Last week Gov. Romney delivered a foreign policy speech at the Citadel. He pushed aggressively for a muscular foreign policy. At one point he said, “This century must be an American Century. In an American Century, America has the strongest economy and the strongest military in the world. In an American Century, America leads the free world and the free world leads the entire world.”
The speech generated an exchange in today’s New York Times asking the question if voters are looking for an isolationist. This exchange was a compilation of views by nine people representing the left and the right. Only one, Michael Lind, linked Romney’s foreign policy vision with economic policy. The only other essay I read that connected the two was Matt Miller‘s in the Washington Post.
This nation already spends more money on its military than any other nation in the world. SIPRI’s background paper on military expenditures estimated the difference between our expenditures and those of the next highest nation, China, is $579 billion. (In 2010, the United States spent $698 billion. The estimated amount China spent in the same year is $119 billion.) Expressed differently, the United States accounted for 42.8% of the world’s military expenditures. China accounted for 7.3%.
Gov. Romney is entitled to his position. His muscular foreign policy seeks to reclaim American exceptionalism as the leader of the free world. It rests upon a stronger military.
I question, though, how strong this nation can be when the economic policy behind foreign policy seeks to reduce taxes? His stock answer will be that reducing taxes and cutting regulations will unleash economic growth and activity, which will expand the economy. Yet, that was the policy during the early part of this century. The Bush administration cut taxes, cut regulations, and raised military spending. It did this and turned a surplus into a deficit. This was not the tonic for economic growth. The crummy economy we have now was handed to Obama at the start of 2009. While his stewardship has not grown the economy significantly, returning to the formula of the first decade of this century is actually pretty dumb (there is no other way to describe it nicely).
A couple of things bother me immediately. First, why are so few commentators making noise about the inconsistency between a robust foreign policy resting on higher military expenditures and an economic policy that won’t raise taxes to support it? Second, the implications of this combination will weaken our infrastructure, both physical and human.
Infrastructure is hardly sexy, but its importance can’t be readily dismissed. Without a solid infrastructure, the edifice can’t stand.
Raising military expenditures without raising taxes will necessitate cuts in other areas of the budget in the short run. Even entitlement reform will not yield enough money in the first few years to offset increased military spending. The cuts will hurt our human infrastructure. We won’t be able to address poverty adequately when we have to reduce food stamps, low income fuel assistance, low income housing, and healthcare to children. We won’t be able to fund our schools to train the next generation of world leaders (especially when several countries already do much more for their students than we do). We won’t spend money on our own physical infrastructure, which received an embarrassing grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (the report card gives solid waste the highest grade, C+). History will show that strong nations had strong infrastructures and nations with poor infrastructure couldn’t attain world dominance. And somehow, I don’t think our C+ ability to treat solid waste is a linchpin for global leadership.
We’ve never really acknowledged politically that we are an empire despite the physical evidence. Empires need to tax its people heavily if it is to maintain its hegemony. The taxes enable the nation to project its power far beyond its borders and helps to keep its internal infrastructure strong. It needs fiscal policies that strengthen the middle class so they will feel they have a stake in the well-being of the nation, which means keeping the distance between the richest and the poorest from being overly disparate.
Since the end of the 1970s our government’s fiscal policies have quietly transferred wealth from the bottom of the economy to the top. It became blatantly apparent at the beginning of this century and the general approach of the GOP candidates for president will continue it. As the disparity in wealth and income increases, our human infrastructure will weaken. And who knows? If this trend continues, we may watch this nation collapse upon itself because its infrastructure was too weak to support it.
Does the Roman Empire mean anything to the candidates?