Mark Helprin is masterful in his use of the English language. But he’s also good with numbers. In his column “The Common Defense” in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books, he writes this:
From 1940 to 2000, average annual American defense expenditure was 8.5% of GDP; in war and mobilization years, 13.3%; under Democratic administrations, 9.4%; under Republican, 7.3%; and, most significantly, in the years of peace, 5.7%. Now we spend 4.6%, but, less purely operational war costs, 3.8% of GDP. That is, 66% of the traditional peacetime outlays. We have been, and we are, steadily disarming even as we are at war.
Those numbers are worth keeping in mind as we debate the federal budget and which programs deserve to be cut and which do not. So is the Number 3—as in Federalist No. 3, in which John Jay writes, “Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be the first” (emphasis in original). And having read that, there’s always the preamble to the Constitution, which the Federalist Papers were written to defend and which speaks about the need to “provide for the common defense.” Based on the data supplied by Helprin, the area that has the greatest claim on the federal dollar is the one that has been most neglected. As he writes, “What argument, what savings, what economy can possibly offset the costs and heartbreak of a war undeterred or a war lost?”