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What Paul Krugman gets wrong about the military industrial complex

What Paul Krugman gets wrong about the military industrial complex

The NYT columnist uses irrelevant metrics to argue for giving more money to the Pentagon.

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman would like you to know that the term “military-industrial complex” (MIC) is outmoded and that we spend far less on the Pentagon now than we did when President Eisenhower introduced that phrase in his 1961 farewell address.

Krugman is wrong on both counts.

First, he uses a misleading measure of Pentagon spending that obscures rather than reveals just how enormous our investment in that agency is by historical standards. He notes that Pentagon spending is a smaller share of the national economy than it was in Eisenhower’s day. This is true but irrelevant. There is no reason that Pentagon outlays should track the growth of the overall economy, which is six times as large now as it was in 1961. But no one in their right mind is suggesting a sixfold increase in the Department of Defense’s budget. The level of military outlays should be determined by how much is needed to address the security risks we face, not by arbitrary comparisons with the size of the economy.

The best measure of Pentagon spending is — wait for it — how much we actually spend on the Pentagon. Our current military budget is more than twice as much, adjusted for inflation, as it was in Eisenhower’s day. And if current trends continue, it is poised to reach $1 trillion or more in the next year or two. That may seem like a manageable sum to Mr. Krugman, but most taxpayers would disagree.

As for the relevance of the term “military-industrial complex,” it is more a question of linguistic preference than a reflection on the continuing influence of the arms lobby. Krugman is right to point out that U.S. involvement in the wars in Gaza and Ukraine is not being done at the behest of weapons makers seeking a big payday. But the big contractors are poised to profit from current wars, and their services don’t come cheap.

More importantly, the arms lobby has exploited the war in Ukraine to press for special favors that have nothing to do with defending that country: cushy multi-year contracts; reduced scrutiny that will enable more price gouging, cost overruns and performance problems; rushing arms sales out the door with less vetting of their human rights and strategic impacts; and supersizing the arms manufacturing base at taxpayer expense.

Whether you call it the MIC, the arms lobby, or the Salvation Army, the big weapons makers and their allies in Congress and the Pentagon have as much or more power and influence now as they did when Eisenhower left office.

The MIC, or whatever Paul Krugman chooses to call it, is still a lobbying powerhouse. Lockheed Martin and its cohort routinely team up with key members of Congress to add more money to the Pentagon budget than the department even asks for, mostly for weapons that are built in the states of those officials. It is a classic case of special interests overriding the national interest.

In pursuit of these excess funds, which can amount to tens of billions of dollars each year, the industry brings its impressive lobbying machine to bear. The arms industry makes tens of millions of dollars in campaign contributions every election cycle, with a focus on members of the armed services and defense appropriations panels. And the sums spent are not small. House Armed Services Committee chair Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) received half a million dollars in weapons industry contributions in the most recent election cycle, with other key members not far behind.

The arms sector spends even more on lobbying than it does on campaign contributions, employing over 800 registered lobbyists in all — more than one for every member of Congress. Most of these lobbyists have come through the revolving door from senior positions in Congress or the Pentagon, and they use their connections with former colleagues to curry favor for their corporate employers.

For example, a recent study that my colleague Dillon Fisher and I did for the Quincy Institute found that 80 percent of four-star generals and admirals who retired in the past five years went to work on behalf of the arms industry in one form or another: as board members, lobbyists, executives, consultants, or advisers to firms that invest heavily in the arms sector.

Can we afford to spend more on the Pentagon? Technically yes, but it would come at a high price, reducing our capacity to address other urgent national needs. The $12 to $13 billion the Pentagon spends every year on the overpriced, dysfunctional F-35 combat aircraft is more than the entire annual budget of the Centers for Disease Control. And in one recent year, Lockheed Martin received more federal funding than the State Department and the Agency for International Development combined. The Pentagon consumes well over half of the federal discretionary budget which is the part of the budget that is available for public investment. Environmental protection, public health, job training, criminal justice and other basic functions of government have to compete for what’s left after the Pentagon gets its oversized share of the pie.

I do agree with Krugman on one point: “By all means, let’s have a good faith argument about how much America should spend on its military.” But a thorough, balanced debate that actually leads to beneficial changes in spending and strategy will be extremely difficult to carry out without curbing the influence of the military-industrial complex.

A.PAES via shutterstock.com

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