One of the problems with liberals, as conservatives know, is that no matter how much money they are given to spend, it's never enough. The social and economic problems they lament are impossible to eradicate entirely, so more spending is always in order. After all, it is bound to do some good. Spending less? Never an option.
But it turns out conservatives are not immune to that impulse. They just apply it to the programs they like instead of the ones liberals like. And their favorite of all is defense spending.
The Wall Street Journal's editorial writers fear that any day, we will be naked unto our enemies. President Obama, they warn, wants to lavish money on everything but the military. America faces an array of threats, and "Obama's budget isn't adequate to those challenges."
Really? Cindy Williams, a defense scholar at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former assistant director of the Congressional Budget Office, points out that Obama wants to spend 2 percent more in the next fiscal year than President Bush allocated for this year, and 9 percent more than we spent last year.
Bush also planned for the defense budget (apart from Iraq and Afghanistan) to shrink slightly each year starting in 2010. Obama's blueprint calls for the defense budget to remain about the same. "Spending will actually be higher under Obama's plan than under Bush's," says Williams.
But as conservatives have been known to point out, Washington policymakers have funny ways with numbers. Last year, the Defense Department asked for an increase of nearly $60 billion in the 2010 budget over what had been planned. The Obama administration declined but agreed to a smaller increase.
So conservatives should be pleased, right? Wrong. Since the increase the Pentagon got is less than it wanted, they claim Obama is "cutting" defense spending. By that logic, if you ask for a 50 percent raise and get only 10 percent, you've suffered a pay cut.
The real question is not why Obama wants to spend so little on defense but why he wants to spend so much. Since 2001, our military outlays have soared by 40 percent, after adjusting for inflation. And that's not counting the costs of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We not only spend more than anyone else, we spend more than everyone else. Globalsecurity.org reports that in 2004, the United States lavished $623 billion on the military. All the other governments on Earth together managed only $500 billion. Even this gap understates our dominance, because most of the other top spenders are U.S. allies.
No nation can dream of challenging us in the air or at sea. We have a huge nuclear arsenal capable of inflicting mass annihilation on a moment's notice.
Meanwhile, the demands on our military are easing rather than growing. Under the agreement Bush signed with the Iraqi government, which Obama has reaffirmed, we are supposed to be out of Iraq by the end of 2011. The threat from al-Qaida has been greatly reduced.
Still, looming threats can always be found. The Washington Post had a story the other day about China's military expansion, which has enlarged its budget to more than $100 billion in 2008. This trend worries the Pentagon. "Given the apparent absence of direct threats from other nations," says the Post, "the purposes to which China's current and future military power will be applied remain uncertain."
But our spending that year was more than $600 billion. And China, come to think of it, is not the only country spending a lot on the military despite the absence of direct threats from other nations.
Benjamin Friedman of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington notes something generally overlooked in Washington: "In a literal sense, the United States does not have a defense budget." Our military outlays go for all sorts of purposes -- "the purported extension of freedom, the maintenance of hegemony, and the ability to threaten any other nation with conquest." But defending the nation's basic security? That's a small share of our military outlays.
If we focused on what is vital for our safety and independence, we could spend a lot less money. But if there is no limit to what we have to do to police and remake the world, there is also no limit to what we can spend.