Trump’s exercise in fantasy budgeting

At one point, there were something like 1,000 installations in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, from bases large enough to be small American towns to tiny combat outposts.  In 2015, there were at least 800 significant U.S. bases in foreign countries (and more small camps and places where U.S. military equipment was pre-positioned for future use).  No great power, not even Britain at its imperial height, had ever had such a global military “footprint,” such an “empire of bases,” and yet in this country it was as if no one noticed, as if it were of no importance at all.

Let’s start with a baseline look at the Pentagon’s finances at this moment.  At $600 billion-plus per year, the government is already spending more money on the Pentagon than it did at the peak of the massive military buildup President Ronald Reagan initiated in the 1980s.  In fact, despite what you might imagine, the Obama administration has pumped more tax dollars into the military in its two terms than did George W. Bush. According to the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, the U.S. currently spends four times what China does and 10 times what the Russians sink into their military.

Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates that, if Trump faithfully follows the Heritage Foundation’s proposal, he could add more than $900 billion to the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade. Trump asserts that he would counterbalance this spending splurge with corresponding cuts in government waste but has as yet offered no credible plan for doing so (because, of course, there isn’t one).

You won’t be surprised to learn, then, that the defense industry, always sensitive to the vibes of presidential candidates, has been popping the champagne corks in the wake of Trump’s victory.  The prospects are clear: a new Pentagon spending binge is on the horizon. …

Nor will Trump’s incipient infatuation with Pentagon spending do much for members of his working class base who have been left behind economically as traditional manufacturing employment has waned.  In fact, Pentagon spending is one of the worst possible ways of creating jobs.  Much of the money goes to service contractors, arms industry executives, and defense consultants (also known as “Beltway bandits”), and what does go into the actual building of weapons systems underwrites a relatively small number of manufactured items, at least when compared to mass production industries like automobiles or steel.

In addition, such spending is the definition of an economic dead end.  If you put taxpayer money into education or infrastructure, you lay the foundations for further growth.  If you spend money on an F-35 fighter plane, you get… well, an overpriced F-35. A study by economists at the University of Massachusetts indicates that infrastructure spending creates one and one-half times the number of jobs per dollar invested as money lavished on the Pentagon.  If Trump really wants to create jobs for his base, he should obviously pursue infrastructure investment rather than dumping vast sums into weapons the country doesn’t actually need at prices it can’t afford.

Tomgram: William Hartung, Trump for the Defense