Defense Spending in Perspective

Article excerpt


In a recent editorial, we noted that nominal military outlays exceeded $500 billion for the first time last year and that real (i.e., inflation-adjusted) defense spending had increased an average of 7.4 percent per year during the five years since September 11. Despite those increases, U.S. military spending still commanded only about 4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2006 and less than 20 percent of total federal budget outlays. Neither measurement this year remotely approaches average post-World War II ratios or comparable percentages during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Since World War II, among all national sectors competing for federal funds, defense spending clearly commanded by far the largest share of the federal budget throughout the 1950s and 1960s during both peacetime and wartime. Since the early 1970s, however, federal spending on human resources has exceeded military outlays. The 2008 blueprint being released today breaks down federal spending from 1940 through 2012 according to five superfunctions: national defense; human resources (education, health, Medicare, income security and Social Security); physical resources (energy, natural resources/environment, commerce, transportation and community development); other functions (international affairs, agriculture, general science/space/technology, administration of justice and general government); and net interest.

We have reviewed the spending trends among these superfunctions over the past 50 years, consolidated and averaged the superfunction spending patterns for four-year cycles that approximate presidential terms and examined the trends in superfunction spending as both a percent of the federal budget and a percent of GDP. …