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National security at what price? The economic consequences of military spending.

The recent conclusion of the Cold War affords an opportunity to reflect on, and evaluate the consequences of, America's defense policy of the last 45 years. The federal government's post World War II policy created a permanent military spending machine centered around the Department of Defense. Sizable allocations of money, materials, and manpower were committed in order to maintain a large, combat ready military to meet the needs of a variety of political objectives, including the counterbalancing of a perceived Soviet threat. Two contrasting views of the economic ramifications of defense spending are offered by Murray Weidenbaum and Seymour Melman.

Weidenbaum, in his article "Defense Spending and the American Economy: How much Change is in the Offing?(1)" purports to "examine the changing role of defense in the American economy." His analysis leads him to the following conclusions: 1) The opportunity cost of defense resources is consumption, and 2) the United States' military burden has a minimal role in, and impact on, the overall economy. Melman, however, takes an antithetical view of the effects of defense spending. In his article, "The Economic Consequences of the Arms Race: The Second-Rate Economy,(2)" Melman contends that defense spending has "transformed the United States into a second- rate industrial economy." Through the preemption of technical talent, creation of budget deficits, depletion of key industries, and other economic interferences, Melman argues that defense spending has diminished the rate of productivity increase and therefore slowed America's economic growth.

This paper evaluates the methodologies and conclusions of Weidenbaum and Melman in determining the economic effects of defense spending, and in particular, defense spending in the 1980s. The conclusion is that defense spending had deleterious effects on productivity growth and America's global economic position.


In his article, Weidenbaum minimizes the significance of defense spending for the economy. He claims, "The massive economy of the United States is neither propelled nor redirected by modest shifts in the relatively small share of GNP devoted to military purposes." To buttress this claim, Weidenbaum relies on the fact that defense spending in 1990 accounted for approximately 6% of GNP, down significantly from the 9% level of the Kennedy administration. He also argues that a relatively small percentage of the labor force, 1.3% in 1989, is used by the military. Weidenbaum concludes by describing the defense program as "a relatively minor player in the American economy." He goes on to emphasize that defense's role has not changed in the 1980's. He states, "Analysis of the economic impact of the military buildup of the early 1980s found no evidence of any major disruptive effect of defense expenditures.(3)" This categorization of defense spending's role, however, is flawed because it underestimates both its size and nature. It must be noted that a mere review of the Department of Defense's budget underestimates the federal monetary commitment to the military- industrial complex. DoD figures leave out numerous military expenditures and transfers, for example:

* foreign military assistance

* military portions of NASA expenditures

* veterans' benefits

* Department of Energy nuclear-weapons expenditures

* non-DoD intelligence gathering

* interest payments on the national debt attributable to previous military expenditures(4)

When these additional military expenses are considered, the size of military commitment increases. Figure 1(5) demonstrates defense outlays as estimated by the Office of Management and Budget and an adjusted estimate that includes veterans' benefits, international security assistance, and part of NASA's expenditures. These adjusted figures demonstrate more accurately the costs associated with defense spending. It is also pertinent to point out that since World War II, defense spending has averaged roughly 38% of total government outlays. Additionally, defense spending is roughly 50% of discretionary, non-entitlement federal spending.(6) Weidenbaum's claim that 1.3% of the labor force is employed by the Department of Defense is also misleading. In addition to its 2.1 million uniformed personnel in 1989, the military establishment employs over 1 million DoD civilians, more than 1 million military reservists, and more than 2 million in the defense industry, bringing the percentage up to 4%.(7) Also underscoring the large presence of the military in the economy, is the fact that the DoD buys goods and services from about 300,000 suppliers and signs 52,000 contract actions every working day.(8)

These figures demonstrate more than a "minor role" for defense spending. Weidenbaum's description of defense spending's role is also flawed because of its over-reliance on the relation to GNP. GNP does not provide the most telling yardstick for measuring the role of defense expenditures. David Alexander provides a concise summary of the argument for analyzing the nature of defense spending and its relation to key areas of the economy.
 Billions of Billions of Percent Percent of
Current $s 1985 $s of GNP Fed Outlays FY
1955 43 47 217 241 11.0 12.4 62.4 70.2
1960 48 54 198 222 9.5 10.6 52.2 58.6
1965 51 60 189 226 7.5 8.9 42.8 50.8
1970 82 93 238 272 8.2 9.4 41.8 47.5
1975 87 107 171 211 5.7 7.0 26.0 32.2
1980 134 162 177 215 5.0 6.1 22.7 27.4
1985 254 293 254 293 6.4 7.4 26.5 30.6
1990 345 387 292 327 6.1 6.9 31.5 35.4
FIGURE 1. Defense Outlays by Diverse Measures.

