The reprieve that ended the government shutdown and forestalled default mandated that Congress come to agreement on a federal budget plan. As Democrats and Republicans grope toward an elusive Grand compromise, two categories of spending are certain to come under a lot of discussion: “national security” and “entitlements.” I have problems with both of these terms.
National Security” (or “Defense”)—The United States is the most secure great power in the history of the world. We are separated from any conceivable enemies by two vast oceans. We are many times stronger militarily than any conceivable combination of conceivable enemies. Yet we spend an extraordinary amount of money—over one-fifth of the federal budget in recent years—on “defense.”
International comparisons are suggestive. US military spending amounts to 41% of total spending by all the countries of the world. Consider China and Russia. Both countries have huge national territories to defend, and both are flanked on multiple sides by historic enemies. China spends less than one-sixth on its military than does the United States; Russia, less than one-tenth. Given their much more exposed geography, only one of two conclusions is possible: either Russia and China spend recklessly, dangerously little on their defense, or the United States spends preposterously too much. Since neither China nor Russia has suffered any grave impairments to its national security in recent memory, the second conclusion is hard to avoid.
The fact is, with the exception of terrorism, the national security of the United States is unproblematic; we are effectively impregnable to any kind of military attack, and we would be even if we spent only a fraction of what we do on the military. 9/11 demonstrated that we are vulnerable to terrorist acts, but terrorism isn’t a military threat. The great bulk of our military expenditures have nothing to do with fighting terrorism, which is the only real threat to US national security today. Aircraft carriers and nuclear warheads are not anti-terror weapons. (I’m not saying that military force is never usable against terrorism. Up to a point–but only up to a point–it served in Afghanistan. But such instances are exceptional.)
Now, you may believe that the US’s gargantuan military budget serves legitimate national interests. I plan to discuss that belief in a future post. But you must surely acknowledge that whatever its purposes, US military spending is overwhelmingly not about defense or national security. The “defense” budget is a misnomer; let’s just call it the military budget. And most invocations of “national security” as justification for this or that policy action should be discounted as ritualistic cant.
“Entitlements”—My problem with “entitlements” is different. “Entitlements” isn’t literally misleading, as are “national security” and “defense”; it’s its connotations that bother me.
“Entitlements,” of course, is the expression commonly used today to refer to three programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. I don’t know how or when the term “entitlements” became widespread, but I suspect that whoever first dreamed it up was not a fan of the programs in question. “Entitlements” to my mind conjures up the image of spoiled children who think they are entitled to goodies that they haven’t earned.
Another problem with the term is that by linking the three programs together, “entitlements” advances the misleading argument that they pose essentially similar policy problems. They don’t. Medicare and Medicaid face a serious long-term deficit that reflects, above all, a broader problem–the spiraling costs of health care in the United States. Social security faces a minor long-term deficit that could easily be addressed with some relatively small tweaks. But lumping Social Security together with Medicare and Medicaid enables enemies of all three programs to conjure up scary numbers about the huge weight of “entitlements” on the federal budget.
I much prefer the term “safety net” to “entitlements.” The safety net is generally understood to cover more programs than entitlements—most notably, unemployment insurance and food stamps. Its greater inclusiveness is good, to my mind, because it makes it harder to overgeneralize about the programs’ alleged problems. Besides, “safety net” has more positive connotations than “entitlements”: it’s much easier to talk about cutting the latter than the former.
So, while “safety net” may not be objectively more descriptive or otherwise superior to “entitlements,” it reflects my policy preferences. People who are eager to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid will describe those programs as “entitlements.” Those of us who want to defend them should talk about them as part of the social safety net.
The language we use in our political discourse is important. Military and social safety net spending will be effectively in competition in the upcoming budget discussions. There will be plenty of Republicans and some Democrats calling for increases in military spending: What can be more important than our national security? Certainly not over-indulgent entitlements! We need to recognize that our national security is not at risk, but the social safety net is.