Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How is military spending like education spending?

In a great post from The Economist about President Obama's plan to freeze non-security discretionary spending for three years, the author took a solid, principled position against unlimited military expansions:

"If it weren't enough that the proposal treats voters as children and a serious problem as a political football to be kicked around, the president's plan also appears to endanger an economy that hasn't meaningfully raised employment in over a decade and it solidifies defence spending as the untouchable budget category, when in fact it should be anything but."

Indeed, the American right has a fetish for military spending the same way the left sees educational spending. The right believes any cut to military spending would result in a less powerful military. What they should instead be asking is how many other government agencies do they trust to spend its money wisely.

They already believe that the public education system is sloppy with money, and that cutting educational spending won't mean dumber children. In both cases, you have a large government system with a lot of money and a near-unlimited goal for excellence. People do not believe there is a limit to how smart our students could be, or how few enemy attacks we should experience.

The source of the data in the above chart, USgovernmentspending.com, reports that total defense expenditures were 5.78 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in 2009, and will go up to 5.93 percent in 2010.

In the same time, total educational spending will go from 6.41 percent of GDP to a record-breaking 7.02 percent in 2010.

In inflation-adjusted dollars, spending looks this:

Please note this is not the story the left tells about military spending. While they are correct that it uses an awful lot of federal money, they often back it up with a data set like the following:


The above chart, which shows federal defense spending trumping education spending, is a subset of the previous chart. The two are wildly different, yet they describe the same country at the same time. The important difference is the first chart is the total budget, and the second one is merely the federal dollars in that budget.

That's because most defense spending is done on the federal level, while most education spending is on a local and state level. People who use the last chart are leaving out important information to skew the facts. I was shocked when I became a reporter and started covering towns in Maine to discover that two-thirds and three-quarters of town budgets go to the schools.

We've all seen a bumper sticker that read something like "It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber." This just adds to the myth that only the military is out of control with its budget, and schools are underfunded.

In reality, both the military and the public education system are sprawling, inefficient tax sinks. They have important goals, but could reach them without wasting as much money as they do. In addition, people on both the left and right correctly identify the problems with one system and ignore the problems with the other.

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