To point to the relatively small percentage of GNP that military expenditures comprise is like saying that the nutrient iron is of little significance for human health because it represents such a small percentage of the food we ingest. The proper test of a resource depletion thesis is whether a human body receives a sufficient amount of the nutrient, or whether an economy receives enough of a resource. We have mounting evidence that the civilian economy receives too little of several resources preempted by military production.(9) According to this view, it is not merely the absolute size of defense spending that is pertinent to discussions of economic impact, but also how it interacts with individual components, as well as with the entire system.

Although the military sector may be small relative to the total economy, it diverts or manipulates crucial economic resources. Weidenbaum's discussion ignores these effects of defense spending on critical components of our economy. Analysis of three resources influencing economic development helps contrast the weakness of Weidenbaum's position, and the corresponding strengths and merits of Melman's views. Their positions will be examined with regard to the effect of defense spending on: 1) Infrastructure capital 2) research and development funding and the allocation of scientists and engineers in universities, and 3) budget deficits.


In "Economic Consequences of the Arms Race," Melman argues that infrastructure serves "as a base of support for a widening and increasingly productive industrial system." David Aschauer corroborates this claim; he demonstrates the extent to which public capital expenditures influence productivity and therefore future economic growth.(10) His analysis shows that such "core" infrastructure investments as streets, highways, airports, electrical and gas facilities, mass transit, water systems, and sewers possess strong explanatory power for productivity. "The acquisition and distribution of water, for example, may allow for substantial decreases in cost along with increases in the scale of production." Aschauer also demonstrates that military capital spending "aids little in understanding productivity movements." Aschauer concludes by tracing the decline of American productivity to a lessening of public capital expenditures.

Figure 2(11) demonstrates the parallel productivity slowdown and slowdown in capital accumulation. After averaging 2.0% from 1950 to 1970, the annual growth rate of total factor productivity in the private business economy slumped to 0.8% from 1971 to 1985. The period from 1981 to 1985 exhibited the worst average yearly productivity growth, 0.7%. This decrease in productivity gains can be traced to a reduction in public capital growth.
 Productivity Public Capital
1950-70 2.0 4.1
1971-85 0.8 1.6
1981-85 0.7 0.7
Figure 2. Average Annual Growth of Productivity and Public Capital.

The logical question then, is what caused the reduction in public capital expenditures? Richard Du Boff argues that the reduction in government investments in public capital was the direct result of policy decisions intended to reduce civilian outlays, while concurrently boosting military spending, especially in the 1980s (the time of the greatest decline in capital growth).(12) Du Boff maintains that, "The real opportunity costs of a permanently large military establishment become clear: Gm [government military] has depleted the public sector of the economy." He states that 80% of all infrastructure investment comes from state and local governments. But where do these agencies receive their funding? From federal grants-in-aid. Du Boff argues that state and local government grants-in-aid have become an "alternative forgone" to shift additional resources to the military. The Reagan military buildup is well documented. In fiscal years 1982-85, $922 billion in constant 1985 dollars were spent, surpassing the figure for the preceding four years by nearly a third, and representing a four year outlay exceeded only twice since World War II, at the peak of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.(13) The military's share of GNP increased from 5.2% in 1980 to 6.7% by 1986. This large buildup corresponds to radical tax cuts in 1981. The result was a 5.5% drop in federal grants-in-aid from 1980 through 1982 (while military spending rose 57%) and a stagnation from 1983 to 1988 (while military spending rose 27%).(14) Administration priorities were on military not civilian projects. As a result of this prioritization, state and local governments had less money to spend on infrastructure development.

