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The defense "jobs" conundrum


As we're hearing at lot up on the Hill these days, defense spending supports countless jobs across the U.S.

So if the full Doomsday budget guillotine is allowed to fall, 1 million people could be out of work, warns House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon. The U.S. unemployment rate could go up to 10 percent or more if DoD's budget is cut too deeply, he says.

Completely plausible, wrote the New York Times' Paul Krugman on Monday -- defense spending is a key plank of local economies around the country. But, he wondered, why do McKeon and other defense advocates acknowledge the economic benefits of the DoD budget at the same time as they oppose other attempts to use federal spending to create jobs?

Wrote Krugman:

McKeon, Republican of California, once attacked the Obama stimulus plan because “more spending is not what California or this country needs.” But two weeks ago, writing in The Wall Street Journal, Mr. McKeon ... warned that the defense cuts that are scheduled to take place if the supercommittee fails to agree would eliminate jobs and raise the unemployment rate. Oh, the hypocrisy! But what makes this particular form of hypocrisy so enduring?
Krugman goes on to answer his own question:
For one thing, to admit that public spending on useful projects can create jobs is to admit that such spending can in fact do good, that sometimes government is the solution, not the problem. Fear that voters might reach the same conclusion is, I’d argue, the main reason the right has always seen Keynesian economics as a leftist doctrine, when it’s actually nothing of the sort. However, spending on useless or, even better, destructive projects doesn’t present conservatives with the same problem

... I welcome the sudden upsurge in weaponized Keynesianism, which is revealing the reality behind our political debates. At a fundamental level, the opponents of any serious job-creation program know perfectly well that such a program would probably work, for the same reason that defense cuts would raise unemployment. But they don’t want voters to know what they know, because that would hurt their larger agenda — keeping regulation and taxes on the wealthy at bay.

"Hypocrisy" is a pretty strong word -- what defense advocates argue is that national security is different from social programs or transportation or the other ways government spending can benefit people. So DoD's budget keeps people employed? Fine, they'd say, but that's not its purpose. It's the Washington phenomenon of selective cynicism: My motivations are pure but yours are venal.

There's another element here that Krugman doesn't address, but it's telling by its absence in his column: McKeon, the defense industry and its advocates have spent months trying to get the nation's attention to help stave off their feared DoD budget cuts. Warnings about threats from cyber-attacks or China didn't work. Warnings about tomorrow's "hollow force" didn't work. What got Krugman to write was the J-word -- the magic keyword for this presidential election cycle. Don't be surprised if we keep hearing about this a lot more.


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