Rebecca Thorpe is a University of Washington assistant professor of political science and author of the new book, “The American Warfare State: The Domestic Politics of Military Spending.” She answered a few questions for UW Today.
Q: What’s the concept behind this book and how did it come about?
A: The book addresses the issues of American empire and institutional failure by asking why a nation founded on a severe distrust of permanent armies and centralized power developed and perpetuated the most powerful military in history. I wanted to know why it is that the U.S. spends more on the military than every other item in the budget added together, with the exception of entitlements like Social Security and Medicare. Even with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, Congress still continues to allocate nearly as much money for the military as every other country in the world — combined.
I found that since World War II, large defense budgets were not only a response to heightened national security concerns, but also became an integral component of the nation’s economic and foreign policy apparatus. Meanwhile, most of the burdens associated with military establishments and wars were gradually shifted onto political minorities and non-voting populations. This frees presidents to launch military actions without authorization or democratic deliberation — an outcome that the constitutional framers feared and tried to prevent.
Q: You describe Congress strictly controlling military spending prior to World War II but allowing larger budgets and vastly expanded presidential power thereafter. What brought on this change?
A: For most of the nation’s history, large armies were expensive and difficult to maintain. Permanent military readiness drained public revenue, disrupted commercial pursuits and imposed large burdens on the populace who served in the armed forces and paid a higher tax burden in wartime.
However, World War II motivated full-scale military mobilization. The war was also a massive macroeconomic stimulus. The U.S. had the world’s 16th largest army and greater than 14 percent unemployment rate in 1939, and emerged as an economic and military superpower when the war was over. While the threat of the Soviet empire compelled continued military readiness, defense spending had also become a crucial part of many local and regional economies. Ongoing government investments in military technology generated hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue each year, while employing millions of Americans across every state and most U.S. counties.
As defense spending transformed the economic landscape, policies also reduced the public costs of military spending and war. Greater reliance on deficit spending circumvented the traditional need to rely on the current tax base to maintain weapons platforms or commit troops abroad.
An all-volunteer force eliminated the draft, and since the 1990s, private military contractors were employed in U.S. warzones. The intensification of drone strikes makes it possible to engage in overseas conflicts without even deploying US troops or placing American lives at risk.
Q: You write that earlier studies may have understated the political influences behind defense spending. How so? And how does your work clarify this?
A: While hundreds of case studies show that political representatives aggressively support weapons programs built in their states and districts, most statistical research suggests that the economic benefits that flow from defense activity do not influence members’ support for military spending systematically.
Unlike earlier work, I built a unique dataset consisting of the nationwide locations of major military industries, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing or Raytheon. I found that districts with less diverse economies are disproportionately reliant on defense dollars that they receive. By accounting for local reliance on the military industry, I show powerful interests in ongoing defense spending among an important subset of Congress members that previous scholars have missed.
Q: You write that military industrialization’s expansion into suburbs, towns and rural regions “generated pervasive dependence on the defense sector to sustain employment and revenue.” What have been the long-term effects of this?
A: Defense funds are a particular important source of jobs, revenue and capital in geographically remote areas that lack diverse economies. Just as members of Congress representing agricultural, automobile or oil-dependent districts support widely shared local interests, I found that the most consistent legislative supporters of military spending and war are over-represented in the areas that are inordinately reliant on the defense spending they receive. These members stand to gain politically by supplying defense resources regardless of the geopolitical climate.
The long-term effects are two-fold: Local defense dependence not only encourages inefficient and unnecessary military spending, but also makes it particularly difficult for Congress to limit or prevent the president’s unauthorized or ill-advised military ventures.
Q: Finally, what do you hope readers take away from this book?
A: Ongoing defense spending advances the short-term political, economic and geopolitical interests of policymakers and American majorities, while empowering presidents to carry out their policies militarily—regardless of devastating costs imposed elsewhere.