Figure 3(15) contrasts the differences in the rate of defense spending and grants in aid. While the early 1980s witnessed a large increase in defense spending, federal grants-in-aid to state and local governments were insufficient to offset an aging public infrastructure. This relationship of state and local spending to Reaganomics is not coincidental. The tax cuts of 1981-1983 and the wholesale increases in military spending "intentionally created a deficit so large that we Democrats will never have enough money to build the sort of government programs we want," Senator Ernest Hollings stated in 1984. Reagan Administration budget director David Stockman in his 1986 book The Triumph of Politics confirms this theory. He admits, "Cutting defense had never been on my real ideological agenda. My aim had always been to force down the size of the domestic welfare state." Stockman's comments typify the Reagan administration position. Together, he and Reagan succeeded in attaining their goals, and as a result, the United States has "virtually given up on expanding its nonmilitary public stock; net public capital formation, after accounting for physical depreciation of existing facilities, plummeted in the 1970s and 1980s.(16)" Our society is now faced with an expanding private economy demanding more public services that can not be met. The result is a dilapidated public infrastructure that is a drag on productivity, and by extension, future economic growth.



In today's increasingly technologically oriented society and business climate, innovation and breakthroughs hold the key to international competitiveness. And yet, the federal government has continued to pour money into non-productivity enhancing endeavors like military R&D. In 1980, Simon Ramo stated,

In the past thirty years, had the total dollars we spent on military R&D been expended instead on those areas of science and technology promising the most economic progress, we probably would be today where we are going to find ourselves arriving technologically in the year 2000.(17)

It is Melman who champions the need for emphasis on R&D as a means to maintain American economic competitiveness. Implicit in his position is the need for business and government to make investments in the future, via, among other things, research into new technologies and subsequent development and implementation of new advances.(18) Melman argues that spending on R&D for civilian uses has been preempted by military spending. Weidenbaum contradicts Melman, claiming that government military spending has no tangible impact on R&D. He states that empirical analysis "does not show an inverse relationship between annual percentage changes in military and civilian R&D expenditures." Weidenbaum's analysis, however, disguises trends and misses the point by failing to focus on the composition of federal funding for R&D. Again Alexander reminds us that the relevant inquiry is not merely what portion of a resource the military-industrial complex uses, but whether the civilian economy receives enough of the resource.

Figure 4(19) demonstrates that America's supply of R&D scientists and engineers has remained stagnant, while those of Germany and Japan, our closest commercial rivals, have grown considerably. It is also important to note, that approximately 30% of U.S. scientists and engineers concentrate on military R&D(20), while few German and Japanese do. This places the U.S. in a disadvantage in the application of technical skills to civilian industry. R&D is increasingly essential for commercially oriented enterprises if they are to sell to competitive markets, but our federal government continues to channel valuable funds into unproductive military enterprises. This diversion undermines the traditional productivity growth of civilian industries relative to foreign industries. The National Science Foundation estimates that in the 1960's, greater than 50% of all R&D expenditures in the U.S. went to the military, including space related efforts. Between 1975 and 1985, the amount was approximately 33%, lower than the 1960 figure, but still a sizable figure.(21) Further government emphasis on military R&D is provided by analysis of the federal R&D budget.

Figure 5(22) shows that in 1980, the federal R&D budget was evenly split between defense (50.3%) and nondefense (49.7%).

By 1987, however, defense R&D spending had ballooned to 69.2%. This represents a significant rearrangement in federal priorities. Where did the money for defense come from? R&D outlays for energy research were cut from 12.1% to 3.7%, and transportation R&D was cut in half, as was natural resource funding.

