Why We Have a Debt Problem, Part 23

So, we have eleven aircraft carrier groups. No other country in the world has more than one. Everyone who has looked at the issue has agreed that we could do with fewer than eleven while still achieving our national security goals: Bush/Obama Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Obama Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and think tanks on the left and the right.

But apparently we can’t retire even one–even though we would save not just the annual operating costs, but most of the $4.7 billion it will cost to refurbish over the next five years. Instead, the Obama Administration has promised the Pentagon that it can simply have more money and not comply with the spending limits set in the 2011 debt ceiling agreement (and modified by Murray-Ryan).
Why? Well, legislators from states with Navy bases don’t want to reduce the Navy’s budget. More important, though, few people want to be for a smaller military–even when our military is irrationally large, given our other national priorities (healthcare, education, infrastructure, etc.). Instead of asking whether we need eleven times as many aircraft carriers as any other country, defenders insist that any reduction is a sign of weakness–conveniently overlooking the fact that we used to have fifteen carriers, and the world hasn’t ended.

The obvious underlying problem is that every line item in the budget has an interest group that wants it in there. The slightly less obvious underlying problem is that every budgetary debate is fought on its own, without regard to the tradeoffs it entails. Who is going to be against more and in favor of less? (Actually, when it comes to the military, I would, given the problems that having a super-strong military has caused us–think of Iraq, for starters–but that’s not a viable political position.)

The inability to keep more than one thing in mind at a time is a natural human limitation. How many times have you seen a meeting’s outcome be determined by the last idea that someone had, regardless of how it compared to all the ideas that came before? But it’s no way to run a country.

This piece is cross-posted from The Baseline Scenario with permission.