Why we can’t afford Irene

Jack Hunter Contributing Editor, Rare
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The New York Times reported last week that “Hurricane Irene will most likely prove to be one of the 10 costliest catastrophes in the nation’s history … Industry estimates put the cost of the storm at $7 billion to $10 billion …”

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said that Washington would send aid to the affected areas, but that it would have to compensate for this unexpected spending by cutting other parts of the budget.

“Those monies are not unlimited,” Cantor told Fox News.

Last month, McClatchy News Service reported that, “According to Defense Department figures, by the end of April the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … had cost an average of $9.7 billion a month, with roughly two-thirds going to Afghanistan.”

The total damage from one of the “costliest catastrophes in the nation’s history” is basically equal to what the United States spends in one month in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cantor is absolutely right that the federal government’s “monies are not unlimited,” but this mathematical fact is equally applicable to the entire budget, including Pentagon spending. Broke plus broke equals broke.

Conservatives used to explain away Bush’s irresponsible spending by saying, “Well, we are fighting two wars.” The implication was that reasonable people understand that wars cost money.

But according to some, reasonable people are now supposed to understand that wars don’t really cost much money. In a recent Daily Caller op-ed titled “Defense spending isn’t the place to skimp,” Rebeccah Heinrichs wrote:

Military spending is not and never has been the bulk of our budget deficit. According to the Congressional Research Service, “by 2009, mandatory spending had grown to 60% of total outlays, with Social Security, Medicare, and the federal share of Medicaid alone comprising almost 41% of all federal spending.” Earlier this year, the Congressional Budget Office’s Budget and Economic Outlook showed that at $2 trillion, mandatory spending (excluding TARP) in fiscal year 2010 was almost three times more than defense spending, which totaled $690 billion, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Something doesn’t compute. We know that wars cost money, which was the conventional Republican reasoning behind why Bush spent so much of it — but somehow, just now, we are being told that wars don’t really cost that much. Is this contradictory? Cantor says we must now skimp to help Americans post-Irene, even though the amount of money needed is equal to what we spend overseas each month. Few Washington politicians say we need to skimp on that spending.

Like I said — something doesn’t compute.

Retired General John Adams agrees, as he explained in an op-ed in The Hill last week:

Over the past 10 years, the DOD budget increased from $297 billion to $549 billion, not including the Overseas Contingency Operations, which alone stands at $159 billion for FY11. Even if we factor in inflation, in an era of constant budget deficits, this rate of spending is unsustainable.

Adams then explains why such high levels of spending are unnecessary:

For far too long the quality of our national security has been judged by the quantity of Pentagon spending and by the size of our armed forces. The truth is, the more we spent like this, the more we have wasted and the less we actually thought about the meaning of national security … Yet, many of those who benefit from DOD business-as-usual argue that an $850 billion reduction in spending over 10 years would be devastating to our national security.

Adams concludes: “This argument is wrong.”

Last week, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough made a similar point in a Politico op-ed:

A decade after Sept. 11, most Americans probably agree with me that keeping the Taliban out of power over the next decade is not worth an additional $1 trillion and countless American lives. When Washington will come around to that calculation is anyone’s guess.

But Cantor has already come to this calculation — that we can’t spend money we don’t have. He just hasn’t applied it to foreign policy, to my knowledge, as both Gen. Adams and Scarborough say he and other Washington leaders must do.

Are we now a country that piddles over whether to help citizens at home rebuild post-Irene because of our dedication to nation-building abroad? Anyone can try to skew the numbers or cook the books to ignore the fact that wars cost money. So do natural disasters.

But unlike hurricanes and tropical storms, Americans can usually avoid wars if we determine that they aren’t worth the cost. What America can’t afford is to pretend that wars cost nothing.

Jack Hunter writes at the “Paulitical Ticker,” where he is the official Ron Paul 2012 campaign blogger.