October 8, 2015


I favor cuts in defense spending—I favor cuts in spending almost everywhere—but thinking about President Eisenhower earlier today (I do that a lot) made me want to put contemporary military spending into perspective. In 1957, the nation was more or less at peace, the budget ran a small surplus, and we spent 9.8 percent of GDP on national defense. That was down sharply from the years immediately before (winding down of Korean War expenses, I guess) but quite a bit higher than it was in 1950 and 1951. In 1950, we spent only 4.9 percent of GDP on national defense, half that 1957 number. This year, we’re going to spend about 3.3 percent of GDP on national defense. That’s less than we spent during the first Clinton administration, a fairly peaceable time. It’s less than we’ve spent since before the budgetary beginning of the post-9/11 era, by which I mean, since 2002. Looking at 1957 from the other side of the ledger, tax receipts were 17.2 percent of GDP. This year, taxes are expected to come in at 17.7 percent of GDP, a little bit more. . . .

The real lesson of 1957 is that you could—if you were so inclined—spend three times what we spend on the military in GDP terms, produce a small budget surplus, and reduce total taxes. You could do that if you were willing to do the work on the rest of the budget. I wasn’t around at the time, but I’ve heard that 1957 was not a time of stateless Mad Max anarchy and wanton savagery in the United States.

Politicians found better ways to buy votes, so money spent on, you know, actually doing things the Constitution assigns to the national government is squeezed.

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