My Military Industrial Complex
March 8, 2010 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Help me get my head around the rationale or philosophy behind the budget for the U.S. Department of Defense. According to my rough numbers, it is more than 10 times that of the Department of Education. What is the justification / business case? Jobs? DARPA? China? I don't get it. Please enlighten me.
posted by jasondigitized to Law & Government (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The pithy response is that the returns* to defense are greater than the returns to education.

The more expanded explanation is that the lobbyists who work for the defense industry are more effective than the lobbyists who work for education.

*Returns meaning the potential to earn money, not social returns.
posted by dfriedman at 8:02 AM on March 8, 2010

Well, first, the states have what is legally known as the "police power." What this means is that the states control most of the governmental functions of our lives, including education. So an accurate measure of governmental spending on education must include state and local spending on education. States run the schools and the universities.

Second, national defense is entirely the job of the federal government in our constitution. The federal government runs no universities, develops no curricula, does nothing other than help the states do their job of education. So your comparison is basically not apt.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:05 AM on March 8, 2010 [8 favorites]

Weapons and training are expensive.
posted by anniecat at 8:05 AM on March 8, 2010

Schools are funded by local property taxes so the Department of Education budget doesn't mean much. Reagan tried to abolish the Department of Education entirely; that didn't mean he wanted to stop public schooling.
posted by smackfu at 8:06 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Not all school districts are funded by local property taxes. Many are, though.
posted by dfriedman at 8:08 AM on March 8, 2010

Local control of public education has been a sacrosanct value since the "Old Deluder Satan" laws in colonial times. The Department of Education is essentially a big bank.

National defense is a responsibility of the national government.
posted by jgirl at 8:08 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

The US has an empire to maintain.
posted by ijsbrand at 8:13 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

The federal-provincial/state divide exists in Canada too. In Canada. the federal government has no Department of Education (though some departments do a bit of education spending). The provinces take care of education, and it's one of their major spending items.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:16 AM on March 8, 2010

Response by poster: Ok, let's remove Department of Education from the equation. Why is the Defense budget so big relevant to other countries?
posted by jasondigitized at 8:22 AM on March 8, 2010

The business case is that American hegemony makes the world safe for trade, which benefits American businesses and American consumers.

For instance, since the end of WWII the United States has been the primary guarantee of peace in Asia, which is made up of many countries that have historically hated and warred with one another. The result was a massive post-war economic boom that has made South Korea and Japan major trading partners and made everyone involved rich. This would have been impossible if those countries had come under Soviet domination or had to spend large amounts of their gross national product on military power sufficient to deter or defeat their neighbors on their own.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 8:24 AM on March 8, 2010 [7 favorites]

This is really two separate questions, I think -- 1) Why is the Department of Education's budget so low? 2) Why is the Department of Defence's budget so high.

The answers are:

1) As has been pointed out, the Dept of Education doesn't actually fund a lot of public education in the US as that is done on a local level.

2) The US has built it's national image up as the 'strongest' country in the world, and has taken on a lot of obligations as what pointed out to maintaining its 'empire'.

2a) A majority of American citizens continue to refuse to vote for politicians who promise to slash the funding of the Dept of Defence. As to why they refuse to do that, I truly cannot answer -- but I expect it goes to a confluence of cultural values and national self-image which is somewhat disjointed from reality.
posted by modernnomad at 8:24 AM on March 8, 2010

Why is the Defense budget so big relevant to other countries?

National defense is a term which encapsulates not only actual border defense, but also perceived defense in the form of proactive military operations and the defense of other interests than simply protecting the U.S. border.

As the world's greatest military power, there is an implied pressure to act in more regions than, say, Canada because of their capability. As a result, there is pressure to spend money acting and to continue to lead the charge as far as capability is concerned.
posted by Hiker at 8:30 AM on March 8, 2010

The US Department of Defense's budget is so high relative to other countries because, in part, the US economy is so much larger than other countries'.

The real question you want to be asking is: how does the US Department of Defense's budget compare on a per capita basis to other countries?

That way you will be comparing apples to apples. The budget was approximately 786 billion in 2007.

