The Program for Public Consultation, the Center for Public Integrity and the Stimson Center recently published a report on the attitudes of Americans towards defense spending. Never mind that the most interesting information was about the growing willingness of Americans of all persuasions to cut items such as military health care and veterans benefits. The headline item was that 76 percent of all those surveyed thought that defense spending should be cut. On average, Republicans thought that defense should be cut by 15 percent and Democrats by 28 percent. Not all that surprising or out of whack with other similar recent surveys. The credibility of the results was somewhat undermined when it was reported that the survey had asked respondents to propose percentage reductions to different types of forces: strategic and nuclear forces by 27 percent, ground forces by 23 percent, the Navy by 20 percent and the Air Force by 19 percent. It was not clear from published reports whether these were as percentages of the force or of defense spending. Nor was it determined whether the respondents had the faintest clue about how much DoD spent in any of these areas. Never mind. Vox populai, vox dei.
These kinds of surveys have an air of unreality about them. It is easy for people to throw out a figure when they have no facts on which to base their opinions. Moreover, we know from research into the psychology of surveys that the context determines the outcome. I bet the respondents would have given a very different number if there had been a different context. Perhaps if the survey in question had asked these same respondents how they would absorb either a 15 or a 28 percent cut in their income and then asked again the same questions about cutting defense spending I would have more confidence in the results.
So, what would it mean to the average American family to make such reductions in their spending? According to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average income for all Americans in 2009 was $49,777. For whites it was $51,861, blacks $32,584, Hispanics, $38,039 and for Asians and Pacific Islanders a whopping $65,469. A 15 percent cut in average income would be $7,466 and a 28 percent cut would amount to $13,936. Using the same source one discovers that the average household spends $6,300 a year on food ($2,619 spent on eating out), $16,000 on housing (around $10,000 on shelter, $3,600 on utilities and $2,400 on unspecified miscellany), $7,600 on transportation, approximately $3,100 on health care, around $2,700 on entertainment, $5,741 on pensions and life insurance (including Social Security), $1,725 on apparel and $110 on reading. The rest goes for taxes and a few dollars, if one is lucky, for savings.
The average household could absorb a 15 percent cut by eliminating transportation, foregoing some combination of utilities plus entertainment or health care or giving up eating and clothing entirely. It might be possible to achieve the same result simply by cutting down in each of these areas equally, perhaps with the exception of housing. At the 28 percent reduction level, things get really dicey. It is hard to see how equal percentage reductions will work. You could refuse to pay your taxes. Or, using Maslow’s hierarchy, one could pay your taxes plus food, clothing and shelter but not much else. Over the past four years lots of people have had to do just that. While it is possible, it is not easy or pain free. The choices can be pretty stark.
When individuals and families have to deal with a reduction in their income of the magnitude proposed by the survey’s respondents for defense spending, they have to alter their behaviors, sometimes drastically. The same should be true, but rarely is, when it comes to the U.S. military. The Obama Administration’s new defense strategy promises that this nation will continue to be a global superpower, remain engaged in key regions, fight and win wars (yes multiple ones) and send forces all over the world to train and assist partner countries, hunt down terrorists and provide humanitarian relief. All this even as the defense budget declines by at least 10 percent over the next decade and possibly a lot more. Well, we could just get rid of the Army or the Air Force.
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