Figure 6(23) shows how the Reagan military buildup affected R&D funding as a percentage of GNP. Note how military R&D grew from .6% of GNP to 1.02% in just seven years, a 70% increase, while federal civilian R&D dropped 24%.
 # Scientists/
Country 1970 1984 % Growth
W. Germany 30.8 49.1 59.42%
Japan 33.4 62.4 86.83%
U.S. 64.1 65.1 1.56%
FIGURE 4. R&D Scientists and Engineers per 10,000 Labor Force.
 1980 1987
 Bill 82$ Percent Bill 82$ Percent
Defense 17.5 50.3 34.1 69.2
Nondefense 17.4 49.7 15.2 30.8
Total 34.9 100 49.3 100
Health 4.3 12.4 5.6 11.4
Space Research 3.2 9.2 2.8 5.8
Energy 4.2 12.1 1.8 3.7
Natural Research 1.2 3.4 0.9 1.9
Transportation 1.0 3.0 0.8 1.5
Other Nondefense 1.9 5.2 1.5 3.1
FIGURE 5. Allocation of Federal R&D Funds by Budget Function.
 R&D as a Percent of GNP R&D Ratio
Total Civilian (Fed Civ) Military Mil./Total
1980 2.29 1.69 (0.58) 0.60 0.26
1985 2.68 1.72 (0.45) 0.96 0.36
1987 2.74 1.72 (0.44) 1.02 0.37
FIGURE 6. Civilian and Military R&D in Relation to GNP.

While it is true, as Weidenbaum points out, that non-government investment in civilian R&D grew during the 1980s and helped offset decreased government funding, there is a qualitative difference between government and civilian funding. Government funding can be targeted at areas that will accrue benefits to a broad range of industries. Emphasis on basic research and long-run applied projects will accrue externalities that private research will not. In addition, government funding can help industries pursue objectives otherwise financially unfeasible without assistance.

For instance, reversing a strongly held policy against "industrial policy," the Bush administration recently signed an agreement committing the government to a three year $260 million collaborative search for a small, lightweight battery to power electric cars. "America's automakers realized last year that none of the Big Three had the resources to invent on its own the car battery of the future.(24)" The President also signed the High Performance Computing act of 1991, which authorizes eight federal agencies to spend $638 million to develop hardware and software for a teraflop computer capable of performing 1 trillion computations a second. What led to the change of heart was the speed with which American industries lost domestic and worldwide market share to Japanese and European rivals. Our R&D expenditures on civilian projects as a proportion of GNP is 75% of that of Japan and West Germany.(25) This affects our ability to increase productivity and to develop new products as rapidly as other nations, an outcome confirmed almost daily.

Dwight D. Eisenhower upon leaving presidential office in January, 1961, gave a farewell address on the danger of the military industrial complex. He asserted that,

"The free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discoveries has experienced a revolution in its conduct of research. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by federal employment and project allocations is ever present--and gravely to be regarded."(26)

Eisenhower's remarks foreshadow an even greater military involvement in research and development in the university environment. The growth of military R&D has been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the role of the Department of Defense in support of R&D on university campuses. After World War II, "[T]he Pentagon emplaced a research and development infrastructure devoted exclusively to military pursuits."(27) Over the twenty-six year period from 1960 to 1986, DoD obligations to academic institutions for research, development, and testing totalled $20 billion in constant 1987 dollars.(28) Again focusing on the early 1980s, we see that the DoD nearly doubled, in real terms, its funding obligations for technology research to academia between 1976 and 1986.(29) The question to be answered then, is what is the harm in increasing DoD funding?

The major problem DoD R&D expenditures create is the channeling effects on research. The flexibility and balance in university research and training is compromised as faculty and students are drawn away from potentially more fruitful enterprises, in terms of social benefits, into areas where funds are growing more rapidly. Our nation's researchers will be drawn into careers in military work because the funding and environment for research leaves them less attractive alternatives. The ability of the DoD to leverage the thoughts of a great many capable minds can not be underestimated. By controlling the research funds that so many academics need to fulfill their work, the military forces these researchers to tailor their proposals to applications deemed in the national security interest. These are real concerns. A symbolic example of the partnership between universities and the military is the formation of the DoD-University Forum.(30)

This a policy advisory group consisting of senior level DoD and university administrators. The forum is jointly sponsored by the DoD and three of the most influential higher education associations: the Association of American Universities, the National Association of State Universities, and the American Council on Education. This forum advises the DoD on a full range of research-related needs and issues that affect ties with universities. The dominant Pentagon role in the group, however, is highlighted by the fact that all nominations to the committee must by approved by the Secretary of Defense. The common law marriage of defense and university research has been exacerbated by the immense increase in R&D earmarked by the Strategic Defense Initiative in the 1980s.