$786,000,000,000 / 300,000,000 people = approximately $2,620 per person.

That seems rather a bargain.
posted by dfriedman at 8:30 AM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Cite for US population:

Cite for US DoD budget:
posted by dfriedman at 8:32 AM on March 8, 2010

The US Constitution outlines the responsibilities of the Federal Government. Education is not part of the US Constitution, therefore it is the responsibility of the States and not the Federal Government.

The Constitution, however, does give Congress the ability to declare war & makes the President the commander in chief of the military, making military the responsibility of the Federal Government.

Think back 200 years ago when kids helped their parents on the farm in the South, or in the shop in the North. Nowadays we think of public schools as a sort of fundamental right - we call it "compulsory education" because kids are legally not only entitled to go, but are forced to go. This was not always the case. In fact, a public educational system was not always the case.
Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance laws in 1852, followed by New York in 1853. By 1918 all states had passed laws requiring children to attend at least elementary school. The Catholics were, however, opposed to common schooling and created their own private schools. Their decision was supported by the 1925 Supreme Court rule in Pierce v. Society of Sisters that states could not compel children to attend public schools, and that children could attend private schools instead. [ref]
On the other hand it is no small exaggeration that this country was founded by a strong centralized military, and when the Constitution was drafted in 1787 (before which time the name of the country was "the united States of America" - with a small letter U because there was no real country to speak of - were States that united in a cause), a military, of course, was part of the responsibility of the Federal Government.

You may also want to read up on the colorful history of taxation in the United States. Like Education, it's one of those things that you assume has been there from the start in its current form, but has been anything but constant.
posted by MesoFilter at 8:33 AM on March 8, 2010

Why is the Defense budget so big relevant to other countries?

All countries attempt to pay for security sufficient for their needs, but there are many different strategies for how to achieve it and not all the costs are monetary.

I mentioned Asia above. Japan spends relatively little on defense compared to the size of its economy, but its costs are far higher that the numbers suggest -- they have to accept American military bases on their soil and run a foreign policy subservient to American interests. If you follow Japanese affairs, you know this is a matter of ongoing consternation there, with many feeling it injurious to Japanese pride and independence.

But why does the United States spend so much defending other countries? You can think of it as a comparative advantage. The United States has shown itself highly capable of running a large military, maintaining peace under its regional security umbrellas, and keeping sea lanes safe for trade. Many other countries find it economically sensible to import American security rather than develop it itself. Since there is so much demand for the American product (not all of it voluntary, of course), the United States continues to export it in droves.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 8:40 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why is the Defense budget so big relevant to other countries?

While we spend 41.5 of all the world's military budget, it's a mere 4.06% of our economy, and hardly even tops the list with 26 of the 173 countries listed spending more of their budget than we do on military. [ref]

That said, we view ourselves as the world's police. Responsible for protecting our very large interests abroad & at home through a strong military. [ref]
posted by MesoFilter at 8:40 AM on March 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

In addition to what everyone else said, and putting aside the federal/state/local distinctions, it makes sense that spending on defense would go through the roof while spending on things like education would stay relatively constant. You can look at the youth population and say: "There are this many kids, and it costs this much to educate a kid, so here's how much we have to spend." (You could say the same of much domestic government spending.) And if the population is expected to going up slightly next year, they can expect to spend just a bit more next year. If the computers have gotten more expensive and/or we want more of them in schools, that's going to entail an increase in spending, but a very manageable, observable increase.

Now, I'm not suggesting that the people making these assessments are doing a good job -- I'd like to see much more funding of education. But if we're just talking descriptively and not prespectively, that's presumably that's their mindset.

