Michael Lind of the New America Foundation has written a delicious article denying the Social Security crisis, which he calls an “imaginary problem.” There’s all sorts of nonsense in the piece, but I just wanted to focus on one of his proposals:
If you want to be revenue-neutral, the Social Security shortfall of about 2 percent of GDP between now and mid-century could be patched with general revenue funds diverted from defense, if without endangering our safety we could gradually lower defense spending from its present wartime level of about 4 percent of GDP to 2 percent, which is more than most other advanced industrial countries spend on defense.
Let’s just set aside the debate over whether we’re currently at war and focus on the numerous factual errors in his statement. Historically, spending 4 percent of our economy on defense was not a “wartime level,” in fact, it’s more compatible with peacetime. For instance, during the Carter years, defense spending averaged 4.8 percent of GDP. It was only during the 1990s, after the Cold War, that we cashed in the so-called “peace dividend” that defense spending dramatically fell, but even then it didn’t dip below 3 percent of GDP. If we slashed military spending to 2 percent of GDP, it would represent the lowest level since 1940, when we were caught unprepared for WWII. As for Lind’s claim that cutting defense spending to 2 percent of GDP would be “more than most other advanced industrial countries spend on defense,” I just wonder what countries he has in mind. In reality, that would place us 79th in the world, according to the CIA World Fact Book, putting us in a tie with Estonia, Uzbekistan, Seychelles and Finland — and well behind the UK, France, Russia and China.
As absurd as Lind’s piece is, I’m actually glad that he raised this issue, and I hope more liberals do the same. I think we should have an honest and open debate about the tradeoffs involved here, and Americans can decide whether they want to cut defense spending in half to save Social Security. And keep in mind, this doesn’t even take into account Medicare and Medicaid, which are far more serious fiscal problems. But I’m also glad he raised the issue, because I’ve long been frustrated with national security hawks who are always pushing for more military spending while either ignoring the entitlement crisis or openly embracing big government domestic programs. At some point, they need to process the fact that as mandatory entitlements increasingly dominate the budget, the federal government will have no choice but to cut into defense spending, which is the largest chunk of the discretionary budget. They no longer have the luxury of being national security conservatives and not economic conservatives. If we don’t rein in entitlements, it will not only cause financial chaos, but make us more vulnerable to our enemies.