The debate over how to deal with the deficit is not, as many pundits have argued, a fight between a strong defense and a strong economy. At its core this debate over the deficit and spending reductions is a fight between national security and human security. National security spending is almost all discretionary in character, meaning that the government is not required by law to make specific expenditures. The largest fraction of all national security spending is for the Department of Defense but they also include the rest of the national security enterprise, the Intelligence Community, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons programs, veterans programs and billions more in the budgets of other departments. The total annual expenditure for programs under this definition of national security is around $1 trillion.
But national security should be even more broadly defined to include investments in critical infrastructure and activities that keep this nation functioning. An example of this is the Federal Aviation Administration. One might even argue that spending on critical R&D to maintain U.S. economic competitiveness, portions of NASA’s budget and even education spending has significant national security benefit and should be included under that umbrella. All in all, there might be as much as $1.3 trillion in the annual budget that could reasonably be defined as national security related.
On the other side of the ledger are the expenditures for human security. This category includes the two blockbuster programs, Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid as well as food stamps, family assistance and related poverty programs. Most programs supporting human security are considered entitlements, meaning that recipients are guaranteed the benefits based on established rights or by legislation. Dominating spending for human security are old age payments. In fiscal year 2011, the federal budget for human security was over $2 trillion. The deficit problem might be better framed as a struggle between the security of all and the security of the old.
The fight over how to deal with the deficit is over two equally valid demands: the requirement to preserve national security, on the one hand, and the imperative to protect individual security, on the other hand. All Americans, including the aged, infirm and the poor, benefit from the nation being secure against enemies foreign and domestic. There is no point to being guaranteed a Social Security check if you are dead. Arguably, all Americans also benefit from spending on R&D and education that produces the next great technological or medical breakthrough or ensures that future workers are more productive. Defense investments that resulted in computers, satellites and the Internet have improved the lives of every citizen and even the people of the world.
At the same time, what is the point of having the national security protected if a large fraction of the American people are suffering? Complicating the debate is the fact that advocates for maintaining a relatively high level of national security spending must argue the negative case: continued spending is required in order to avoid bad things, specifically war. Spending on human security tends to result in immediate tangible benefits. It is important, to note, however, that it is peacetime defense spending that enabled the U.S. military to come to the aid of victims of natural disasters such as Katrina, the Haitian earthquake or the Japanese nuclear disaster.
As senior defense officials have indicated in recent testimony, they are working to tighten their belts, seek out waste, improve efficiency and to restructure forces in order to save money. The Pentagon is even willing to take on the additional risk of reducing the list of missions the military is required to perform and even radically change their approach to managing national security. The question is where is the similar initiative on the part of those responsible for or advocates of human security? The Obama Administration has already reduced planned defense spending by nearly $800 billion ($400 billion under Secretary Gates’ tenure and $400 billion proposed by the President). Where is the $800 billion in up front entitlement cuts to keep the playing field level? Where is the HHS equivalent of the ongoing DoD strategic review intended to figure out how to absorb the President’s goal of reducing $400 billion in defense spending?
The consequences of misallocating resources between national and human security are very different. Underfund the former and we risk our freedoms and even our lives. Spend less on human security and people have to switch from beef to chicken. National security is about the nation now and for decades to come. Make a mistake by reducing spending on national security too severely and the consequences may be irremediable no matter how much money is then spent. Human security addresses today’s problems only. Spending levels can be readily adjusted based on near-term data.
Find Archived Articles: