Military Spending in Perspective

by Kevin D. Williamson

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.

I like 1957. It seems like a pretty good year to me, and its neighbors on the calendar were pretty good years, too.

My lefty friends sometimes say that Republicans should endorse those high Eisenhower-era personal income tax rates, but in fact the government took in slightly less in taxes then than it does now. Not many people paid those sky-rate 1950s tax rates on much of their money. Certainly not Ike—he had his million-dollar book deal structured as a capital gain. The 1957 story isn’t about the taxes.

It’s about the spending.

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.

Let me reiterate: I don’t want increase military spending, and I don’t want to cut taxes, either, but if you wanted to get serious about whacking real hard on everything else Uncle Stupid spends our money on, you could in theory build that big navy Carly Fiorina dreams about, build a couple more just like it, reduce taxes just a little bit, and generate a budget surplus to start paying down the national debt.

Don’t let anybody tell you that it is out-of-control military spending that is holding us back. When it comes to the one thing the federal government really has to spend money on, we’re spending less than we did in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s. 

The Corner

The one and only.