It makes sense that people wouldn't think of defense in the same way, as being a relatively constant part of the budget. It's one thing to look at an ongoing mission with little-to-no-conflict involved, like keeping US troops in Korea (as we've done for decades). Obviously, that costs some money right there. But the problem is it's not just those kinds of costs -- it's people worrying about every possible war that might conceivably happen. We've spent the last 8 years seeing how hard it is for even the most powerful country (the US) to wage war against even pretty small, weak countries (Iraq and Afghanistan), so just imagine how much concern there is about our ability to go to war, if necessary, against Iran or China or North Korea or Pakistan, especially while in the middle of other wars (and especially if it's a nuclear Iran or Pakistan). I'm not saying I think there's even a 1% chance of us going to war with those countries, but if it's your job to prepare for such contingencies you're probably going to be a lot more worried about them than Jaltcoh or jasondigitized are. There's just no practical limit to the amount of preparation you can justify if you're of a mind to do so.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:46 AM on March 8, 2010

Response by poster: So China gets to leverage the security and stability funded by the U.S., while financing more pressing domestic issues?
posted by jasondigitized at 8:47 AM on March 8, 2010

I think the answer is less pragmatic than is being supposed in this thread; the American deification of the armed forces, and the fact that cutting military spending under any circumstances whatsoever is political suicide, plays a large role.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:50 AM on March 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

Why is the Defense budget so big relevant to other countries?

A lot of people have been asking this same question for a loooooooooooooong time.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:52 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another point, since you're asking about the US relative to other countries... Here's an article in Foreign Affairs that requires free registration. It's about whether China (or anyone else) is going to overtake the US as the world's superpower, and the author concludes that they're not. Here's one of his arguments:
The armies of European countries are no longer objects of national pride and no longer serve as ladders for social advancement, nor are they the principal agents for promoting the national interest. ... The EU takes pride in being a civilian power that expands by force of example, rather than by force of arms.
By contrast, he says the US has a military culture. Those of us living in the US are so used to this that we don't find it remarkable, but most countries just aren't as concerned as we are about their militaries.
posted by Jaltcoh at 8:54 AM on March 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

My understanding is that the DOD budget was vastly expanded during the course of the Cold War, largely by Reagan. Military superiority over the Soviets was considered as an absolute necessity, as war between the US and the USSR was seen as inevitable. It was Good vs. Evil and all that.

But here's the problem with the defence budget: due to cultural and political forces in the US, it can only be expanded. Any politician that calls for a decrease in the DOD budget will be loudly condemned for being "weak on defence", which is tantamount to political death.

It's like tax hikes—no matter how small or necessary or logical they may be, there will always be a large segment of the population that will viciously object, reflexively and without consideration. So taxes in the U.S. can only be lowered, and the defence budget can only be increased.

The second factor is that, because we’ve invested so much money and infrastructure into the production of weaponry, it’s now one of our most lucrative industries. We sell military technology and weapons to countries all over the world. And in the past, it’s been one of our key strategies in affecting global political change. Whenever there’s a conflict in which we stand to gain or lose influence, we simply provide the side we want to win with weapons and training. We’ve done it many, many times, and it’s produced quite a few successfully insane political groups: e.g., the Nicaraguan Contras, Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein’s now-vanquished regime, etc, etc.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:04 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

What is the justification / business case?

American security depends on the balance of power in Europe and Asia. If a single power were able to dominate the continent (France under Napoleon, Germany under Wilhelm II or Hitler, the Soviet Union), it would also be strong enough to threaten the US. As Jefferson put it: the enduring interest of the US lies in preventing the entire force of Europe from being wielded by a single hand.

George F. Kennan, American Diplomacy 1900-1950:
Today, standing at the end rather than the beginning of this half-century, some of us see certain fundamental elements on which we suspect that American security has rested. We can see that our security has been dependent throughout much of our history on the position of Britain; that Canada, in particular, has been a useful and indispensable hostage to good relations between our country and British Empire; and that Britain's position, in turn, has depended on the maintenance of a balance of power on the European Continent. Thus it was essential to us, as it was to Britain, that no single Continental land power should come to dominate the entire Eurasian land mass. Our interest has lain rather in the maintenance of some sort of stable balance among the powers of the interior, in order that none of them should effect the subjugation of the others, conquer the seafaring fringes of the land mass, become a great sea power as well as land power, shatter the position of England, and enter—as in these circumstances it certainly would—on an overseas expansion hostile to ourselves and supported by the immense resources of the interior of Europe and Asia.
Hence the enduring US alliances with NATO (especially Britain) and Japan.

