Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush spoke at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs yesterday. The speech was meant to burnish Bush’s foreign policy credentials for a run at the White House in 2016. Much of the attention given to his remarks centered on his attempts to distinguish himself from his father and, more importantly, brother—declaring in his talk that he is his “own man.” Needless to say, it hardly augurs well for the younger Bush brother’s attempt to craft a distinct foreign policy that he has retained a large number of his brother’s advisors—including Paul Wolfowitz, one of the chief architects of the Iraq War.
But as concerning as his choice of advisors may be, there was a brief moment in his speech that reflects a larger preoccupation among conservative defense hawks that is extremely misleading. While he made the bizarre claim that military spending is not “discretionary,” Bush bemoaned the fact that the United States is now spending 2.4 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense.
But what does the percentage of GDP tell us about how much is being given to the Pentagon? The answer is simple: nothing.
Bush did not specify what percentage of GDP he would find adequate, but other conservatives have not been so reticent. Borrowing from a Heritage Foundation proposal from a decade ago, Bobby Jindal recently argued that four percent of GDP should be dedicated to defense. Mitt Romney did the same in 2012. No one should be surprised if other Republican presidential candidates take a similar position as the race gears up to see who can stake out the most hawkish position on foreign policy.
Linking defense spending to GDP is simply misleading. It ignores the fact that the economy grows. Even an increasing defense budget will shrink as a portion of GDP if the economy grows at a faster rate. For example, at the height of the Iraq War in 2008, the United States spent 4.2 percent of GDP on national defense. In 1976, in the midst of the post-Vietnam military drawdown, national defense spending amounted to 5 percent of GDP. According to Department of Defense data, Pentagon budget authority was $760.5 billion in 2008 and $392 billion in 1976 (both in FY2015 dollars). The peak of the Reagan buildup in 1985 only saw national defense spending at 6 percent of GDP, while at the peak of Robert McNamara’s defense buildup in 1962 national defense spending was 9 percent. Adjusted for inflation, Pentagon budget authority in 1985 was $610.9 billion. It was $457.5 billion in 1962.
We can play this game all day.
There are numerous other reasons why linking defense spending to GDP is a bad idea, many dealing with the way the Pentagon plans and how such a link does little to address what the Department of Defense actually buys. But the potential Republican presidential candidates who favor tying spending to GDP are not using it to accurately address the problems plaguing America’s defense establishment. They are using it as a political symbol for their supposed seriousness on national security. But as an actual metric for defense spending, it is at best completely meaningless and at worst a distraction from real reforms.