- - Thursday, September 12, 2019

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste,” a political adage in its most recent iteration attributed to former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel, long predated the Obama administration and will continue as long as politics exists. Times of crisis, whether natural or man-made, will always make it easier to pass previously unacceptable policies either as a remedy to the crisis or to little fanfare while the public is distracted by tragedy or chaos. 

Cynics, perhaps rightly, point to the invasion of Iraq following the September 11, 2001, attacks or the regulation of the financial sector after the 2008 recession as sinister examples of this tactic. But seizing on a crisis often takes a more innocuous form, especially when the policies are sincerely promoted to help solve a crisis or prevent a future one. That is the mindset behind the advocacy of increased military spending — or even war — to stimulate American businesses and insulate communities from economic downturn. 

Like many Americans, I was taught that our economy was only pulled out of the Great Depression by our entrance into World War II. This is a simplistic and narrow view of history that has been rejected by many economists, but it is still widely believed. (Even if there were any truth in the argument, the United States did not enter the war to stimulate economic activity but to retaliate for attacks on Pearl Harbor and a declaration of war by Nazi Germany.) 

Unfortunately, this economic fallacy is not isolated to the history books.  

Maintaining a military obviously creates jobs, not just for the men and women in uniform but those supporting the military with everything from bullets and bombs to food and health care. But anyone professing fiscal conservatism should oppose military spending as a long-term economic enabler on the same grounds as they dispute that domestic spending increases generates economic growth

Another old political adage is that “all politics is local,” and the pressure on members of Congress in both parties to increase military spending every year is driven in no small part by the lobbying in their districts. Communities with military bases or suppliers do not want to lose the money they bring. A running joke on Capitol Hill is that defense contractors build into their business strategies a need to spread facilities and supplier bases across as widespread a footprint as possible to maximize the number of legislators they can impact. 

Such pressure only increases during times of economic stress. Government jobs and government-supporting businesses pay well and are seen to be less vulnerable to market fluctuations than private-sector jobs. Communities with a high proportion of government jobs are viewed as “recession-proof” and therefore desirable, despite other economic problems that stem from being heavily reliant on the federal dole. 

While President Trump has criticized some defense programs, like the F-35 for being overbudget and off-schedule, his budget plans show no signs of putting monetary pressure on the Pentagon to become more efficient. Neither is his administration incentivizing any serious cost-cutting measures across the military or defense industry. The defense budget only increases regardless of what party is in power or the economic climate.

And with indicators in the second half of 2019 showing signs of an impending economic slowdown — and an election a little more than a year away — the appeal of juicing up the defense budget to placate worried constituents could become even more appealing for Congress and the president alike. Worse yet, if the economy does go into recession before the 2020 election, military action overseas could be an attractive idea for politicians looking to deflect the public’s attention from domestic problems. Washington is not above using military spending to artificially manipulate the economy or diversionary foreign policy to distract from troubles at home, especially in this Machiavellian political climate. 

A better long-term solution for the U.S. economy and taxpayers is to strategically reduce Pentagon spending to make our military better suited to the defense needs of today. The bloated Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget, which has turned into a massive slush fund since the war on terrorism started, needs particular scrutiny. Such action could help the economy as well our security: U.S. history shows military budget reductions do not correlate with negative economic performance and have often preceded significant economic growth. 

Political leaders should resist the siren song of military spending for false promises of economic boon in the coming months. It neither provides sustainable economic benefits nor helps us identify and address real national security concerns. 

• Robert Moore, a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities Inc., was the lead staffer for Sen. Mike Lee on the Senate Armed Services Committee, providing advice on foreign policy, intelligence and homeland security. 

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