Figure 7(31) demonstrates the military's commitment to SDI. The 1987 fiscal year SDI request represents nearly 13% of federal defense R&D and about 9% of all federal R&D. SDI, along with other military R&D, is further squeezing government nonmilitary R&D programs. The danger is that the freedom and diversity, and therefore the health, of our nation's academic institutions are being gradually eroded. The damage done by diverting precious human resources from other endeavors exacts a social and economic cost greater than the price tag for defense research activities fulfilled by academia.
Billions of 1985 Dollars
1984 1.03 .12
1985 1.40 .22
1986 2.67 .28
1987 4.48 .58
1988 5.07 .82
1989 5.76 .79
1990 6.70 .74
1991 7.47 .66
FIGURE 7. SDI Budget Authority.


One of Weidenbaum's principal arguments against the negative repercussions of defense expenditures is his assertion that defense spending has consumption as its opportunity cost--"Much of the increase in defense spending came out of consumption.(32)" He reiterates, "Increases in the share of GNP devoted to defense are accompanied by reductions in the proportion going to consumption, rather than to investment.(33)" Melman, however, focuses on the deleterious effects of "government borrowing to finance the Pentagon-induced budget deficit.(34)"

The fiscal story of the 1980s is one of increased defense spending coupled with a drastic tax reduction in 1981. The result was a pronounced increase in the annual deficit and corresponding increase in the total federal debt.

Figure 8(35) demonstrates this series of events. The tax cut led to reduced revenue in the early 1980s, while at the same time military expenditures increased in real terms for the entire decade. The result was a 123% increase in the annual deficit. At the same time, the total federal debt doubled from $1,202 billion in 1981, to $2,049 billion in 1986.(36) What were the consequences of this dramatic increase in debt? Weidenbaum minimizes defenses' effect on investment, claiming instead that defense spending caused consumption to grow slowly. Statistical evidence, however, does not bear this out.


Figure 9(37) shows percent changes in consumption expenditures. Excluding the recessionary years of 1980-1982, average annual growth in consumption was 3.8%, comparing very favorably with the 4.1% average of the previous 32 years.


Weidenbaum's theory concerning the link between defense and consumption is further weakened by analysis of the relationship between defense spending, deficits, interest rates, and investment. Figure 8 demonstrates the relationship between defense spending and deficits. The remainder of the 1980s story revolves around the effect of deficits on interest rates. As the federal government accrued a greater debt, it had to finance it by borrowing money from the private sector. What happened? Interest rates were forced up in order to accommodate the greater demand, and as a result, investment fell.

Figure 10(38) shows the relationship between interest rates and investment. The first line represents the real interest rate from 1970 to 1990. It is obtained by subtracting the change in the consumer price index from Moody's corporate bonds AAA rate. The second line shows fixed investment as a percentage of GNP. The results show that a dramatic rise in the real interest rate occurred in 1980, causing fixed investment to decrease substantially during the 1980s. Investment does not increase again until real interest rates begin to fall. It is thus shown that the defense buildup and fiscal instability ultimately resulted in lower investment rates. These lower investment rates occurred even though the Reagan administration implemented many incentives to spur investment, such as increasing the rate of depreciation on plants and equipment. The consequence of a decreased investment rate may be lower future economic growth.



In his analysis of the effects of defense spending on the economy, Weidenbaum makes erroneous conclusions. His argument that defense spending plays a minor role in the economy due to its small relative share of GNP overlooks the critical influence military spending has had on R&D emphasis and on the university environment. He also fails to fully investigate the costs of defense spending, namely decreased funding for infrastructure, and increased budget deficits that ultimately crowd-out investment. Furthermore, Weidenbaum's assertion that, "the amount of resources that the United States devotes to defense programs should be determined primarily on non-economic, and essentially political grounds,(39)" is mistaken. The United States may be able to afford more defense spending if it needs to, but the relevant inquiry is what America is sacrificing in order to achieve this military outlay.

