Why US Military Spending Is Out of Control
The US has a pretty kickass military — that’s why it has the duty of being the world police to maintain order in the world.
Well, that’s what many politicians would have you believe.
But why are the armed forces so massive? How did we get to the point where we spent $610 billion in 2018 on it, almost 3 times as much as the next highest military (China)? (Here’s a hint: it’s not exactly for national defense).
If you want to understand America’s military budget, you have to understand something called the “Military-Industrial Complex.” The short answer is that it’s a system in which industries profit from selling weapons to the government, so they lobby for the government to invest more in the military. This complex is intertwined with our bureaucracy, and its influence is astounding. So let’s dig deeper into why US military spending is so high.
What is the Military-Industrial Complex?
Any Dwight Eisenhower fans might remember this line from President Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell speech:
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.
But what was he talking about?
President Eisenhower explains the influence and the dangers of the military-industrial complex in the post-WW2 era. He gives this warning in his farewell address in 1961.
To understand the relationship between military and industry, let’s go back to the 1930s — the time of the Great Depression. Interestingly enough, what pulled America out of the Depression was World War Two. As America began building up its military again, it enlisted big businesses and factories into building weapons and technology for the state (planes, tanks, ships, etc.). The boost in factory productivity coupled with the rise in factory jobs caused the economy to bounce back rapidly, pulling America out of the Depression.
Fast forward to after WW2 and the Korean War — the late 1950’s, a time of economic prosperity. By this time the government didn’t need its military anymore. However, if it cut spending then there wouldn’t be a need for production of military technology, meaning that many people would have lost their jobs. Businesses also lobbied for the government to keep spending up so that they could continue producing military weapons, keeping their revenues up. Between the people who would be angry about losing jobs and the influence of big business, politicians decided to keep defense spending high.
What followed was a massive increase in military spending. In 1949 military spending increased 13-fold from the previous year, and those numbers continued to skyrocket. In fact, it could even be argued that America building up its arsenals made the USSR more nervous and encouraged them to build up their arsenals, increasing the tensions of the Cold War. But that’s just a conjecture, so take that argument with a grain of salt.
This trend has led to today’s conditions — all 50 states have military jobs, US military spending is around 38% of world military spending, and companies are making billions off of defense spending.
The Companies Involved in the Military-Industrial Complex
As I said, big business that sell military technology to the government have great influence over US military spending. These companies spend millions of dollars in campaign donations and hire hundreds of lobbyists to influence politicians in policymaking.
Consider Boeing. As an airplane manufacturer, the company has a long history of selling aircraft to the US government for military purpose. This began in WW2 in which Boeing sold over 100,000 planes to the government. Hell, Airforce One is a Boeing plane. The extra revenue has always been beneficial for the company. As such Boeing has maintained this relationship for decades.
Because of this long relationship, Boeing’s influence in US defense spending has risen over the past few decades. It’s at a point where today Boeing has employed 100 lobbyists and spent $15.1 million on lobbying for the government to spend more on the military in 2018. Yes, they’ve spent millions of dollars in an effort to earn billions. Additionally, in 2017 and 2018 Boeing gave $2.4 million in campaign donations.
The way the government treats Boeing is a clear indicator of Boeing’s influence. For example, Trump allowed Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s CEO, to sit on a meeting with Pentagon generals on managing the weapons program. Of course, Muilenburg would be biased in favor of promoting increased spending as that helps his company. Another example of Boeing’s influence is that Barack Obama appointed two Boeing officials to his cabinet, giving them greater power in promoting military spending.
The payoff for Boeing’s diligent efforts is clear. President Trump has made large increases in military spending and has made contracts with Boeing asking for more planes. Additionally, Boeing’s stock has tripled since Trump took office, a clear sign that the company profits from US military spending.
What does this all mean for Boeing and the government? For Boeing, it means making billions of dollars each year — in 2017 the company made $26.9 billion in arms sales to the government alone. For the government, it means keeping military spending high even when the country doesn’t needa bigger military.
Unfortunately, Boeing isn’t the only company promoting military spending. The government has defense contracts with plenty of other manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and many others. All these companies make billions of dollars from US military spending and constantly lobby for spending to be kept up. The relationships between the government and all these companies form the military-industrial complex that prevents the US from downsizing its military.
Why the Economy Relies on the Military-Industrial Complex
The influence of big business isn’t the only part of the equation. There’s also the sheer number of jobs that military investment creates.
Think about this: the US has around 2.4 million citizens working for the military either as active personnel or civilian workers for various departments. If the US cut military spending, then millions of people would be in danger of being laid off because the government just wouldn’t need them anymore. Not a good move for the economy. Also, it’s a bad move for politicians — if they take away these people’s jobs, then they lose those people’s votes.
