Time for a new peace dividend

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After the Cold War, defense spending declined by 28.5 percent in real terms. And we ended the 1990s with a strong economy and a federal surplus. However, between 2000 and 2012, post-Cold War savings were reversed. Pentagon spending increased by 38 percent, which amounts to $250 billion in real terms. And this figure doesn't even include increased defense-related funding for programs within the Department of Homeland Security.

Although fighting terrorism has been the rationale for the boost in military spending, a relatively small part of the Pentagon's budget is devoted specifically to counter-terrorism. We continue to spend at historically high levels because the military establishment is fixated on the big wars and the threats of the past. Even with sequestration, the Pentagon budget still exceeds the average level of the Cold War era. While those on the left and the right subscribe to different economic theories, most agree that as long as our defenses are strong, there are more productive ways to use our resources than excessive military spending. Conservative economists might model high-growth scenarios where the peace dividend is reinvested in tax cuts. Liberal economists might model a scenario that emphasizes public investment in health, education, and economic infrastructure. Either way, additional Pentagon budget cuts beyond sequestration levels would serve the goal of restoring growth while reducing debt.

The Pentagon establishment often argues that defense spending creates jobs. However, dollar-for-dollar, fewer jobs are created by Pentagon spending than any other type of government expenditure. At any rate, it demeans national security to consider defense spending as a pork-barrel jobs program. It is bad policy to fund the Pentagon for anything other than its true purpose, which is to deter threats and protect our nation and our people. Spending more than is needed for that end is a misuse of scarce resources.

The modest defense sequestration cuts amounts to the smallest post-war reduction in more than 60 years. It's less than after Korea, Vietnam, or the Cold War. Today's economic challenges require us to seek additional savings. And our security situation allows us to do so.

We can and must do what we failed to do after the Cold War: streamline our exceptionally large military infrastructure and administration.

We can and must reduce our investments in nuclear weapons. Current arsenals substantially exceed the needs of deterrence. Finally, we can significantly reduce the numbers of military personnel and assets that we routinely keep or rotate overseas. This would allow a smaller military with savings in all areas of Pentagon expenditure - personnel, equipment, bases, and operations.

We can do these things and still maintain the most powerful military in the world. The gap between us and others is that great. In fact, we and our allies presently outspend potential adversary nations by a factor of four-to-one. What we cannot do is put our future power and stability at risk by allocating more than is needed to the military today.

Polis serves on the House Rules Committee and the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee.
 

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