Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Babies or Bombs?

The peace movement of the 60s and 70s had a slogan: 'Won't it be a great day when schools have all the money they need, and the air force has to run a cake stall to buy a bomber'.

These days, wits like to suggest that such a situation has come to pass in New Zealand -- except maybe for the bit about schools having the money they need.

Elsewhere, not a lot has changed. Slate's military writer Fred Kaplan discusses the budget requested by the Pentagon for the US military, a budget which for the 2008 financial year totals $500 billion, not including funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Allowing for inflation, this is larger than at any time since the Korean War, and is more than all other countries' defense budgets combined. And when you do throw in the wars, US military expenditure is more than the entire GDP of Australia.

Kaplan describes how consideration of the Defense Bill by Congress has been characterised by a lack of interest in cost-effectiveness, or even any sense of priorities. He explains that the near-identical amounts earmarked for the different services ($130.1 billion for the Army, $130.8 billion for the Navy/Marines and $ 136.6 billion for the Air Force) are not coincidental. Service budgets have been calibrated since the 1960s, in order to avoid internecine rivalries.

A conservative on the lookout for the self-serving bureaucratic empires of 'big government' might like to start here. If ever there were an example of Milton Friedman's dictum that agencies of the state will inevitably act in their self-interest, this looks like it.

Meanwhile, President Bush has vetoed a bill that has comfortable support in the House and Senate to extend the State Childrens Health Insurance Programme (S-CHIP) to 4 million more children of low-income families. This would cost approximately $7 billion per year. Bush objects on the grounds of cost and because such an extension could be a slippery slope to 'socialized medicine'.

Of course, socializing the costs of military hardware with no apparent purpose is still ok. So it'll be the same people running the cake stalls for a while yet.

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