The nation’s top military officer said Wednesday that he expected the Pentagon to ask Congress in the next few months for emergency financing to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though President Obama has pledged to end the Bush administration practice of paying for the conflicts with so-called supplemental funds that are outside the normal Defense Department budget.
The financing would be on top of the $130 billion that Congress authorized for the wars just last month.
What if? Well, this year, that would mean devoting $680 billion to investments in infrastructure. That’s more than $200 billion more than Oberstar’s entire proposed transportation reauthorization bill, which was itself a large increase over the previous transportation law. There’s probably no way we could spend all that money at once, but it would nicely capitalize an infrastructure bank, and the promise of a steady flow of funds would get states thinking about real, long-term investments.
With that kind of money you could entirely build out a national network of true high-speed rail. One year’s worth of defense spending gets you that. Which makes one wonder: where are all the economists, wringing their hands over cost-benefit analyses of these defense expenditures? Does anyone doubt that the net benefit of $100 billion spent on high-speed rail is easily higher than that for the last $100 billion spent on defense? Have a look at this if you’re unsure.
And while the gains to new investments in infrastructure (and not just in transportation) would be large, it isn’t as though we lack critical needs. What was the cost, human and economic, of the I-35 bridge collapse? Of the Metro crash and resulting limitations on service? Of the Bay Bridge shutdown? And of course, investments in infrastructure constitute positive contributions to the economy, which ultimately strengthen our ability to direct resources toward defense. Aimless defense spending, on the other hand, may well make us poorer and less secure.
I would also add that we could probably have a rational conversation about national priorities if we talked about defense spending in the same way that we talked about health care spending. That is, if all defense projects were scored according to their ten year cost, or if economists scrutinized the distortionary impact of massive defense spending, or if new defense spending had to be accounted for through tax increases or cuts in other spending, then we probably wouldn’t be so quick to perpetuate these out of control budgets. As it stands however, defense spending is magical spending, and as such, doesn’t actually have any impact on anything ever.