Magazine article National Defense

The Guns-versus-Butter Debate Lingers On

Magazine article National Defense

The Guns-versus-Butter Debate Lingers On

Article excerpt

Repeated calls by the U.S. military service chiefs for additional defense spending--to modernize aging equipment, to improve troop retention and recruiting, to keep the forces ready for combat--obviously caught on with the presidential candidates this fall, both of whom pledged to increase the defense budget, if elected.

Inside the Beltway, policy makers and think tanks have been speculating not on whether defense spending will go up, but by how much.

The reality outside the Beltway, however, is that most Americans would prefer that the government take dollars out of defense to fund education and job training programs, and medical research, according to a recent study by the non-partisan Center on Policy Attitudes, based in Washington, D.C.

The center polled 712 Americans using an Internet-based methodology that it claims produces a representative sample because it is not limited to households that have Internet access.

The discretionary federal budget was broken into 12 major categories: space and science research, the environment, job training, defense, humanitarian and economic aid to foreign countries, transportation, the State Department, the United Nations and U.N. peacekeeping, federal administration of justice and medical research.

The respondents were told that for those 12 areas, plus debt reduction, the United States spends about $460 billion, which comes out to about $1,000 for the average taxpayer. They were shown the distribution of the discretionary spending for fiscal year 1999.

Then they were asked to re-apportion the money among those 12 areas, according to what they believed should be changed.

The majority, 68 percent, cut defense by 24 percent. In today's dollars, that would be a $70 billion cut. They increased education by 45 percent, job-training programs by 128 percent, and medical research by 147 percent.

Surprisingly, the budget line that received the greatest boost was the United Nations and U.N. peacekeeping, which was upped by 218 percent. During focus group discussions held by the Center on Policy Attitudes (COPA), one participant said, "Peacekeeping, military aid to foreign countries and humanitarian [aid], all those saw some of the increase that I took from defense." This statement reflected what COPA believes was the inclination by many of the survey participants to shift money from the defense budget to other non-military forms of handing international problems.

Steven Kull, the director of COPA, explained that these findings by no means should be interpreted as a sign that Americans don't want a strong military. As a matter of fact, he said, 78 percent of Americans (based on a recent Gallup poll) want defense spending to at least remain unchanged or go up.

Only when respondents were shown the percentage of the federal discretionary budget that goes to defense (59 percent) were they inclined to re-distribute the wealth. Discretionary spending does not include off-budget programs such as Medicare and Social Security. "In the focus groups that we conducted, people expressed great surprise at the amount devoted to defense," said Kull. "When they see the distribution of the discretionary federal budget, they say 'this looks like a world's policeman budget.'"

The reason most people wanted to increase U.N. …

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