On top of those 2.4 million people, there are millions of people working for all the companies with defense contracts, so cutting military spending could potentially cause companies to lay people off. Boeing alone had 153,000 employees in 2017, and while companies laying people off isn’t as likely as the government laying off military workers, it’s not out of the question. Again, not good for the economy and not good for politicians who need the public’s support.
It’s not like there’s no escape from this. The government could, for example, cut military spending and invest more in areas such as infrastructure (an area in which the US really lacks) or clean energy and create jobs that way. However, change is always risky, so leaders have continually put off the issue and simply kept military spending high. But the longer the government delays a solution, the more intertwined the military and economy get and the harder it will be to separate them.
Why is the Military-Industrial Complex Dangerous?
So far I’ve discussed why the US military is so massive. But couldn’t the US simply have its military on standby and ready for future conflict? Also, what’s so bad about it if it’s helping the economy?
With such a massive military, the US puts it to use and more readily takes on militant policies — not because those policies are the best solutions, but simply because those forces are available. Think about this: the US spends around $610 billion a year on the military — greater than the next 7 highest military budgets combined. If the US cut spending in half, it would still be ahead of the next largest military (China) by a large margin. Furthermore, US military spending currently accounts for around 37% of world military spending. With such a lead in this field, how do you think the US is going to use those forces?
Here’s an example. Right now, in the Middle East, Yemen is engaged in a civil war while Saudi Arabia has taken the side of the government. Saudi Arabia conducts bombings and airstrikes in Yemen that kill innocent civilians constantly. They’ve even armed militias linked with Al-Qaeda. Yes, the terrorist group.
Where do these weapons come from? America. The US has been selling weapons to Saudi Arabia in exchange for oil since Franklin Roosevelt’s Presidency. With this relationship, the US should have some influence over Saudi Arabia to steer them away from such dangerous policies. But it doesn’t. The US allows Saudi Arabia to commit its atrocities — bombings in Yemen, killing journalists, etc. Because America has massive arsenals available, it readily sells them, leading to the deaths of innocents in less stable parts of the world. By the way, the US can afford to stop selling weapons—only 8% of its oil comes from Saudi Arabia.
But the US doesn’t just sell these arsenals. America has been conducting bombings and airstrikes in 7 countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Niger, and Libya. These operations have been in the name of fighting terrorism, but there’s two issues with that. One, America has been in the Middle East for 18 years now, and the terrorists have not died out. If anything, they’ve gotten stronger. Second, America is responsible for thousands of civilian casualties. In 2017 alone, US forces killed or injured around 850 civilians between Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. Now think about how many people would have died in the 17 other years of America’s involvement in the region.
The simple fact is that America is completely unaccountable for what it does in the Middle East with its military, and it’s not even effective in its goal. This is ultimately the danger of the Military-Industrial Complex — it makes it possible for the US to make choices like this.
How the Military-Industrial Complex Affects America
One last thing to consider is how much of the budget is taken up by military spending. The US budget for 2019 is estimated to be $4.412 trillion. Defense spending alone is estimated to be $664 billion — 15.04% of the budget. This is the 3rd largest expense after Social Security and Healthcare. While the military is receiving much more than it needs to function, areas like education and infrastructure — which can go towards advancing the country — are severely lacking.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated that, in 2019, around 15.2% of the budget comprised spending on science, energy, housing, transportation, education, and other areas. This figure is nearly identical to military spending alone. If military spending was cut even by a moderate amount, then there would be lots of money available for various programs to help the American public.
Here’s an example — you may have heard of Senator Bernie Sanders’ plan for free college. There’s been plenty of push-back against the plan as “we can’t pay for it.” Well, Sanders’ plan would cost $70 billion — $47 billion from the federal government and $23 billion from states. That sounds large, but compared to massive defense budget, it’s quite small.
If the US took $47 billion from the $664 billion defense budget, then it could help pay for free college significantly while still maintaining its giant military. Honestly, the federal government could cut $70 billion from the military, pay for the whole program itself, and still maintain its massive military. (This isn’t Sanders’ plan, but I’m pointing out that it is an option).
The point here is that the US has more money than we often realize, but its poorly allocated. Defense spending is simply excessive, and pouring money into the military hurts people in the US as the government neglects various areas that could help advance the country.
For a long time the US has been known as a superpower for its armed forces, a superpower that many countries depend on to maintain peace. But retracing the steps of how we got here reveals the unsettling truth that our government prioritizes appeasing big business more than actually maintaining peace in other countries.
I’m not saying that the US should completely dismantle the military — that would be absurd. We do need to defend ourselves. And of course suddenly slashing military spending runs the risk of losing millions of jobs, so decreases should be done gradually. But again, cutting spending in half would still keep America in the lead for the largest military by a large margin. And having such a large military makes it easier to abuse that power without considering the consequences of it.
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