Let’s Cut Our Ridiculous Defense Budget

Mr. Biden could also save large sums on nuclear weapons. In the coming years, the military plans to develop and purchase more than 600 new nuclear missiles at a potential cost of over $100 billion. But as Elisabeth Eaves has detailed in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, these missiles aren’t just wildly expensive. They’re dangerous. Because they are designed to fire while enemy missiles are still in the air, former Defense Secretary William Perry warns that they “could trigger an accidental nuclear war.” Mr. Perry has proposed phasing out America’s land-based nuclear weapons and relying on a safer air- and sea-based deterrent. If Mr. Biden followed Mr. Perry’s advice, he could save more than enough money to prepare vaccines for the 50 to 100 viruses most likely to cause the next pandemic.

Advocates of America’s mammoth defense budget claim it generates jobs. But academic studies reveal that it does so far less efficiently than government investment in education, clean energy, transportation and health care. Defense hawks also insist that without increased spending, the United States will lose its military primacy. In 2018, the Trump administration warned that America’s “competitive military advantage has been eroding,” especially in relation to China and Russia. In his confirmation hearing, Mr. Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, called China “a pacing challenge for our department.”

Opinion Debate What should the Biden administration prioritize?

  • Nicholas Kristof, Opinion columnist, writes that “Biden’s proposal to establish a national pre-K and child care system would be a huge step forward for children and for working parents alike.”
  • The Editorial Board argues the president should address a tax system where “most wage earners pay their fair share while many business owners engage in blatant fraud at public expense.”
  • Veronica Escobar, a Democrat who represents El Paso, writes that “the real crisis is not at the border but outside it, and that until we address that crisis, this flow of vulnerable people seeking help at our doorstep will not end.”
  • Gail Collins, Opinion columnist, has a few questions about gun violence: “One is, what about the gun control bills? The other is, what’s with the filibuster? Is that all the Republicans know how to do?”

China, however, spends less than one-third as much on defense as the United States does and has fewer than one-tenth as many nuclear weapons. China’s military could indeed be a match for the United States in conflicts near China’s shores, but globally, China poses a far greater economic challenge. To meet it, the United States must invest enormously in education and emerging technologies — the very investments that military spending will sooner or later crowd out. The two superpowers also compete ideologically, and the United States gravely undermines the appeal of its democratic system when, amid a pandemic, the dictatorship in China proves better able to keep its citizens alive.

One explanation for Mr. Biden’s reticence lies in Dwight Eisenhower’s warning about the “unwarranted influence” that America’s “military-industrial complex” could amass in “the councils of government.” This influence is especially intense in Congress, where many districts rely on military spending and where legislators feel the weight of the more than $100 million per year that the defense industry lavishes on lobbying.

But dollars don’t have to be destiny. Over the past decade, grass-roots rebellions have blunted the hold that other powerful industries wield inside the Democratic Party. As a result of Occupy, Black Lives Matter and populist political campaigns by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, the days when a Democratic president could easily appoint a Treasury secretary from Goldman Sachs seem to be over. When it comes to defense contractors, however, there has been no similar transformation. So Mr. Biden, with minimal controversy, has appointed a defense secretary, General Austin, who served on the board of Raytheon Technologies.