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Peter G. Peterson Foundation: What About Military Bases?

by danps Sat May 1st, 2010 at 06:17:32 AM EST

Concern over deficits is suddenly all the rage again.  One player putting itself in the forefront of the issue has missed an obvious candidate for cost savings, though.

No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post

On Wednesday the Peter G. Peterson Foundation held a conference to "bring together hundreds of stakeholders from across the political spectrum with diverse ideas on how to address critical fiscal issues while continuing to meet the priorities of the American people."  They apparently did not consider $1.7 trillion in tax cuts to be a critical fiscal issue, nor spending a trillion dollars off the books for the military, nor the general mismanagement that caused the surpluses bequeathed by Democrats to Republicans to become huge deficits, but never mind.  I am sure they were greatly alarmed in their own quiet way by these developments.

While New Deal 2.0 offered an entire counter conference, I would like to offer my own one paragraph plan:  A 70% marginal income tax for the ultra rich (say $5 million per year) along with Pete DeFazio's quarter cent stock transaction tax, which we can only hope will do as its critics claim and "Destroy High-Frequency Trading [HFT] and Liquidity."  There has been no demonstrated value to HFT and in this context the opposite of liquidity is friction, which would be a brake on speculative excess.  It is a win-win, buffering the market from extreme volatility and easing the deficit at the same time.

If Peterson still is looking for ways to get our finances back in order, here is another win-win:  Aggressively shuttering our foreign military bases.  Chalmers Johnson examined the issue closely in chapters 4 and 5 of his book Nemesis, and has included much of that research in various online posts as well.  The fiscal argument for closing them is that they cost us over $100 billion per year, which incidentally is more than the new health care law.

While there is certainly room for debate on how much Americans' health care will improve based on what was essentially health insurance reform, I have not seen any arguments that the new law is actually worse than the status quo.  While one person's half a loaf may be another's hyper-incrementalist bullshit, everyone seems to agree that there will be some tangible benefit to ordinary Americans for the money spent.  Can the same be said of our bases?

Their benefits are dubious and vague at best.  They give the US a presence abroad, which may serve as a reminder - potentially comforting or menacing - that Uncle Sam is nearby.  Any upside to that is almost impossible to quantify; while it almost surely has deterred aggression from enemies at times in the past, specific examples are unknowable.

Drawbacks can also be hard to measure; how do you quantify the local level of unease with a quasi-imperial ("America's version of the colony is the military base") presence?  Sometimes the disadvantages are unmistakable though.  Johnson's article here - see his "The Three Rapes" section in particular - illustrates the problems we have had in Okinawa trying to reconcile two different legal systems, and sets of expectations, by a Status of Forces Agreement.

A review of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma there is underway now, and local residents want it off the island entirely.  Unsurprisingly, no other islands in Japan have volunteered to host it.  The US wants to move Futenma to a new part of Okinawa, where our history is ambivalent at best (pdf).  One proposal is to build a new one on a landfill, but Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama objected it "would defile nature."  (This is hardly the best time to brag on our offshore structures, either.)  Futenma is so unpopular it may bring down Hatoyama's government.  What exactly is the benefit to the American taxpayer?

Futenma is in the news (the Japanese news, anyway) at the moment because of its status, not because some incident made it a flash point.  Now is the perfect time to ask some fundamental questions.  Sure, there are possible drawbacks to leaving.  It could lead to military tensions with China.  In a worst case scenario we could see nuclear proliferation and a "mutual assured destruction" security model.  There are plenty of other scary possibilities.

What is the price we are paying now, though?  We ought to assume our presence in a foreign country is unpopular by default, and only believe otherwise in the face of substantial evidence.  In Japan the opposite is clearly true - citizens are marching in the streets to get us out of there.  Couldn't regional peace and stability be largely achieved with robust diplomacy, and wouldn't that be a much less objectionable way to exert our influence?  And as for Peterson and our other newly minted paragons of fiscal probity, wouldn't that also be an enormous cost savings in the years and decades to come?

by danps (dan at pruningshears (dot) us) on Sat May 1st, 2010 at 06:17:53 AM EST
to happen to the military.  There are many, many positive ramifications to shutting down overseas bases from a realpolitik and self-interested point of view.  Since moral and ethical arguments are rarely effective in politics, let's make the argument in a callous financial manner.  I think the budgetary savings will be much more than 100 billion.

1.  Depending on the country, I am not sure that we can assume a default position that the locals want us out of there.  While the general national sentiment may agree, often the local communities have a love-hate relationship with the US military.

