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Americans don't particularly like government, but they do want government to subsidise their healthcare. They believe that healthcare spending improves their lives more than any other public good. In a Quinnipiac poll, typical of many others, Americans opposed any cuts to Medicare by a margin of 70 per cent to 25 per cent.
In a democracy, voters get what they want, so the line tracing federal healthcare spending looks like the slope of a jet taking off from LaGuardia. Medicare spending is set to nearly double over the next decade. This is the crucial element driving all federal spending over the next few decades and pushing federal debt to about 250 per cent of GDP in 30 years. There are no conceivable tax increases that can keep up with this spending rise.
As a result, healthcare spending, which people really apprecia-te, is squeezing out all other spending, which they value far less. Spending on domestic programmes ó for education, science, infrastructure and poverty relief ó has already faced the squeeze and will take a huge hit in the years ahead. President Obama excoriated Paul Ryan for offering a budget that would cut spending on domestic programmes from its historical norm of 3 or 4 per cent of GDP all the way back to 1.8 per cent. But the Obama budget is the Ryan budget. According to the Office of Management and Budget, Obama will cut domestic discretionary spending back to 1.8 per cent of GDP in six years.
So far, defence budgets have not been squeezed by the Medicare vise. But that is about to change. Oswald Spengler didn't get much right, but he was certainly correct when he told European leaders that they could either be global military powers or pay for their welfare states, but they couldn't do both.
Europeans, who are ahead of us in confronting that decision, have chosen welfare over global power. European nations can no longer perform many elemental tasks of moving troops and fighting. As late as the 1990s, Europeans were still spending 2.5 per cent of GDP on defence. Now that spending is closer to 1.5 per cent, and, amid European malaise, it is bound to sink further.
The US will undergo a similar process. The current budget calls for a steep but possibly appropriate decline in defence spending, from 4.3 per cent of GDP to 3 per cent, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But defence planners are notoriously bad at estimating how fast postwar military cuts actually come. After Vietnam, the cold war and the 1991 gulf war, they vastly underestimated the size of the cuts that eventually materialised. And those cuts weren't forced by the Medicare vise. The coming cuts are.
As the federal government becomes a healthcare state, there will have to be a generation of defence cuts that overwhelm anything in recent history. Keep in mind how brutal the budget pressure is going to be. As this sort of crunch gradually tightens, Medicare will be the last to go. Spending on things like Head Start, scientific research and defence will go quicker. These spending cuts will transform America's stature in the world, making us look a lot more like Europe today. This is why Admiral Mike Mullen called the national debt the country's biggest security threat.
Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defence cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defence, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot. All the charges about Hagel's views on Israel or Iran are secondary. The real question is, how will he begin this long cutting process? How will he balance modernising the military and paying current personnel? How will he recalibrate American defence strategy with, say, 455,000 fewer service members?
How, in short, will Hagel supervise the beginning of America's military decline? If members of Congress don't want America to decline militarily, well, they have no one to blame but the voters and themselves.
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