included in the 2013 bipartisan budget deal, U.S. military spending would continue to massively exceed China's expenditure.

Samuelson's drum beating about China also belies his suggestion that military strength is inexorably tied to the percentage of GDP a nation devotes to military spending. He's depicting a nation that spends a mere 1.5% of its GDP on its military as the leading threat to the world military dominance of the United States. That should suggest a few things to Samuelson, including the possibility that the fact that the size of a nation's economy factors complicates the question of how military spending should be measured and that, even in relation to his beloved military spending, the law of diminishing returns comes into play.

Samuelson also glosses over the fact that nations enjoy a carry-over from past military spending. It's not the present level of investment that frees Russia to support Syria, or act military in nations like Georgia, Czechoslovakia and Chechnya. It's the legacy of its superpower status and its nuclear arsenal. Russia may not have the power it once held to project its might into the far reaches of the globe, but it has made clear that it can and will act to defend its perceived interests no matter what the rest of the world may believe. In other words, despite Samuelson's ominous warnings, there's no reason to believe that the proposed budget cuts would devastate the status of the U.S. military as the world's leading military power, or the status of the U.S. as the world's only remaining superpower.
Russia’s aggression in Ukraine raises the prospect that a sizable number of U.S. troops might be stationed in the Baltic nations or Poland. All belong to NATO; all must now feel more threatened by Russia.
While noting that this is fear-mongering of the worst kind, and that Russia understands the difference between acting against a NATO member state and a non-aligned state, once again if that threat is being felt the feeling is occurring at the end of a long run-up in military spending. If current spending levels aren't sufficient to keep nations from being afraid of Russia, then there's really nothing that we can do to make that fear go away.

A question Samuelson doesn't ask, let alone address, is whether it's even our nation's proper role to try to ensure that nations that are not our treaty partners are not in fear of military action by a neighboring nation. Samuelson seems to love the idea of the U.S. as a global policeman, no matter what the price, but I see little sign on whether he's reflected on whether that's an appropriate role for the U.S., or whether other nations should take a greater role in paying for and providing their own regional security. If it's crucial to Europe that the Baltic States never fear Russia, no matter how remote the possibility of actual military action, why should it be the U.S. that foots most or all of the bill for chasing away the bogeyman? And if Samuelson believes the statement he endorses at the end of his column, "the world has gotten no less dangerous, turbulent or in need of American leadership. There is no obvious peace dividend as was the case at the end of the Cold War", why does he imagine that the bogeyman will vanish even if we continue to spend at today's inflated levels?

It should also be noted that Samuelson plays the game that any cuts in military spending must be permanent. He disregards the fact that every time this nation has felt a need to increase military spending, those increases have occurred. The only budget or spending bill that really matters is the one passed by the current Congress, as the next Congress will remain free to institute its own spending priorities. Samuelson, I suspect, is aware of that fact, but he chooses not to acknowledge it because, as with his other omissions, he understands that once people realize that his rending of clothes over future military spending is a performance, and that if the circumstances require Congress will do what it has always done to maintain the military strength of the United States -- increase military spending.

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