Former Vice President Cheney appears to have pushed for a much more ambitious (and reckless, IMHO) strategy, seeking to ensure continued US dominance in every major region of the world. See the Wolfowitz Doctrine. Barton Gellman discusses this in detail in his book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency. Nevertheless, even if the US were able to extract itself from its current wars and overextended commitments, it would still need a substantial military.
posted by russilwvong at 9:09 AM on March 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

Why is the Defense budget so big relevant to other countries?

I'm not trying to make any argument that the defense budget is or isn't too large, but comparing the US defense budget to that of other countries isn't that useful, as the US is treaty-bound to supply defense to an extremely large portion of the globe. Take Japan, for instance. Japan is prevented from having a traditional military by its own constitution, and the US is treaty-bound to provide some defense services to Japan. Japan is one of the largest economies in the world, not a small protectorate type of situation.

So regardless of what the per-protected person/acre/dollar budget for US defense is, its difficult to make a meaningful comparison with other states because there aren't really other states who are supposed to cover, say, most of Europe with a nuclear deterrent umbrella.
posted by jeb at 9:10 AM on March 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

So China gets to leverage the security and stability funded by the U.S., while financing more pressing domestic issues?

That's true, though of course the America security umbrella in Asia is directed to a great degree against China re the Taiwan issue.
posted by gabrielsamoza at 9:11 AM on March 8, 2010

So China gets to leverage the security and stability funded by the U.S., while financing more pressing domestic issues?

And so does the rest of the world (except for the people who we're currently fighting). I'm sure China will be happy to take care of the security and stability issues in Asia, at least, when the opportunity arises. And I'm sure that the rest of Asia will really enjoy it when that happens.

It costs money, manpower, and all other resources beginning with "m" to be in a position to exert the kind of influence that the U.S. has over international affairs. I don't know if it's that we think WE should do it, as much as that for the most part there doesn't appear to be an external governing body that could be trusted with the task do to philosophical differences and/ or suspicions of corruption (that means you, UN). Countries that don't ever anticipate being in this position have no reason to spend all that money, so they rely on the U.S. and other defenders of the status quo to keep things more or less stable via treaties and other commitments.
posted by _cave at 9:12 AM on March 8, 2010

The Defense Department singlehandedly supports a dozen or so gigantic engineering firms, which in turn employ hundreds of thousands of American engineers. It's unlikely there would be many aerospace and mechanical engineers at all in the US without government support -- the civilian market isn't that big and other countries can do it cheaper. But if we do get into a war with a technologically sophisticated adversary, at least we'l be able to develop the weapons we need without begging other countries for help.
posted by miyabo at 9:39 AM on March 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

The US is a superpower and seems intent on maintaining that status.

We maintain a worldwide network of military bases. We try to out-innovate everybody else in military technology. We provide military aid to other countries when our government thinks it makes geo-political sense to do so. We're currently involved in two wars overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we (or at least some people) see our national interests as being indirectly threatened. That's expensive.

Most countries focus on actual national defense, and internal policing.
posted by nangar at 9:42 AM on March 8, 2010

Military spending can go do DARPA for research, the GI bill (free education), or to the VA (free healthcare). And it's a big government-funded program which employs lots of people, like the New Deal's PWA. The kind of things democrats like!

And the same military spending can be for defence, defence, defence! Keeping us safe from foreign aggression, with cool guns and bombs! The legitimate constitutional role of the federal government. The kind of things republicans like.

And that military spending can be protected - American employees using American-produced goods made from american-produced components. High employment, everyone likes that! Make sure there are a few defence employers in each state and every senator will have a reason not to want any spending cuts.
posted by Mike1024 at 9:52 AM on March 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

The justification/business case is that it would be a very, very, very expensive proposition-- expensive in time, money, propaganda effort, and social disruption-- to shift the psychological/cultural/religious case.

Our elites tend to profit from the status quo, either directly and financially, or indirectly and through membership in the existing social order; our commoners tend to experience our massive military as a welcome, even necessary emotional crutch.
posted by darth_tedious at 9:58 AM on March 8, 2010

This has been hinted at in a number of places, but not concisely set forth yet, so here goes: there are important constitutional and historical reasons for this.

