IT IS SURPRISING to hear defenders of our high level of military spending oppose defense reduction because of its negative effect on employment. This argument comes from the same people who have said that government spending creates no jobs, and who made no such employment-based objection to policies that have led to the firing of firefighters, teachers, and police officers, and reductions in spending for infrastructure. But the fact that this weaponized Keynesianism is inconsistent does not mean that it is wrong. The question is not whether there is an employment impact from defense spending cuts, but how that impact compares to spending reductions in other areas.
The answer, from both a national and Massachusetts perspective, is that cutting military spending in the appropriate way will have far less of a negative impact on jobs than the cuts that are likely to occur if the defense budget is not cut.
A recent study by Robert Polan and Heidi Garrott-Peltier of the Political Economy Research Institute at University of Massachusetts Boston documents that money spent on clean energy, health care, or education “will create substantially more jobs within the US economy than would the same [amount] spent on the military.’’
Except for the foreign aid program, the largest percentage of military money is spent overseas. The Pentagon and its allies engage in the “Washington Monument syndrome,’’ in which an agency threatened with budget reductions insists that the cuts will be made in the most damaging way. But those of us seeking to reduce military spending are focused on unnecessary spending in other countries.
Ending the war in Afghanistan saves more than $120 billion a year. Telling our wealthy allies in Western Europe - who spend 1.7 percent of their GDP on the military, while we spend 5.4 percent on ours - that they are in charge of their own defense and no longer need tens of billions of dollars a year in American military subsidies will cost few, if any, American jobs.
The fundamental cause of this country’s greatly inflated military spending is that we continue to play the role that we assumed after World War II: the protector of virtually every nation in the world outside the Communist orbit, and the guarantor of stability across the globe. There is no longer any need for the former, and it was never reasonable to undertake the latter. The causes of instability are rarely curable by American military intervention.
Secondly, there are cuts that will cause much greater job loss, especially in Massachusetts. The major alternative sources of significant deficit reduction are Medicare and Medicaid. In Massachusetts we are not only consumers of medical care, but also producers, through our hospitals, medical device manufacturers, and research institutions. Big cuts in Medicare and Medicaid will be far more damaging to the Massachusetts economy than reducing our far-flung network of military bases throughout the world.
Protecting the military budget against further cuts will also lead to increased reductions in the budgets of state and local governments, meaning fewer teachers, public-works employees, firefighters, and police officers. We should continue to support international efforts to fight disease, diminish child starvation, and cooperate in efforts at international financial stability. But these are done far less expensively than maintaining a military presence in dozens of nations all over the globe.
The United States should remain the strongest nation in the world and that will require continued research and production of sophisticated weapons, much of which will still be done in Massachusetts. But we can still maintain the superiority needed for our own security, as well as a reasonable degree of support for vulnerable nations, for two-thirds of what we now spend. That would allow us to achieve significant deficit reduction without slashing Medicare, further reducing funds for state and local government, and withholding money needed to improve the quality of education.