Pentagon: Time to get by with less

The new rules of efficiency that have hit the American workplace should apply to the Pentagon as well

August 10, 2011|By Dan Rodricks

I was a guest at a recent high school reunion for members of my sister's class of 1961 and, in conversations with some of the men, noted that each had served in the military. They had either been drafted or they had enlisted to avoid the Army. One had gone into the Navy, eventually becoming a SEAL; another had become an Air Force pilot. They spoke of the draft as a fact of life — something no Americans have experienced for nearly 40 years now.

These were Cold War warriors — high school graduates in the year of the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba and the year barbed wire and machine gun nests went up at the border of East and West Germany. In fact, it was 50 years ago this month that East Germany closed the border and the communist government started construction of the Berlin Wall. John F. Kennedy was in the White House; military spending in the United States increased by 25 percent, and a few thousand troops headed for a place called Vietnam.

The rest is history too big for this space, but here are highlights: The military draft lasted until 1973, a couple of years before the fall of Saigon and the end of the costly and divisive Vietnam War. The Cold War, between the U.S. and the Soviet empire, continued for nearly 15 more years after that, with the most expensive buildup in defenses in history. During that time, the Soviets experienced their own decade-long Vietnam in Afghanistan. The Berlin Wall tumbled in 1989. Twenty years ago this month, the Soviet Union fell apart.

And we've been looking for a "peace dividend" ever since.

Anyone seen it? Anyone even remember it? You can find it in Wikipedia: "The peace dividend is a political slogan popularized by U.S. President George H.W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the early 1990s, purporting to describe the economic benefit of a decrease in defense spending. The term was frequently used at the end of the Cold War, when many Western nations significantly cut military spending."

Indeed, our Cold War allies in Western Europe scaled back military spending, and the former Soviet states had to do the same. While defense spending in the United States flat-lined for a time, it was always the largest chunk of discretionary spending in the federal budget, and it grew significantly after the Sept. 11 attacks. It grew, by some estimates, 110 percent since the advent of the war on terror, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We spend more on defense than all other countries combined.

We are spending way more today, two decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, than we did during the Cold War, with its nuclear missile race.

If the tea party wants to take aim at a spending problem, it should look not only to defense but to the tendency of presidents — with a free pass from Congress — to keep the U.S. in a state of permanent war in order to justify all the spending.

Reasonable people (as well as tea party members) have a right to ask: Can the Pentagon get by on $400 billion a year instead of $700 billion? Can we get out of Iraq and Afghanistan, spend half as much on defense, and still be safe?

I say yes — and without conducting an extensive study. I just apply a common-sense rule derived from Parkinson's Law. That's the familiar dictum of a British economist who, after surveying the civil service system in the U.K., concluded that, "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

My law, with regard to the Pentagon, goes like this: "Military projects expand so as to justify the money available for their completion."

In other words, give the Pentagon $700 billion each year and they'll find reasons to spend every bit of it.

But that's not a very smart model, is it?

We have a professional military now, top to bottom (no draftees), so it needs a professional design. We can't afford expensive new projects or adventures. We need a sound, skilled and technologically savvy military, ready for action when necessary. The rules of efficiency and productivity that have hit the downsized American workplace should apply to the taxpayer-funded military as well. Work smart and get by with less: the battle cry of our times.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR 88.1 FM. Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/dan.rodricks

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