Congress is only allowed to spend money in those areas authorized by Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution. That includes spending on an army and a navy, but it doesn't include a lot of other things, like education--or arguably health care. We've basically ignored this restriction since the late 1930s with the New Deal jurisprudential revolution, but Medicare and Social Security took decades to grow into the behemoths that they are today.

Importantly, right about the time that Congress started to be able to regulate and spend money on things it would not previously have been able to, the US became embroiled in what was arguably the largest military conflict in history. There wasn't any problem legal problem for the federal government to spend a bajillion dollars on that, so basically they did. Part of that spending included massive R&D expenditures under the leadership of Vannevar Bush and the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Bush is more than any other single person responsible for the shape and character of the US's science base in the 20th and 21st century.

Basically, the army war planners realized that the Nazis were doing some kick-ass, cutting edge engineering, and there simply wasn't time to wait for the private sector to get its act together. America was still very, very suspicious of anything that looked like a planned economic activity--the Red Scare wasn't that long ago at that point--but if the military was doing it, then obviously it wasn't a communist plot. So it was the military that basically became responsible for a lot of basic science and engineering research. We don't really know how much money OSRD spent, but it was an ungodly amount, and they were behind the invention of a huge number of very important Allied technical and engineering advances.

Fast forward to the end of the war. Congress was really unhappy about the extent to which FDR used executive power to do whatever the hell he wanted under cover of the national emergency, so it started clawing back some of its influence. This is on balance a good thing, and the movement gave is what became the Administrative Procedure Act, which is the statute from which every federal agency takes its procedural cues. Notice and comment and all of that jazz is in the APA.

Well one of the things that the Senate didn't like was OSRD, as it was basically Bush's personal fiefdom, and Bush was answerable only to FDR himself. The Senate dissolved the OSRD in 1947, but by then the army war planners realized that, oh shit, now it's the Soviets who are doing a lot of kick ass, cutting edge engineering, only now the Soviets are gonna get nukes. So once again, the military was unwilling for the civilian sector to get its act together--the National Science Foundation was chartered to replace the OSRD, but its budget was and is tiny--and simply continued its role as the primary source of funding for science in the US. Until 1980, the federal government spent between 50-66% of annual R&D funds, and the vast majority of that--well north of 90%--was military spending. Between 10 and 15% of the total military appropriation was known to be for R&D, but that doesn't count the billions in black ops research, which could easily bump it up to well over 25%.

Thing is, R&D spending increases the military budget in more ways than just the straight research spending. New machines are expensive. So in addition to spending billions on R&D, we also then spent billions extra on planes, guns, ships, etc. Given its status as a leading military power, the US needs a certain amount of hardware, but rather than just order another couple of hundred fighters/destroyers/M-16s/Humvees which have been around for two decades and can be made on the cheap, the US military has a tendency to always want the next, newest, most expensive version of x. where x is "stuff to blow shit up". So, for example, in the late 1970s, rather than buying another round of F-4 Phantom IIs using technology that had been around since the 1950s, we replaced our entire multi-role fighter complement with F-16 Falcons, which cost seven times as much. So that right there's a solid $55 billion over a period of years.

I'm not talking about the money spend on researching a specific piece of hardware either. That largely gets included in the cost per unit of whatever we're talking about. I'm talking a huge amount of basic science, materials engineering, the bread and butter of science departments at leading research universities nation wide. Once the universities developed a given material, concept, whatever, then the arms contractors were given multi-million dollar contracts to turn that invention into a usable war machine, and private sector firms were eventually permitted to use them for consumer goods where they could. But the massive spending on military research enabled universities to rapidly build out their science departments, essentially funding all of their other projects using military money.

In short: for the latter half of the 20th-century, the US military was almost single handedly responsible for the vast bulk of US R&D spending, and the brass felt a compulsion to use the fruits of that spending, leading to vastly inflated costs for hardware.