Japan certainly wants us out of there, that may not be the case here in Germany.  When I lived in the west, in Sauerland, it was the old British sector.  Local communities became dependent on 18 year old Tommy going out on the town and drinking his wages.  Tommy may have been a drunk asshole on Friday night, but he spent his pounds.  When the British closed their bases, those dependent communities became somewhat depressed economically.

There was a surprising protest when the US shut down radar installations in Germany a few years ago by local business leaders.  Radar installations aren't that big, maybe 200 airmen.  Now think what the reaction would be of shutting down a major airbase like Rammstein.

This is the NIMBY effect that happened during the base closures in the 90s: everyone in Congress agreed that the military needed to cut costs and close bases, just not the ones that economically sustained their own constituents.

  1.  Jane and Joe have to go somewhere when you repatriate them to the US, most likely to major bases like Ft. Hood, Ft. Campbell, Ft. Stewart, Ft. Bragg, etc.  Not only does that mean all of those thousands of newly repatriated  Janes and Joes are spending their money in the local economy, but now you have to expand facilities to house and feed them.  That means lots of construction and related jobs.

  2.  At the same time, it would force the Pentagon to reevaluate its strategic defense posture.  Someone is going to need to say the emperor has no clothes:  We can blow up the world 100 times over, so how many troops do we really need to defend our borders?  And who would even attempt a land invasion of the US?  Who even has the capability even if they had the motivation?

No one ever listens to me, I mean serious peopleTM.  But if they did, this would be my proposal.  In my opinion, the days of human history are over for major land wars and gigantic armies.  Today, warfare can be conducted much more effectively asymetrically, economically, electronically.  I mean, China doesn't need a large invasion force to bring down the US, they just need to cash in their Treasury Bonds.

So I would say, lets cut down our Army and Air Force to enough to protect geographical borders and requested UN international presence, just in case.  (Remember, Clinton avoided getting involved with the FRY until the Europeans practically begged for US NATO involvement, I think that is the right attitude: to become involved only when the world community requests us to do so)

At the same time, I would support keeping the Navy and the Marines at current levels, and perhaps expansion.  The Navy has always been a tool of force projection of sea-faring nations and empires: everyone from the Phonecians to the Romans, to the British, Spanish, and Portuguese, to us, the US today.  Our Naval tradition comes from the British and there is a reason why Naval skippers and Captains have so much more power than their peers in the land and air forces.  Before the time of electronic communication, Naval captains often did the job of not only conducting naval warfare but also the job of a diplomatic ambassador representing their respective governments in force projection operations.  They often had to, and why responsibility was given to them, to make governmental and policy decisions on the scene without the advise or consultation with the government outside the purview of Naval operations and warfare.

But even more relevant to today is that the US is a major world economic power.  With that goes the responsibility of protecting trade and sea lanes from bullying and piracy, etc.  Therefore, I would support a strong Naval presence in conjunction with other nations in international waters.

4.  Depending on the country and SoF agreements, the Pentagon may actually own that real estate that the bases are sitting on.  Selling it back to the host nations may be callous, but from a realpolitik point of view, it may be very lucrative.  We've done that in the US.  Example: when the military shut down The Presidio in San Francisco and sold all of the prime real estate to developers, now that was a steal!

Talk of pulling out of South Korea may be a non-starter at this point in time, but I think we can at least begin to talk about closing a myriad of other bases around the world.  As long as the wars in SW Asia and Iraq are still ongoing, talk of closing strategically important logistical bases are also off the table.

But once these wars are over (and they will be if not for the sole reason of funding and deficits), then I think we can even talk of closing big places like Rammstein AFB.

Because, realistically, no one has either the capability nor the motivation of militarily confronting the US or NATO.

That's my 2 cents.

"Schiller sprach zu Goethe, Steck in dem Arsch die Flöte! Goethe sagte zu Schiller, Mein Arsch ist kein Triller!"

by Jeffersonian Democrat (rzg6f@virginia.edu) on Sat May 1st, 2010 at 10:31:49 AM EST
Jeffersonian Democrat:
In my opinion, the days of human history are over for major land wars and gigantic armies.  Today, warfare can be conducted much more effectively asymetrically, economically, electronically.  I mean, China doesn't need a large invasion force to bring down the US, they just need to cash in their Treasury Bonds.

This is my thesis, too, and I have been party to some very interesting conversations and discussions involving some 'serious people' on the subject of the resilience of a networked economy....not forgetting of course that if it weren't for DARPA we might not be having this dialogue.

The Chinese have never been expansionary in their aims - the Great Wall is evidence of their stance, I think - and are quite content for American 19 year olds to die protecting Chinese commerce.

