Soldiers in the western world are now disturbingly fat. Germany wallowed in disgrace as news went viral that its army was too tubby (and drunk) to tussle with Taliban troops. Just two-thirds of British grunts pass muster. And, of course, no one will be shocked to learn that the US is having trouble finding people who aren’t too obese to be in the Army—and once they are enlisted, the Army has to teach them about basic nutrition.
But the most bloated body of all doesn’t belong to any single uniform-popping individual. It’s the American defense budget, which the US drags laboriously from fiscal year to fiscal year like a hundred-pound scrotum.
Look, hilariously expensive, inefficient planes are awesome, but there really can be too much of a good thing. We spend a quarter of the federal government's budget to keep the country safe. That’s (in part) why Washington has agreed to shave military spending to the tune of some $400 billion by 2023. You might think that would expand the horizons of politicians and policymakers, convincing them that if we don’t need to spend so much on the military, we might also discover greater cost-cutting possibilities in the future.
Instead, the beltway is deep into a thickening freakout over the prospect of $500 billion-plus in defense trimming, spread, of course, over years and years, that is part of the so-called “fiscal cliff” that we’re about to jump off. The fiscal cliff, remember, was the popular threat in Congress last November: Automatic budget cuts and tax hikes so seemingly insane that the Supercommittee would magically agree on a fiscal plan that Congress felt too incompetent to craft. Magic didn’t happen, so now, unless lawmakers pass a “ha ha just kidding” amendment to the Budget Control Act, the military will get a lot slimmer, along with the rest of the government.
Watching a nightmare they casually invented horribly conform to real life has turned Republicans and Democrats alike into grotesquely exaggerated versions of their usual grotesque selves. Arch-Democrat and Clinton lifer Leon Panetta has called the cuts a “doomsday scenario.” And John McCain is now touring swing states with a GOP posse to warn Americans that they’re better off paying higher taxes than getting back that half-trillion and change.
Sen. Tom Coburn, an actual sane person on fiscal matters, admitted that the fiscal cliff idea is “stupid” (after all, Congress came up with it to force some other guys into making decisions Congress agreed to fail to make), but boasted: “I can find the fat in the Pentagon. They're just not willing to do it. And they don't believe it's there. I believe it's there. I've actually studied it.” He wants a Pentagon audit. So does Sen. Rand Paul. Amazingly, considering the forever-expanding mass of stupid in Washington, the number of Republicans who accept that defense dollars must be curtailed is growing.
Republicans will never get what they allegedly live for—a serious decrease in the size, scope, and cost of government—unless they bite the bullet on military spending. Social program-loving Democrats and hardcore deficit hawks won’t trust them otherwise, and if Congress has to go explain to America that it had to destroy its budget agreement and kick the deficit down the road (again) in order to keep spending gross amounts of money on war toys, you can expect that approval rating to crater back down to its recent low of nine percent.
Worst of all, if Republicans don’t find a way to continue hacking fat from the Pentagon, they’re apt to find themselves out-irresponsibled by President Obama. Too vulnerable an incumbent for his powerful friends’ tastes, he’s once again being lectured on his inability to boss around Congress. “The president should head straight for the cliff,” Bill Keller wrote in the New York Times, “and let Congress know he’s prepared to take us over the edge unless they build a bridge.” Leadership! “If no deal emerges, all the Democrats have to do is take a page from the Republican playbook: Dig in their heels and do nothing.” As if Congressional Democrats, who didn’t bother drafting a budget the past three years, haven’t been doing nothing all along.
Slashing the budget and seeing what the fuck happens after that doesn’t sound too awful, actually—unless, of course, you’re one of the people employed by the federal government and will lose your job over the cuts. But as Matt Yglesias pointed out, the purpose of government is to provide services, not make-work. The economy will never recover until we end the artificial pretend economy of jobs the market doesn’t need. And that won’t happen until we start returning people who work for the government to the real economy in the private sector. It’s sad but true—that means continuing to let go of public employees at a time of stubbornly high unemployment.
Don’t have faith in the ability of our free-market system to convert those fired people—including smart, skilled defense contractors—into rehired private-sector workers? That’s OK. Maybe they can join the military—if they aren’t too fat.