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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The military-industrial-complex complex

By Paul Krugman

Like most people who opine about politics and policy, I routinely talk in terms of left versus right. But when I do, I sometimes encounter people who decry this approach as simplistic. Surely, they argue, people are more complicated than that, and don’t have views that can be neatly summarized by a single dimension.

Well, while people may be complicated, politicians aren’t. Careful statistical analysis of congressional voting shows that politicians are very clearly arrayed along a left-right spectrum.

And if you know where a politician lies on that spectrum, you can do a very good job of predicting his positions on seemingly unrelated issues. There could, in principle, be strong environmentalists who want to cut taxes on the rich and vice versa. In practice, such people are vanishingly rare.

Anyway, voters aren’t as easily characterized as politicians, but they, too, seem to be growing more one-dimensional. To take one widely discussed example, views of the economy — not what policies we should be pursuing, but simply how it’s doing — have become wildly partisan. Right now, self-identified Republicans mostly believe that unemployment, which is near a 50-year low, is actually near a 50-year high, and assess current economic conditions as being worse than they were in 1980, when both inflation and unemployment were much worse than they are now.

But while normal politics may be remarkably linear, abnormal politics may be less so. There’s a widespread notion about political extremes known as the “horseshoe theory,” which says that in some ways the extreme left and the extreme right may be more alike than either is to the center.

As far as I can tell, political scientists are generally skeptical or worse about this theory. Activists on the far left generally advocate quite different policies from those on the far right; also, the far right has real political power while the left mostly yells from the sidelines.

Yet horseshoe thinking persists because there are still some ways in which it seems to match experience. And the horseshoe theory has been given a big boost by recent events: As many have noted, the far left and the far right seem increasingly united in antisemitism. (Funny how that always happens.)

Then there’s the war in Ukraine, where many on both the far left and the far right want to cut off aid, effectively giving Vladimir Putin victory. There are multiple reasons for that convergence, most of which I’ll leave to other analysts. But one common theme on the left and the right is the claim that we can’t afford the expense of that aid.

I’ve written before about right-wing claims to that effect, and why they’re disingenuous. But I’ve been seeing a somewhat different set of arguments from the left — not so much a complaint about the sums being sent to Ukraine as the claim that we have a huge, bloated military budget, and perhaps that “merchants of death” are driving our support both for Ukraine and for Israel.

What people making such claims should know is that their views about how much we spend on the military are generations out of date.

It’s true that Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech warning about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.” But he gave that speech in 1961 — that is, his warning was as far in our past as, say, the Spanish-American War was in his. Military spending today is much smaller as a share of the economy than it was then.

The Pentagon’s role in the budget has declined even more dramatically than its role in the overall economy. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson introduced Medicare and Medicaid while expanding Social Security, and these programs have expanded further over time. Some of us like to say that the federal government is an insurance company with an army — well, the insurance side of the business really dominates these days.

By the way, for the record, I strongly opposed the invasion of Iraq and stuck my neck out by asserting in real time that we were being misled into war. But I never believed, unlike some leftists, either that defense contractors drove the push for war or that the monetary costs of the war were insupportable and had something to do with the 2008 financial crisis.

So, do we have a hugely bloated military budget? No doubt the Pentagon, like any large organization, wastes a lot of money. But recent events have made the case for spending at least as much as we currently do, and perhaps more.

First, one of the revelations from the war in Ukraine has been that those expensive NATO weapons systems, from Javelin anti-tank missiles to HIMARS, actually do work. More important, it turns out that the era of large-scale conventional warfare isn’t over after all, and there are real concerns about whether our weapons production capacity is large enough to deal with the potential threats.

By all means, let’s have good-faith arguments about how much America should spend on its military. But repeating 60-year-old cliches about the military-industrial complex doesn’t help the discussion.

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