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How Big is Big Enough?

June 14, 2011

I recently ran across an article by The Economist online (Jun 8th 2011).  It contained a graph that I found rather shocking.  I consider myself reasonably informed and yet I had found myself wholly uninformed regarding the proportions represented by this graph.  The graph is of the biggest military spenders in the world.  I am a child of the “Cold War”.  I remember those years of “conflict preparedness”.  I remember how military expenditures were represented as necessary to match the aggressive build-up of the Soviet Union.  My impression from that period was that we were near equilibrium with the single threat to our nation.  I know now that was not an entirely accurate perception but that is what I thought.  I provide that caveat because I think that my “cold war” military expenditure mentality may have created an assumption regarding current military expenditures.  That assumption was that we were seeking some of equilibrium with other military spender or some other combination of military spenders.  That is why this graph of the biggest military spenders was so enlightening.  We clearly are not seeking equilibrium with any specific country or combination of countries.  We are seeking to exceed the military expenditures of ALL the major countries of the entire world. 

What conceivable threat would require that the United States spend more than ALL the major countries of the entire world, combined?  We are spending 4.8% of our GDP on the military.  The majority of the other countries are spending approximately half of that amount.  How brilliant is that?  If you are friends with the toughest guy on the block, why do you need to work-out? Why do you need to learn how to defend yourself? You have the toughest guy on the block that is willing to defend you.  That frees you up to spend a lot of your time on other things that are much more profitable.  Japan, the number 3 economy in the world, spends 1% for their GDP on their military.  Germany spends 1.3% of their GDP on their military and they are the number 5 economy in the world. That is brilliant.  They don’t need to spend more because the American people are spending it for them.  All you have to do is let the U.S. have a base in your country and you will save billions of dollars a year.  All you have to do is be friends with the toughest guy on the block. 

I am all in favor of a strong military.  I understand that the consequence of having a strong military is that there will be a lot of military related costs.  I get it.  I support that.  However, the basis of that discussion needs to change.  We should not say that we need a strong military because there is no reference to that statement.  The pentagon can always make the military stronger.  They do not have an incentive to restrain their strength building programs.  Our statement regarding our military should be that it should be stronger than “X”.  The politicians and general can then define what “X” is.  They can define the quantitative threat that we are defending against?  Defined that and then spend appropriately.

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