For years now, countless analysts have predicted that the federal government’s long-term budget imbalances would ultimately trigger some type of crisis. The failure of such a crisis to materialize, along with the sharp decline in short-term deficits that followed passage of the 2011 Budget Control Act, has prompted a chorus of critics to declare that the budget warnings amounted to — in the words of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman — “a false alarm.”
And yet, whether or not a “Banana Republic doomsday scenario” ever comes to pass, Brookings Institution scholar Ron Haskins believes America is already experiencing a different sort of budget crisis, which he describes as a “Chinese water torture slow crisis in which spending on programs vital to the nation’s future are gradually starved.”
More specifically, Haskins is concerned that federal spending on “the Big Three” — (1) major health-care programs, (2) Social Security, and (3) debt service — is crowding out spending on children, national defense, and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Citing estimates from the advocacy group First Focus, he notes that “in constant dollars . . . spending on children declined almost 14 percent between 2010 and 2014.” Meanwhile, “for the last three years, the NIH budget has declined each year.”
As for defense spending, there have been only three fiscal years since World War II in which it fell below 3 percent of GDP — those years were 1999, 2000, and 2001 — and never in the postwar period has it dropped lower than 2.9 percent of GDP. However, the Congressional Budget Office projects that, unless current law is changed, defense spending will plunge to 2.7 percent of GDP in 2024, down from an estimated 3.4 percent of GDP in 2014. “It’s a good thing there are no military threats headed our way from Russia, ISIS, al-Qaeda, Iran, North Korea, or China,” Haskins writes sarcastically.
To better appreciate the dangers posed by America’s recent defense cuts, simply consult the bipartisan National Defense Panel and its assessment of the Pentagon’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review. Here’s a sobering excerpt:
“Since World War II, no matter which party has controlled the White House or Congress, America’s global military capability and commitment has been the strategic foundation undergirding our global leadership. Given that reality, the defense budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, coupled with the additional cuts and constraints on defense management under the law’s sequestration provision, constitute a serious strategic misstep on the part of the United States. Not only have they caused significant investment shortfalls in U.S. military readiness and both present and future capabilities, they have prompted our current and potential allies and adversaries to question our commitment and resolve. Unless reversed, these shortfalls will lead to a high risk force in the near future. That in turn will lead to an America that is not only less secure but also far less prosperous. In this sense, these cuts are ultimately self- defeating.”