Will the Pentagon kill the golden goose?
The United States is the world's wealthiest nation, with a gross national product (GNP) nearing $2.5 trillion. President Carter's military budget calls for 1981 outlays of $150.5 billion, and Congress wants a further increase.
The Pentagon's main argument in support of this huge budget request is the relationship between these numbers. Even at $157 billion, the military budget would amount to only 6.3 percent of the GNP. Ergo, the Pentagon concludes, we can easily afford it. Time magazine, using slightly outdated figures, tells us that "social spending is now the largest item in the national budget, amounting to $423.8 billion this year as compared with $145.1 billion for defense."
These are comforting ideas. We are evidently a fat, prosperous, pleasure-seeking society that needs only to cut back on a few luxuries -- like the lavish "social spending" cited by Time -- in order to pay for a big expansion in our military power.
Would that it were so. While the numbers cited above have some basis in fact , a careful look at the United States economy as it is currently functioning tells a much different story.
Beneath the shining surface of the GNP figures lies an ugly reality: The US economy is in shambles. The basic industries which once catapulted America into the number one economic position are losing ground rapidly to foreign competitors. While our government bemoans our dependence on imported oil, a resource whose supply is limited by nature, its economic policies have made us "dependent" on imported automobiles, television sets, shoes, hi-fis, steel, and clothing, all of which we once supplied for ourselves. Although some profits have accrued to US corporations operating abroad, the losses in jobs and income from America's industrial decline have been enormous. The February foreign trade deficit of $5.6 billion was the worst in our history.
The theory that the US private sector is vigorous and successful without government assistance or coordination is rapidly being destroyed by a fact: Those capitalist democracies that give top priority of their civilian manufacturing industries are crowding American products out of world markets.
America is a nation in serious economic difficulty, barely able to support its current defense expenditures, and in real danger of collapse if that burden is substantially increased.
The measure of a nation's potential military strength is the size of its economic surplus. What we don't need to live on is what we can spend for defense. Before any resources can be used for national defense, the economy must provide the necessities of life for all its people. Before they can fire a rifle, sail a ship, or fly a plane, the men and women in the armed forces must have food, shelter, clothing, and the other amenities of modern life.
It is the crucial relationship between civilian economic base and military expenditures that is now being threatened by the hawks in Congress. Ignoring direct evidence of serious economic crisis all around them, they focus on the abstraction called GNP as proof that a bigger military budget is easily affordale.
Many people are unaware of the fact that military spending is automatically counted as GNP; the more we spend on the Pentagon, the bigger our GNP. Obviously we can't improve our personal economic circumstances by spending more for defense, but we can increase the GNP.
As for the mythical growth of "social spending," most of it is in federal programs that pay for themselves through special contributions -- social security, medicare, unemployment compensation. They don't come out of our income taxes and they don't compete for defense dollars.
The raw political power of the military industry lobby in Washington is awesome. Presidential candidates are afraid of being labeled "soft on defense," a code phrase for unwillingness to give the Pentagon more money. Jimmy Carter -- the candidate who called for a $5 billion to $7 billion cut in military spending -- has increased real militaryspending in every one of his three years in office, and now seeks the biggest boost of all for 1981.
From World War II through the early sixties, the US economy was indeed a golden goose, bringing rapid improvement in the standard of living andm the military power required to fight in Korea and Vietnam. By the late sixties, however, it became apparent that our ambitions were outrunning our resources.
In the new era of limits, there is no free ride for the defense establishment. Anym increase is the Pentagon budget will bring a proportional decrease in the general welfare, as the beneficiaries of federal social programs are already learning. An increase big enough to satisfy Congress's hawks could kill the golden goose.