The US really should be looking to retreat from Empire and to turn R & D away from increasingly baroque weaponry to a war against energy waste.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sat May 1st, 2010 at 02:41:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Not quite true.  The Chinese, in the past, have quite often been expansionary.  The Tang dynasty was quite big on conquering the Taklamakan basin, and on maintaining and active subjugation of the Turkish and Mongoloian peoples in Central Asia.  They also invaded Korea and Vietnam.  The modern borders of China are a relic of the Manchu era of expansion, and include large areas that are not, and never have been, historically Chinese.

We in the west have that stereotype because the Chinese, for the most part, were never expanding into any places where white people lived.

by Zwackus on Sun May 2nd, 2010 at 09:40:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
....not forgetting of course that if it weren't for DARPA we might not be having this dialogue.

I think you could say the same thing about anything, from roads to transistors, and be a touch right, and a lot wrong.

But, of course, my AlternateRealityDemoDevice is stuck on the infinite loop and won't be back for a long time.

Would the highway system have been built if Eisenhower hadn't sold it as a way to get tanks quickly from hither to yon? Could Apple have evolved if 4 bit chips weren't developed for Space exploration (and all the military stuff they really spend the billions for)?

If the best and brightest weren't off developing WarToys and profits for Sgt. DowJones, would we be merely an agrarian society?

Or would the schools who latched onto DARPA have figured a way to join up on their own devices, with the hoards of dosh that would be floating around, unallocated for Veteran's Hospitals? possibly with some of those disjointed vets being part of the best and brightest who were making things.

The glory days of American society, along this line of thinking, was the Bell Labs approach to research.

Never underestimate their intelligence, always underestimate their knowledge.

Frank Delaney ~ Ireland

by siegestate (siegestate or beyondwarispeace.com) on Tue May 4th, 2010 at 02:16:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Another consideration: Oil closed at $86.22/bbl on Friday. The US Military is the largest single consumer of oil products in the USA, if not the world. Imported oil is a large part of our current account problems. Reducing the scope of our operations would reduce the amount of imported oil required by the US.

But Jeffersonian Democrat's comments about our military Keynesianism approach requires consideration. This is public sector spending. Bringing overseas military home would boost local economies where such forces are based, at least for those not disbanded. But an overall decline in military spending, especially in a recessionary environment, would need to be countered. This could be done to great effect by focusing on what Bruce McF calls "A Brawny Recovery"--investing massively in renewable energy and high-speed electrified freight and passenger rail.

But that is only a start. We need to rethink the sourcing of our consumer goods. We should seize the opportunity of the next global financial fiasco to re-order that arrangement by imposing imputed tariffs on goods that are based on the cost of appropriate social benefits, including health care, and retirement, and environmental measures. These tariffs should be rebated or reduced for each country as they provide the related services. That would increase the competitiveness of domestic manufacturing and stop the race to the bottom that is the current version of globalization.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."

by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sat May 1st, 2010 at 01:05:07 PM EST
Why not a 90% marginal rate for the rich? It worked for Eisenhower...who was I believe a pretty solid Republican...


by asdf on Sat May 1st, 2010 at 09:56:27 PM EST
We should tax privilege, not people. ie tax unearned income and gains, rather than earned income.

The question as to what constitutes privilege is an interesting one, but levying limited liability, and the exclusive ownership of 'commons' would be a good start.

Such taxes are extremely difficult to avoid.

Taxes on earned income are - as Ms Helmsley memorably put it - these days only for 'little people'.

"The future is already here -- it's just not very evenly distributed" William Gibson

by ChrisCook (cojockathotmaildotcom) on Sun May 2nd, 2010 at 08:01:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Peter G. Peterson Foundation - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Peter G. Peterson Foundation was established in 2008 by Peter G. Peterson, a co-founder of the Blackstone Group. With an endowment of $1 billion, the Peterson Foundation focuses on fiscal sustainability issues related to federal deficits, entitlement programs, and tax policies.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun May 2nd, 2010 at 03:28:14 AM EST
Up taxes on the rich, reduce defense. Sounds like a good solution.

The HFT provisions sound good as well since they would help prevent momentum runs. The only question though is whether they'd send people back to investment banks for advice and stock purchases and kill things like E*Trade. I bet most of E*Trade's income is from HFT. Then you'd be back to the same old problem of banks putting top investors into the best IPOs, or telling people to buy while others are dumping, etc.

by Upstate NY on Sun May 2nd, 2010 at 10:21:39 AM EST
There is no substitute for regulators who have integrity and are vigilant. The best today are but shadows of what we had 30 years ago.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon May 3rd, 2010 at 01:43:19 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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