Granted, the US military budget was going to be tens, even hundreds of billions anyways. Keeping up with the Russians was not a terrible idea, and it looked absolutely essential at the time. But there's a lot of spending hidden in the Defense Department budget which other governments spend more openly, in non-military budget lines, and this, while hard to count, could easily represent half of our total expenditures in both direct research and the resulting increased cost of hardware.
posted by valkyryn at 10:36 AM on March 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

So, for example, in the late 1970s, rather than buying another round of F-4 Phantom IIs using technology that had been around since the 1950s, we replaced our entire multi-role fighter complement with F-16 Falcons, which cost seven times as much.

Great points overall ... just to toss in something extra, part of the rationale for the development of the F-16 was to develop an aircraft that could be purchased by foreign partners and allies, who could ostensibly assist the U.S. in regional wars.

The aircraft was a next-generation (for its time), single-seat, single-engine, multirole aircraft, that makes it perfect for allied partners.

Expensive, yes. But a force-multiplier for our own interests. Which partially explains the expense of some other high-end budget items -- they're built for lots of different purposes, not just "go fast and blow shit up."

And despite the expense relative to the Phantom, the F-16 has been a runaway success.

From Wikipedia:

The F-16's versatility is a paramount reason it has proven a success on the export market, having been selected to serve in the air forces of 25 nations.[2] Over 4,400 aircraft have been built since production was approved in 1976.[2] Though no longer being purchased by the U.S. Air Force, advanced versions are still being built for export customers.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:54 AM on March 8, 2010

valkyryn makes an excellent point—DARPA and the DOD does bankroll a huge amount of basic science research in the US. Not just private aerospace and ballistics technology, but also things like biotech, materials science, computer science, and robotics. Importantly, the funding often goes to basic exploratory research projects that have only a tenuous link to specific Defence Department goals (though these links are, as a rule, emphasized heavily in all grant proposals).

Basic exploratory research is extremely important, but because it tends to be high risk/low pay-off, the private market does very little of it. That leaves nonprofit and government enterprises to shoulder most of the burden. In a perfect world, NSF and NIH would be dispensing most of those funds, but DARPA is certainly better than nothing.
posted by dephlogisticated at 11:27 AM on March 8, 2010

From President Eisenhower's farewell address, January 17, 1961:
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.

Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central, it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.

Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
A draft of the speech referred to the "military-industrial-congressional complex." Congress has a long history of funding weapons programs that the military doesn't want, generally because the weapons manufacturers are in key congressional districts. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney complained about it in 1992.
You've directed me to buy the V-22, a program I don't need. You've directed me to buy more M-1s, F-14s and F-16s...Congress has directed me to spend money on all kinds of things that are not related to defense, but mostly related to politics back home in the district.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:34 AM on March 8, 2010

There are huge incentives for legislators and executives to give more money to the "military-industrial complex." There are virtually no disincentives. The results are predictable.
posted by callmejay at 11:45 AM on March 8, 2010

Cool Papa Bell, my point wasn't to argue that this sort of military spending was a bad idea or that any particular project was unnecessary, but to highlight the fact that 1) a lot of the defense budget actually goes into education, but not in ways that you'd expect, and 2) this research spending also multiplies other spending in ways you wouldn't expect. Again, part of the reason we buy so many of these things is precisely because the fruits of this research include absolutely awesome hardware. But absolutely awesome hardware comes at an absolutely awesome price.

This is also one of the reasons that cutting military spending is so hard. A lot of it goes places we don't necessarily want to cut, and the recent rise in tuition at higher educational institutions started almost exactly when the military started cutting back on R&D, i.e. the early 1980s, in favor of other projects.
posted by valkyryn at 11:47 AM on March 8, 2010

It's worth noting that DOE does fund, though grants, supplemental education programs, like the TRIO programs (e.g. Upward Bound), and others. These programs (disclaimer: used to work for one) are instantiated at the local level and provide services to enhance educational opportunities. DOE funds various educational initiatives, which provide services to students, rather than funding (for the most part and/or as far as I know) schools directly.
posted by wheat at 12:25 PM on March 8, 2010

Ok, let's remove Department of Education from the equation. Why is the Defense budget so big relevant to other countries?

