Both sides of the political aisle in America throw hyperbolic statements at each other in an often successful strategy to sway the public. Outrage eventually erupts when modern muckrakers uncover fake statistics or misleading information. But sometimes this false information becomes so common that it’s hard to discern the truth.
One recurring misunderstanding among the public is the view of the American budget system and the idea of where exactly our money goes. It’s unsettling to see some illustrations showing how much the U.S. spends on its military compared to, say, infrastructure. But it’s important to understand that these charts don’t tell the whole story. Writers seldom discern discretionary spending from non discretionary spending—in other words, money the U.S. has to spend on certain programs vs. money the U.S. can choose to spend on certain programs.
As of 2015, according to data from National Priorities, the U.S. expenses are about $3.8 trillion. Non-discretionary spending makes up about 65 percent and discretionary spending is roughly 30 percent. The remaining five percent or so helps pay the interest on our debt. A chart showing over 50 percent of expenses going to the military is most likely displaying discretionary spending. In reality, military expenses represent about 17 percent of total spending—the combination of discretionary, non-discretionary, and interest spending, far less than the propagated 50 percent. It is important to understand, however, that 17 percent of the U.S. budget is no small sum of money. Our military spending vastly surpasses that of other nations, but given the size of our GDP, world leadership roles, and international involvement, this spending is justified.
So, where are the majority of U.S. expenses going? In terms of the entire budget, roughly 60 percent of expenses go to funding social services called entitlements (Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security).That means Congress can’t touch 60 percent of U.S. spending because it’s already allocated to the above. The remaining 40 percent must then be distributed among the military, education, research, infrastructure, and other facets of the budget. While entitlement spending is morally grounded—we have to provide for people who can’t provide for themselves—we need to understand that it is also the reason our country can’t spend its resources on other needs like infrastructure and education.
Of course, it’s difficult to withhold social services from dependants, so the military seems like an easy target to take away funding from. People commonly argue that we spend too much on deadly weapons and not enough on the well-being of the public, but that isn’t substantiated. The smaller 17 percent of our expenses don’t solely fund bombs and guns—they fund the salaries, dental care, and medical care of military personnel, the upkeep of bases and facilities worldwide, and the research that sets the stage for a safer country and a safer world. The priority of the military isn’t to create a sadistic war machine that drains the economy. Instead, its goals are to protect our nation’s policies, views, and people, and to defend human liberties worldwide, benefiting millions of noncombatants.
We can spend less on the military and provide more funding for, say, infrastructure, but we can only downsize the military so much. Everything else the government could spend its money on takes a financial hit in order to provide the funding for entitlements, and most politicians don’t have the guts to change the status quo for fear of not being re-elected.
Yet if we think long-term, an overhaul of U.S. infrastructure, especially our energy and technology infrastructure, would sustain a growing economy, provide jobs, and lift people out of poverty—the same people that currently rely upon social services. The real question is how we can do this without depriving dependents of their standard of living. The answer is unclear, but slashing funding for the military or infrastructure, purposes appropriate for federal spending, is certainly not it, because such purposes don’t cost as much as some might claim.
Before we can even begin to think about budget reform, we need to have an open-mind to see where our money is going instead of impulsively following a surface understanding.
Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Staff