In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, debates over gun control have dominated headlines and legislative agendas. With aggressive lobbying pushes in Washington and many states, suddenly everyone has loud opinions on firearms.
Too often, though, those opinions are less than informed. Widely circulated statements from gun control advocates mangling basic firearms terminology (see write-ups in Fox News, The Daily Wire, The Washington Free Beacon, and Townhall, to name a few) have become one of conservatives’ favorite—and most effective—talking points.
The problem even led one columnist at the left-of-center ThinkProgress to urge Democrats to “make more of an effort to master a basic understanding of the thing they are trying to regulate.”
But this phenomenon isn’t just limited to guns or the political left in general. Whether out of ignorance or old-fashioned intellectual laziness, it’s easy to advocate for policies without thinking through the details. If you’ve ever told someone that your ideal energy policy is “the free market” or that we “just need single payer” to fix health care, I’m looking at you.
Perhaps nowhere is this tendency more pronounced than in matters of foreign policy and national security. Despite their fondness for broad, empty talking points about “building up” a “depleted military,” those who push for larger defense budgets are not the main culprits. Who among us hasn’t heard the line that the U.S. spends more “than all other countries combined” on national defense without any attempt to understand why we might want to? Or that a particular program “needs to be ended” with no further thought given to what takes its place?
Too often, fiscal hawks’ refusal to understand the basic details of what we want reformed ends up ceding ground to the other side. We may complain about those who don’t listen to the generals when it comes to wasteful boondoggles, but do we know what military leaders actually want? What are the current proposals, and can we explain what’s going on instead of just griping about how much Lockheed stands to make?
In fact, with a few exceptions, fiscal hawk arguments about the Pentagon budget tend to be riddled with vague terms and ideological generalities, while defense hawks rattle off dozens of programs they argue must be fully funded.
The fact is, military leaders are right to recoil when people discuss things they don’t understand in the same way that gun owners are right to raise an eyebrow when someone who knows nothing about firearms nevertheless insists on restricting them.
And if the last few Pentagon budgets are any indication, the fiscal hawks are losing. It’s time for us to step up our game.
For these reasons, the organization I lead, the Institute for Spending Reform, is determined to catalogue every available option for Pentagon savings—ideas suggested by CBO and GAO experts, as well as reforms the Pentagon itself has begun pursuing. Ultimately, we’ve found 84 items that total over $140 billion in potential savings in one year alone.
The fact that reform discussions often occur without details is a shame, because there’s no shortage of good ones to pick from. There might not be much appetite for ending major weapons programs overnight, but the Pentagon itself has taken many straightforward steps to cut costs.
When the Navy used consumer-based—basically Xbox—controllers on their Virginia-class submarines, they spent about $30 per control panel instead of $38,000, and saved untold hours in training time. Seeking to replicate this model could save taxpayers millions going forward. Requiring better energy efficiency for DoD buildings could save a whopping $1 billion per year. Reforming the VA mailing system could save over $1 million per year.
More fundamental reforms like ending “spend it or lose it” budgeting practices would be more difficult, but they could save billions more and directly target the culture that encourages waste and punishes savings across government.
Other options, like prioritizing F-16 and FA-18 acquisitions over the F-35 ($23 billion over the decade) or canceling the Littoral Combat Ship (at least $1 billion) would undoubtedly cause greater heartburn. But the point is not to implement every option—it’s to demonstrate that those options exist. And that means fiscal conservatives especially must make a basic effort to understand them.
As Tom Rogan put it recently in the Washington Examiner, “Defending the nation necessarily costs a lot of money. That said, we can and should endeavor to make national defense more cost effective and efficient. The problem is where and how to do so.”
This is where fiscal conservatives must not just engage but excel. The fact is, there are already many great ideas for substantially reducing costs; some of them even come from those who might not necessarily agree with us on what the proper level of overall Pentagon spending should be.
There’s no one better than Senator John McCain at blasting the F-35, and House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry wants to see acquisition reform. More often than not, the challenge isn’t finding people of influence who agree, but putting together a coalition large enough to get changes enacted.
The first step towards building such a coalition is understanding the larger set of options and being able to discuss them coherently with those who do not necessarily agree. This concept was first discussed in these pages by Jon Basil Utley, and again this past December during the tax reform debate. If it is revolutionary, it is only because so few have tried it before.
As the president said a year ago, “We want the best equipment, but we want it built ahead of schedule and we want it built under budget…. This is the very least we can do for the patriots who have volunteered to give their sweat, their blood, and if they must their very lives, for our great nation.”
Trump is right on both counts. Our armed forces do deserve the best…and the best does not involve being endlessly at risk with cost overruns and limited resources. Achieving real reforms and coming in “under budget” requires an understanding of the state of play, the available options, and the things you’re trying to reform.
Jonathan Bydlak is the founder and president of the Institute for Spending Reform, which created Guide for a Strong America and SpendingTracker.org. Follow him on Twitter @jbydlak and @ReformSpending.