The Spectacle Blog

Ezra Klein Misses Forest for Trees With Sequestration

By on 11.21.12 | 10:13AM

In a post published yesterday afternoon, Ezra Klein points readers to two graphs. The first relates to the sequestration cuts to defense. The second relates to cuts in non-defense discretionary spending. Klein’s analysis hits some excellent points, but he missed six key components of the debate over cuts to defense and non-defense discretionary spending.

First, Klein’s second graph shows analysis by the Economic Policy Institute on what the Ryan, Obama, and the Simpson-Bowles Commission aimed for in non-defense discretionary spending, as well as what President Obama’s April “framework” would do to such spending. Yet none of these expectations are actually going to become law. Certainly, neither the Ryan or Obama plans is going to get through the Senate and House, respectively, and the Simpson-Bowles recommendations never even became official.

Second, health care costs are the same problem for the military as they are for the general public. This April 2010 USA Today article spells it out nicely:

Military health care spending is rising twice as fast as the nation's overall health care costs, consuming a larger chunk of the defense budget as the Pentagon struggles to pay for two wars, military budget figures show.

The surging costs are prompting the Pentagon and Congress to consider the first hike in out-of-pocket fees for military retirees and some active-duty families in 15 years, said Rear Adm. Christine Hunter, deputy director of TRICARE, the military health care program.

Pentagon spending on health care has increased from $19 billion in 2001 to a projected $50.7 billion in 2011, a 167% increase.

The rapid rise has been driven by a surge in mental health and physical problems for troops who have deployed to war multiple times and by a flood of career military retirees fleeing less-generous civilian health programs, Hunter said.

Aside from hiking the out-of-pocket fees for retirees and some active-duty families, it was also reported that TRICARE will be dropping 171,000 veterans, retirees, and their dependents from TRICARE Prime to Standard coverage. Essentially, this increases the out-of-pocket costs for those affected.

We need to cut the massive fraud, waste, and duplication in the defense budget while drastically reforming the contracting system to better serve the troops and the public. But the fact is that two wars have stretched future health care costs thin, so Klein’s ignorance of this fact is significant.

Third, much of what is spent in non-defense discretionary parts of the budget is unconstitutional, whereas defense spending is directly stated in the Constitution. While the aforementioned cuts to defense spending are essential to help the nation avoid a calamitous fiscal collapse, as well as better serve the troops, the constitutionality of spending has to be accounted for when comparing defense to non-defense discretionary spending.

Fourth, Klein says “non-defense discretionary spending, which doesn’t have nearly as much political protection, is getting gutted…” He then cites the Economic Policy Institute’s graph. According to the defense spending graph, defense is going to take a 31% haircut. However, in averaging the expected cuts in the now-irrelevant Obama and Ryan budget expectations (33% and 55.6%, respectively), non-defense discretionary would be expected to take a 44% cut. Given the rising cost of health care in the military, and how liberals expect our economy to get better under President Obama’s leadership (and thus certain discretionary spending should be expected to go down), Klein's distinction between "gutting" and "not gutting" is debatable. This is especially true when neither the Obama or Ryan budget is ever going to have the force of law.

Fifth, the comparison between post-Korea and post-Vietnam defense cuts and the sequestration cuts are somewhat invalid given we are still actively engaged in combat in Afghanistan. This was not the case in Korea or Vietnam, our troops on the DMZ line post-cease fire notwithstanding.

Lastly, while he accounts for this in the closing of his piece, most of Klein’s post tackles defense spending in constant dollars. Meanwhile, the non-defense discretionary spending is looked at in a percentage of GDP. They are not comparable graphs, and thus it is at least partially intellectually dishonest to pretend they are an apples-to-apples comparison.

This piece was co-authored by RJ Caster. RJ is a former Hill staffer and District case manager for Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD). Casework included veterans issues. He has contributed to www.thelobbyist.net and the Midwest Political Science Association. He currently resides in Austin, Texas.

Send to Kindle

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article