Soldiers, Seniors, And Trade

REUTERS/Mike Segar

Joanne Butler Contributor
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Donald Trump has announced that one of his priorities will be a military buildup – spending more money on the defense sector.  Does he realize how that buildup will further subsidize our trading partners, who benefit from needing to spend less on their defense when Uncle Sam picks up the tab?  Plus there’s the senior issue:  people wonder if Social Security will go broke, yet billions of dollars are available for the military and defense contractors.  I wonder when seniors, who have worked a lifetime for their benefits, will ask why they’re being shoved at the back of the line when it comes to national priorities?

Let’s look at the trade angle first.  The United States has based troops in South Korea since the Korean conflict ended in 1953.  At first, when South Korea was a poor country, recovering from the traumas of World War II and the subsequent Korean conflict, it needed America’s protection from North Korea.

Fast forward to 2016.  South Korea is a first-world country, with well-known worldwide consumer product brands such as Samsung, KIA, and Hyundai.  Could it afford to replace the American military presence – person for person, ship-for-ship, gun for gun?  Yes.

South Korea does have its own military, however, the American military presence means we are, in effect, subsidizing the South Korean economy.

Money is fungible.  A dollar the South Korean government does not have to spend on its defense is a dollar it can use to do anything – including funding export enterprises.  Now multiply that by a couple of billion and one can see how our bases in that country have helped turn it into a wealthy multinational powerhouse.

Thus, if Mr. Trump wants a do-over regarding the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, he needs to put our expenditures devoted to defending South Korea in the equation.

Likewise, he should consider the military savings resulting from America being freed from its dependence on Middle Eastern oil.  Currently, our Navy is charged with keeping the sea-lanes open in the Mediterranean so Saudi and other oil can be shipped to America.

If America no longer needed Saudi oil, the super rich sheikdom could afford to beef up its own navy to keep their oil accessible to other customers.

Mr. Trump mentioned cutting waste and fraud in the Defense Department.  While he should consult former Senator Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-OK) on waste and fraud, he must also bear in mind that one man’s waste/fraud is another man’s profit center (and his Congressional delegation knows it).  The latter accounted for much of then-Senator Coburn’s frustration in his efforts to eliminate Defense waste and fraud.

One money-saving approach that should appeal to Mr. Trump would be to start another base-closing commission.  The last Base Closing and Realignment Commission was in 2005, eleven years ago.

Closing unneeded bases frees up real estate that’s ripe for development (Mr. Trump’s occupation until recently).  For example, the 2005 commission closed the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in the Philadelphia suburbs.  It’s now a residential and commercial center.  In 1988, the commission closed a Defense supply depot located in the D.C. suburbs.  It’s now an upscale residential section of Alexandria, Virginia.

Currently the Defense Department states that 22 percent of its infrastructure is no longer needed.  That’s a lot of real estate that could be put to better use and, through development, bring jobs to local economies.

Lastly, it’s my belief that support for seniors and for our military is heading for a collision.  As the Great Recession has demonstrated, it’s unreasonable to expect a vast majority of seniors to keep working until their late sixties.  During the Recession, millions of workers aged 50 and older opted for Social Security disability as a de facto early retirement system.

It’s not about seniors being lazy, but it’s often a matter of health as well as a cohort raised on black-and-white televisions coping with new technologies.

In order to receive Social Security and Medicare benefits, a person needs to have worked to receive them.  Thus, seniors have a high degree of ownership in Social Security and Medicare.

But how will seniors feel if they have to live with cuts to Social Security and Medicare, while American military personnel continue to guard South Korea’s border and Saudi Arabia’s shipping lanes?

Mr. Trump needs to know the federal budget is not an all-you-can-eat buffet.  Choices in one part of the budget have ripple effects elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton is a firm believer in the all-you-can-eat buffet theory; oodles of more government spending backed by loans from the Peoples Republic of China.  What happens when the loans are called in?  As Scarlett O’Hara would say, ‘I’ll think about that tomorrow.’

If Mr. Trump wants to distinguish himself as the candidate with a better grip on reality (a top trait for any president), he must step away from the buffet and take a hard look at our national priorities.  Here’s a hint:  seniors historically have a higher propensity to vote than other age groups.  Get it?