Because after the Second World War, the United States had only one near equal in military power and that was the Soviet Union. Having that level of power makes diplomatic relations easier than when you don't have that power. So there is an incentive to maintain that level of power.

Since the U.S. has that level of power and has the economic capability to maintain it, it makes entry into that level of defense power very costly to engage in. And with the Pax Americana over the world, there is very little incentive not to become a "free rider" in economic terms and let the U.S. shoulder the bill of maintaining general peace between large military powers. So you have a double effect--the US wanting to maintain its level of power and powerful disincentives for other countries to spend less and less and use that money to increase their economic power.

It is therefore important to look at it from two angles--why the US defense budget is so large and why everyone else's is so small.

An excellent overview is here, from the Federation of American Scientists.

Note also that the US figure of 3.3% of GDP isn't unheard of, as you look at this graph of major power military spending from 1880-1911.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:31 PM on March 8, 2010

valkyryn makes an excellent point—DARPA and the DOD does bankroll a huge amount of basic science research in the US. Not just private aerospace and ballistics technology, but also things like biotech, materials science, computer science, and robotics.

If anyone needs evidence of that, just look at the DARPA Grand Challenge.
posted by Mike1024 at 12:35 PM on March 8, 2010

2a) A majority of American citizens continue to refuse to vote for politicians who promise to slash the funding of the Dept of Defence. As to why they refuse to do that, I truly cannot answer -- but I expect it goes to a confluence of cultural values and national self-image which is somewhat disjointed from reality.

I think its important to note that there are differing views on defense spending. Those views are based on the legitimate political beliefs of others. None of these views has a corner on reality, or is the "right answer." While I currently believe that defense spending is too high, those who disagree with me are neither "disjointed from reality" or wrong, nor is their view based on some pathology. Different persons have differing views on the subject.

That's why it is important to base the analysis of this question on statistics and the analysis of people in the field so as to get some sort of idea of what processes cause the defense budget to be the size it is, not just on political platitudes.

But Eisenhower does have it right:

Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.

There is a lot of waste in there that has nothing to do with anyone's image of what the country is or should be, but on the politics of bringing government-related employment to districts. Take, for example, Senator Jeff Sessions recent hold on every nominee Obama had out there. Why was he doing it? Look at the home town coverage:

DEMOCRACY HAS once again survived an alleged assault, as U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby has lifted most of the holds he placed on Obama administration nominees after definitely getting some attention.

Sen. Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, has been battling the Boeing delegation in Congress over the Air Force refueling tanker contract. So have other members of the Alabama delegation on both sides of the aisle.

Indeed, the Press-Register editorial board has called upon them to do their best to ensure a level playing field in the new competition between Boeing and the Northrop Grumman-EADS partnership that would assemble the tankers in Mobile.

Look at the verbiage: "The Boeing delegation." They are battling it out for goverment dollars.

This is a real problem. It will require citizen's work to fix it. Calling and E-mailing your representatives and senators and asking them to clear out government waste from the defense budget even if it means that local industries are harmed is a good first step.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:44 PM on March 8, 2010

Well according to Wolfram Alpha, the U.S. spends between 5% and 5.9% of its GNI on education.

Whereas according to Wikipedia, the U.S. spends 4.06% of its GDP on military.

Now GNI & GDP aren't exactly the same & Wolfram Alpha doesn't give its sources in enough detail for me to know for sure that its number is completely realistic.

But this source gives total government spending on education in 2010 as an estimated $1042 billion (federal: $157.0 billion, state: $272.5 billion, local: $692.2 billioni; $79.9 billion of that is just transfer from one level of govt to another, though, so you have to subtract that $79.9 billion out to ge the total of $1,041.8 billion).

Looks like U.S. defense spending for 2010 will be between $880 billion and $1.03 trillion.
Still, it seems that the U.S. actually does spend a bit more on education than on military.

At any rate, it appears total spending on education in the U.S. is at least a little higher than military spending.

As pointed out above, most of the education spending is on the state/local level while all of the military spending is on the national level--which gives the answer to your initial question.
posted by flug at 6:54 PM on March 8, 2010

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