The Duck Doctrine … !

My friend Rob and my online pal Ellen asked me to clarify some of my earlier ideas about spending items and cultural sophistication vs weaponry.   Ellen called it the “Duck Doctrine”  (ha!).

Can anybody seriously believe we need to spend trillions to keep the US safe?  Of course we do not!

By cultural sophistication I mean that defense dep’t needs to know other nations much better, especially before and after we make them our enemy or start wars. In Iraq I understand there were a remarkably low number of arabic speaking analysts involved, and even if there had been Cheney and Bush would have proceeded to implement the Perl / Wolfowitz PNAC world view I agree with some of the PNAC stuff but also feel traditional conservatives naively think that people left to their own devices will choose freedom and democracy over fighting. I don’t agree and think we are very much the products of evolutionary pressures that favored short term, fairly narrow thinking.

Lest I be confused with a Tea Party guy I thought I better respond fast.   I’m a real conservative thank you, not those fake ones who overspend on military and advocate for American theocracy.   I want the founders back in charge and that means  a Govt that governs best governs least, small military, entrepreneurial capitalism, and big personal freedom.   Neither Republicans nor Democrats advocate that approach and that failure continues to our great peril.

We foolishly squander defense spending building weapons and paying for too many soldiers when we should be approaching things more cleverly and strategically, cutting big weapons systems in favor of clever infrastructure campaigns (building schools and clinics) that are followed with marketing to show how nice we are.    Our military campaigns are generally “self fulfilling militarily” in that our approach is so aggressive and lacking in cultural know-how that the locals don’t have time to see we are the good guys. (and our guys are almost always the good guys even though many on the left don’t get that obvious point).     Our intentions are good, our execution is bad, our military expense account is WAY too large.

It’s $12,000 to build a school in Pakistan where it’s $ 20,000 for one JDAM “smart bomb”. … and by bomb standards JDAMS are incredibly cheap – the military has non-nukes that cost over 400,000 per bomb.     The point is that we should be much more proactive about building infrastructure and good will.    There’s a big perceived difference between building and bombing.    If the Taliban destroys the school the next month we’ve won a moral victory, but if we bomb and kill 10 bad guys and 1 good guy we’ve often lost moral ground in these regions.   This simple, negative equation is going on all the time and it’s why the USA has so much trouble extricating ourselves from international conflicts.

Is Defense waste the only spending issue?   Of course not.    We are a land of reckless entitlements.   Most getting social security do NOT need the money and did not contribute to the extent they are getting paid.    Politically it’s very hard to reign in spending – we foolishly reward our politicians for their spending sprees, forgetting that overspending in “our” state or district is magnified a hundredfold all over the nation.     Balanced budget is a no-brainer.   In fact it should be a declining budget.     Ben Franklin suggested that revolution might be called for if taxes went above 10%.     Franklin frugality is the kind of fiscal responsibility we need, and note that Franklin was a super progressive guy back in the day!

More about defense spending:

Why are we failing?

Can you have too much concern over safety and security?    Yes, and we do in this country.   Far too much though I don’t expect things to change any time soon.    Our irrational perceptions of risk are damaging our economy more severely than most people understand, mostly thanks to the two massive wasteful spending categories national defense/military and social services.    Ironically each party has its sacred cows for spending and despite the nonsensical bluster from both McCain and Obama we’ll see huge ongoing budget deficits regardless of who is elected.

Humans are designed to act in short term, which is why we should not trust ourselves to do effective long term planning.   This is one of the reasons the founders advocated a small and flexible government and economic structure with high levels of personal accountability.

On a more specific note along these lines Tim O’Reilly notes in a post called Why are we failing at math and science?

Because it isn’t fun any more. When you put safety on the highest altar, what do you give up? When fear of lawsuits — not to mention fear of technology — drives product design, marketing, and public policy, you eliminate science at its roots, in the natural experimentation of kids who want to know how the world works.

Tim’s point is narrower than my general contention that we must learn to accept much greater levels of *certain types of risk* in our daily lives to avoid the ongoing reckless spending.   However the general rule he’s talking about applies to almost all aspects of our lives – from our indefensible military budget of 550 billion (not including the ongoing wars) to obscenely expensive CO2 mitigation schemes.    When people perceive risk irrationally as they tend to do with respect to terrorism and global warming, they accept irrational resource allocations.

I’m actually only suggesting we increase the risk in our lives by a fairly small amount.  Contrary to what people perceive, the riskiest things in our lives are generally cheap fixes.    Auto accidents, for example, are mostly caused by drunk driving, and more seat belt use would save thousands of lives and avert tens of thousands of injuries every year at a tiny fraction of the cost of, say, saving lives with high tech medical interventions.

The military is where most of the waste is but the calculations are complicated by the fact that a “zero military” option would certainly lead to the overthrow of the US by hostile powers.   Clearly the US needs to have a powerful defensive capability, though the notion that this requires spending of over a trillion every two years is beyond the pale and no rational person can be both a fiscal conservative and a big spender on military.    In a similar vein liberal spending advocates absurdly suggest that massive spending on education and social services somehow “primes” the economy to greater heights of prosperity.

Solutions?     Reallocate taxation and spending along rational lines which means massive reductions in spending in most sectors which can fuel increases where spending will do the most good (inner city health care has a huge ROI compared to research hospital neonatal wards).   Third world health ROI dwarfs that in first world.  Why are those guys worth so much less than you or I?