The budget cut that dares not speak its name


The far right wants to slash government spending, but the left wants to save things like unemployment benefits and create jobs by spending on our infrastructure needs and alternative energy, and a lot of people in the middle want to do both. Actually, this is one dilemma that's ridiculously easy to solve.

The Atlantic's Joshua Green explains how:

So it's odd that the largest category of discretionary spending has largely escaped scrutiny: military spending. In January, when President Obama proposed a three-year freeze in discretionary spending, he pointedly exempted the military. Last week, a bipartisan group of legislators and policy experts asked an important question: Why?

The group, The Sustainable Defense Task Force, encompasses the political spectrum -- from Barney Frank, on the left, to Ron Paul, on the right -- along with a host of military reformers. They share a belief that unrestrained military spending is a danger to the budget, and to the country. And they make a persuasive case that we can spend less without sacrificing security.

Today, the United States spends more on its military than during the height of the Cold War. The Soviet Union no longer poses a threat, yet we continue to spend huge sums protecting countries in Europe and Asia. This defense subsidy allows Europeans to provide a level of social welfare far in excess of what the United States offers its citizens. If Germany, France, and Britain bore more of their own defense costs, US tax dollars could go elsewhere, or nowhere.

Of course, Green goes on to explain several reasons why this isn't happening. But probably the biggest one is that, as the author Chris Hedges spelled out in the title of his book a few years back, war is a force that gives us meaning. I was thinking of that the other day when -- prior to President Obama's widely panned speech on the Gulf oil spill -- some pundits like MSNBC's Joe Scarborough said Obama should give a speech similar to JFK boosting the space program in 1962.

I don't think that could work. Several presidents, starting with the ever-popular Jimmy Carter, have suggested weaning the United States off of imported oil as "the moral equivalent of war" -- but that never works because for most people the only valid equivalent to war is...war! Think back on JFK and the space program -- the American people ralled behind that not just because of the science and the splendor but because it was a new front in our ongoing war, the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Pretend the 1960s space program had never exisited, and Obama tried to create NASA today.Can you imagine the uproar? Another government boondoggle! Billions of dollars to give high-paying jobs to pointy-headed liberal scientists from Harvard and Berkeley! The Tea Party would go nuts -- unless maybe the space program was sold as a way to locate bin Laden from orbit.

America's emotional attachment to its war machine remains just too great. And the moral equivalent of war -- whether it's cutting the budget or alternative energy -- can't compete.