Andreas Beger

Data/political scientist

Defense doublethink


If you had to take a look at the chart below, what would you say about the overall trend in US defense spending? There’s a bump fairly early on for World War 2, but otherwise it seems to generally increase over time. I’m actually surprised to see that we spend more, in terms of constant US dollars, today than we did at the height of the Korean War, and in fact at any point in US history save World War 2.


The chart is from the Heritage Foundation, a think thank that exists in a alternative dimension in which logic and coherence are a bit different. The article from which this chart says this about it:

The defense topline reveals disturbing trends. As Lewis pointed out more than a decade ago, the defense budget experienced “slow erosion” during most periods of recent U.S. history, interspersed with event-driven booms. Unsurprisingly, these swings in the defense budget have undermined the development of a stable, coherent defense program designed with sufficient regard for the long term.

Huh? What? Sure, defense spending increases during a war, and decreases afterwards, although the chart shows that this isn’t entirely true, e.g. the Reagan military build up. But overall the trend is upward over time, in part because the post-war decreases do not match the war-related increases. It’s understandable that a conservative think thank will try to argue that we need to spend more on defense, that the threats are significant, etc. They pretty much say so in the first sentences in the abstract:

President Barack Obama’s defense budget request perpetuates a long-standing pattern of underfunding defense needs. Defense spending is already near his__toric lows, and the Administration’s budget would reduce it to levels unprecedented during wartime.

Certainly, as someone who used to be in the military, it was and still is in my own interest for defense spending to increase, in a purely material sense. But aside from the fact that I don’t see how the war on terrorism justifies defense spending that surpasses the Korean War, where the US fought China, and basically is at World War 2-levels, I can’t wrap my head around how one would interpret this chart to argue that the defense budget is underfunded. The thinking behind this interpretation is just disturbing.