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Former Sen. Alan Simpson says two big obstacles stand in the way of cutting the federal deficit: the unbending rigidity of political parties and a herd of "sacred cows" in the budget.
The Wyoming Republican who co-chaired the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, told the City Club of Cleveland on Nov. 18 that one of the fattest sacred cows is the Pentagon.
Simpson wasn’t questioning the need for a strong military. His point was that the military budget had become so immense that it operated without restraint. To put it into perspective, he offered this remark:
"Our defense budget is larger than (the combined totals of the next) 14 major countries of the world -- and if you think all of it is there for national security purposes, you're terribly wrong."
PolitiFact Ohio wondered just how the numbers check out and took a look.
Simpson said that simply grasping the size of the military budget challenged the Bowles-Simpson commission, and offered some examples to the City Club.
"We said, How many contractors do you have in the Defense Department? and they said, 'Well, we don't know. It's quite a spread, it's between 1 million and 10 million,'" Simpson said.
"When Dwight Eisenhower said watch out for the military-industrial complex, we should have listened. The ties are deep and they're opaque and there's no way to audit the Defense Department. We said, Can you give us some audit material? and they said, 'We're unable to audit the Defense Department."
He said it had been a losing, bruising battle trying to rein in programs like the health care plan for working-age military retirees.
"There are only 2.2 million of them," he said. "I met one the other day that had never served on active duty, had been in the National Guard the entire time and was a brigadier general.
The health care plan called Tricare carries a premium of $470 a year and no co-pay and covers all dependents, he said. The annual cost to the federal government is $53 billion.
To gauge where the U.S. military budget stood, PolitiFact Ohio checked the State Department's table of world military expenditures, for which the latest year posted was 2005. It was compiled from a blend of actual figures from other nations and some estimates.
The United States led the list with expenditures of $503 billion. The next 14 countries had combined total spending of $403.5 billion -- backing up Simpson's statement.
China was second with $85.3 billion. The United Kingdom was third, with $55.9 billion.
The State Department table also listed military spending per capita. The U.S. ranked first, spending $1,700 per person. The only countries close were Kuwait ($1,670 per capita) and Israel ($1,600).
Among major industrialized nations, Britain spent $925 per capita; France, $841; Germany, $458, Russia, $258; and China, $65.
Some more-recent and detailed figures came from the much-quoted Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. Its Military Expenditure Database was updated in June. It, too, is based on a combination of actual figures and estimates.
It showed U.S. defense spending in 2010 as just under $700 billion, about 43 percent of the world total. Spending for the next highest 14 highest in 2010 came to an estimated combined total of $646 billion. The U.S. total was about six times that of China, its nearest rival, which was estimated at $119 billion.
Among its other findings:
- The world growth in military spending in 2010 had its slowest annual rate of increase (1.3 percent) since a surge that began after 2001. The increase for 2010 was due almost entirely to the United States, which accounted for $19.6 billion of the $20.6 increase globally.
- The United States has led the global increase since 2001, with an 81 percent rise in military spending compared to 32.5 percent for the rest of the world.
- The 15 countries with the highest military spending account for more than 82 percent of the world total.
State Department data from 2005 and more recent 2010 data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute both support Simpson’s statement: U.S. military spending is greater than the next 14 countries combined.
On the Truth-O-Meter, Simpson's statement rates True.
City Club of Cleveland, Alan K. Simpson, Nov. 18, 2011
CIA World Factbook, "Country Comparison: Military expenditures"
U.S. State Department, "World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers, 2005," April 10, 2010
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, "Background paper on military expenditure 2010," April 11, 2011
Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, "Recent trends in military expenditure," 2011
The Economist, "Defence costs," June 8, 2011
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