Melman asserts that the sacrifice is that, "The United States has been transformed into a second-rate industrial economy.(40)" His argument focuses on the slowdown in productivity growth. This slowdown can be traced in part to the deleterious effects of defense spending discussed in this paper. Between 1950 and 1970, manufacturing productivity grew at an annual average rate of 4.1%. After 1970, the rate was a mere 1/3 of this, as American productivity grew 1.4% per annum.(41) In addition, labor productivity grew at an annual average rate of .6% between 1973 and 1985, compared to 3.1% in Japan, and 2.4% in West Germany.(42) Productivity growth makes it possible to pay high wage rates, sell goods at competitive prices, and offset increased input costs; in other words, productivity growth is the engine that drives economic growth. Melman argues that a significant cause for the decrease in productivity enhancement is the onerous burden of defense spending, especially the rapid escalation in the 1980s. The results of defense spending (deteriorating infrastructure, realignment of R&D, and reduced investment due to an increased debt) represent significant diversions of materials, human resources, and research funds for non-productivity enhancing military needs. The result is a long-run impact on the country's technological position, productivity gains, business competitiveness, and economic position.


The huge military buildup of the 1980s was rationalized as a means of improving national security. It is quite probable, however, that the rearrangement of our national priorities in pursuit of increased military strength has produced the opposite effect. We may have undermined the nonmilitary dimensions of our national security in ways that outweigh any military gains.


1. Defense Economics, 1990, Vol. 1, pp. 233-242.

2. American Economic Review, May 1988, pp. 55-59.

3. Weidenbaum, Murray. "The Changing Economic Role of Defense." Center for the Study of American Business, November, 1989, pg. 3.

4. Alexander, David. "How Big is the Military Economy: The Myth of GNP." U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1988.

5. Holdren, John, and Green, Bailey. "Military Spending, the SDI, and Government Support of R&D: Effects on the Economy and the Health of American Science."

6. Markusen, Ann. "Cold War Economics." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 1989, pg. 41-44.

7. Mintz, Alex. "Guns Versus Butter: A Disaggregated Analysis." American Political Science Review, December, 1989.

8. Ibid.

9. Alexander, pg. 77.

10. Aschauer, David. "Is Public Expenditure Productive?" Journal of Monetary Economics, September 1988.

11. Aschauer, pg. 195.

12. Du Boff, Richard. "What Military Spending Really Costs." Challenge, September, 1989.

13. Holdren, pg. 1.

14. Du Boff, pg. 8.

15. Economic Report of the President, February, 1991, pg. 381.

16. Du Boff pg. 7.

17. Ramo, Simon. America's Technological Slip. Wiley, 1980. (from Holdren's and Green's paper).

18. Melman, Seymour. "Profits without Productivity." The War

Economy of the U.S., St. Martin's Press, 1971, pp. 122-132. 19.

Alexander, pg. 81.

20. Ibid.

21. Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the U.S. 1987, Table 973 and NSF, Science Resources Studies Highlights, March 27, 1987, p. 2. (from Alexander, pg. 12.)

22. Raines, Fred. "Defense Economics" course, class handout. Washington University.

23. Ibid.

24. "Now This Idea is--Shh!--O.K." Time. December 23, 1991. 25. Alexander.

26. LeRoy, Greg. "War U.: High-Tech Battlegrounds on Campus." Science for the People, January, 1988.

27. Krinsky, Robert. "Swords into Sheepskins." Science for the People, January, 1988, pg. 2.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.

30. Krinsky, pg. 4.

31. Holdren, pg. 9.

32. Weidenbaum. "Defense Spending and the American Economy." pg. 236.

33. Weidenbaum. "The Changing Economic Role of Defense." pg. 10.

34. Melman. "The Economics of the Arms Race." pg. 56.

35. Holdren, pg. 6.

36. Ibid.

37. Economic Report of the President, pg. 293.

38. Economic Report of the President, pg. 368, 351, 288. 39.

Weidenbaum. "The Changing Economic Role of Defense," page 15. 40. Melman. "Economic Consequences of the Arms Race," pg. 55. 41. Ibid.

42. Aschauer, pg. 197.
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Author:Lapidus, Kevin
Publication:American Economist
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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