You get what you pay for
A new report from Brown University's Costs of War project, shared exclusively with Popular Information, reveals how decades of enormous military spending have reshaped the federal government and the U.S. economy. Today, more than half of all discretionary spending is spent on defense, military personnel make up the majority of federal government employees, and private military contractors are a leading force in the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, "investments in infrastructure, healthcare, education, and emergency preparedness" have been crowded out.
The numbers are startling. There are about 3.5 million people who work for the federal government, including civilians and uniformed military personnel. 72% of all federal workers are "defense-related," including Department of Defense civilians, uniformed military personnel, and the Department of Veterans Affairs staff. Meanwhile, the Department of Health and Human Services employs 4% of federal civilian workers. The State Department, tasked with using diplomacy to avert wars, employs 1%.
The Department of Defense has a budget of $849 billion in the current fiscal year, and more than half is funneled to military contractors. About 30% of this money goes to just five firms: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Northrup Grumman. Billions are awarded without competitive bidding. In 2020, for example, only 10% of Lockheed Martin's contracts were subject to competition. Despite the massive sums of money involved, "we know surprisingly little about how they spend these funds, what kinds of jobs and pay are supported, which sub-contractors are paid and how much." All five companies spend in excess of $10 million annually lobbying the federal government.
Today, "military contracts are distributed to every congressional district and nearly every county in the U.S." According to the report, this isn't an accident. Military contractors understand that "spreading out contracts means buying and gaining political support." The strategy produces "more constituents and more politicians fighting to win or maintain those contracts for the sake of jobs."
But military spending comes at a cost. Since 2015, the U.S. has added more than $300 billion to its annual defense spending. That is equivalent to the annual cost of providing universal pre-K for 3 and 4-year-olds, 2 years of free community college for high school graduates, and health insurance for uninsured Americans — combined.
The situation described in the report is likely to worsen following the recent passage of a deal to raise the debt ceiling, which reduces most discretionary spending for two years while allowing defense spending to continue apace.
"U.S. taxpayers have gotten what they’ve paid for, which is an economy that is devoted to the military, both in terms of spending and in terms of jobs," the author of the study, Dr. Heidi Peltier, concludes. The following is a transcript of Popular Information's interview with Peltier, edited for length and clarity.
LEGUM: You describe in the report that, today, both the federal government and, to a certain extent, the economy overall, is dominated by military spending. When did this dynamic begin?
PELTIER: Until recently, [the defense budget] would go up during wartime and down during peacetime. And what we're seeing in recent years is that it keeps going up even when we're not at war. So with the exit from Afghanistan and the winding down of the Iraq war, we really should be seeing military spending going down. And yet we continue to see increased military budgets. So that is something that I think has changed over the last 20 years in the post-9/11 era.
LEGUM: Many politicians and pundits argue that the United States is not spending enough on the military. One of the arguments that I see centers around purchasing power. The argument is that we spend more than the next 10 or 11 countries combined on our military, but that distorts reality because it's much cheaper for the Chinese to pay for things. What would you say to that?
PELTIER: We spend three times as much as China, and we spend 10 times as much as Russia. If that argument were true, you could look at the numbers of tanks, drones, weapons, and ammunition. There's some ability to make things cheaper in China, but the United States still has a lot more tanks and a lot more nuclear weaponry, a lot more ammunition, and a lot more weapons systems of all types.
LEGUM: Another common argument is that we have a dominant position over countries like China now, but they are investing aggressively. So we need to continue to invest aggressively to stay ahead.
PELTIER: We're spending upwards of $850 billion on the military. You could cut that by 10%, or even 20%, and we'd still be aggressively investing, especially given that we are not at war. We're spending some money on the Ukraine war, but we ourselves are not at war.
LEGUM: You note in the paper that billions are funneled to defense contractors, but not much is known about how a lot of that money is spent. Why is that?
PELTIER: Some of the defense contractors overseas pay subcontractors, who then also pay subcontractors, and the chain can go on sometimes three or four contractors deep. And in particular, in conflict areas where US contractors are receiving contracts, and then hiring local companies or third-country companies to perform some of the subcontracts, there's not enough oversight. It's very easy to lose track of who's getting the money, and how much is getting into whose hands. So half of the Department of Defense budget stays within the Department of Defense, half of its budget goes to contractors, and then we quickly lose sight of what happens to the funding and the personnel that makes up that half of the military spending.
LEGUM: It's still fairly rare to see prominent elected officials criticize the level of U.S. military spending. Why do you think the arguments you make in this paper are so marginalized?
PELTIER: First, Congresspeople are beholden to the military because nobody wants to be the Congressperson who cuts funding to their district and is seen as responsible for any potential job loss. So then you get both Republicans and Democrats arguing against cutting any military funding or arguing for increasing military funding because they don't want to take any chance on job losses in their own district. And then related to that is it's seen as very unpatriotic to cut military spending. Political support for the military is seen as a show of patriotism, and of supporting U.S. dominance. And nobody wants to be seen as unpatriotic.