I am not a military expert. But, as a businessman and a citizen, I know when common sense is being violated. Current levels of military spending violate common sense. Consider the new defense authorization bill: It gives the Pentagon more than $256 billion - about $11 billion more than it asked for.
Recently I joined with three dozen of my colleagues in the business world to express my opposition to such military spending. We have formed Business Leaders for New Priorities, a coalition to promote public awareness of federal priorities and call on elected leaders to stop the Pentagon buying spree.
President Clinton has stated that the new military increase will force damaging cuts in education, training, and other domestic programs. Since he nevertheless signed the bill, we citizens have to stand up and call our government to account.
We are spending more now than Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford found necessary in the cold war years of the mid-1970s. Yet the cold war is over, the Soviet Union is no more. The Russians have cut their military spending by some 80 percent. We are now spending about 40 percent of the world's military budget. No wonder experts like former Reagan defense planner Lawrence Korb argue that we could save up to $40 billion a year and still maintain the most powerful military in the world.
We must keep the pressure on the Pentagon, the most costly bureaucracy in the world. For over 40 years, the cold war emergency screened the Pentagon from serious oversight. Now the General Accounting Office (GAO) reports that, because of the absence of "rudimentary bookkeeping," no branch of the armed services can be audited. The Pentagon's inspector-general just wrote off $15 billion that was expended without adequate records to show what was paid for.
The GAO reports that the Pentagon has stockpiled some $31 billion in excess ammunition, including $9 billion that is literally useless. The only way to get a bureaucracy like this to make necessary reforms is to keep the lid on spending so the services must put attention on efficiency and make difficult internal choices.
Every business manager faces tough decisions on how to spend scarce resources. A commitment to develop one product means resources are not available for others. Those are the choices that can make or break a company. The same is true of nations.
We are a rich country, but our resources are limited. Getting federal deficits under control has now forced a strict lid on discretionary spending. Every excess dollar spent on the Pentagon must be cut from a domestic program.
The results are clear. Over the next six years, Pentagon spending is slated to rise, while domestic programs are facing cuts of about 25 percent.Common sense? No.
We already have the most powerful military in the world by far. Yet many schools are failing our children. University education - so vital to our future - is being priced out of the reach of working families. Student aid for higher education is being slashed.
One in 4 children is born into poverty, yet we do less than most other industrial nations to ensure that they get the healthy start that is vital to making them contributors to, rather than burdens on, our country.
Some justify spending wildly on the military by saying that you can never spend too much on defense. If you spend too little, they argue, the nation's survival may be at stake.
This may sound good, but to a businessman it doesn't really make sense in the world in which we live. We are paying - as even Republican leader Newt Gingrich says - far more than we need to defend ourselves. At the same time, we are starving programs vital to our society and our economy - education and training, health care and nutrition for children, efficient roads and fast trains, air we can breathe and water we can drink.
How can we say our security is served if America polices the world but cannot police its own streets? From Rome to Russia, powerful nations have disintegrated not from external military defeat but from internal economic and social decay.
Some say the military is a smaller portion of our budget and our economy than it has been for years. Sure, we can "afford" a military of this size. But if we are to balance the budget and not raise taxes, choices have to be made. At a time when the US has no global rival, it surely makes sense to turn our attention to long unmet needs at home, and reduce our spending on policing the far comers of the globe.
Why does Congress give the Pentagon extra money under these conditions? The answer is simple: Pentagon contractors ply members of armed services committees with massive PAC contributions. The Pentagon provides legislators with pork-barrel spending. The legislators brag about all the jobs they have saved, while not being held to account for those that are lost as deep cuts in domestic programs go forward.
This does not make sense. We need a major national debate about our priorities. But, at this point, priorities are not an issue in the presidential campaign or in many congressional races. It is up to citizens to speak out - to tell their legislators to take a hard look at spending at the Pentagon, instead of throwing more money at it than it asks for.
*Ted Williams is the president of Bell Industries Inc., the seventh largest wholesale electronics distributor in the US, headquartered in Los Angeles.