Opinion

Joe Manchin whines about $3.5 trillion — but he spent $9.1 trillion on defense

The moderate from West Virginia has a funny definition of 'fiscal insanity'

Whether President Biden's agenda fails at this point depends on two people: Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). Earlier this week, Sinema appeared the more immovable obstacle. On Wednesday, Manchin made it clear he's still in the running for that infamous crown.

"I can't support $3.5 trillion more in spending when we have already spent $5.4 trillion since last March," he wrote in a statement apparently ruling out any new programs whatsoever. "[S]pending trillions more on new and expanded government programs, when we can't even pay for the essential social programs, like Social Security and Medicare, is the definition of fiscal insanity," Manchin said.

This is a complete crock, as Manchin's own actions prove: For years, he has been casually voting for bloated defense budgets many times the size of the Biden agenda. His squalling about overspending is dishonest nonsense, and he is utterly wrong about what America can afford.

Traditionally, media coverage of government programs covers the estimated 10-year cost, because that's what the Congressional Budget Office typically publishes. Sometimes there are deviations from this rule — the genuinely enormous pandemic relief bills, for instance, were described by their one-year cost. Manchin is conveniently conflating the two metrics, as Eric Levitz explains at New York:

The past year has witnessed the passage of three historically large stimulus bills, which were characterized in headlines as the "$2 trillion coronavirus relief bill," the "$900 billion COVID-19 relief bill," and the "$1.9 trillion relief bill," respectively. In each case, these headlines (roughly) described the legislation's immediate, single-year fiscal cost. By that metric, the Democrats' reconciliation package isn't a $3.5 trillion bill; it's a $350 billion one. [New York]

The one institution that habitually gets the one-year treatment is the military, because troop worship is virtually mandatory in the American mainstream press, and 10-year budgets would risk public backlash. So let's redress that unfairness, and treat the Defense Department as the Biden agenda has been treated. Let's see exactly how much "fiscal insanity" Manchin routinely supports.

Estimates of the defense budget vary between the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), but for convenience's sake let me use the BEA figures. (We only need ballpark accuracy for the argument.) By this measure, total federal spending on defense consumption and investment in 2020 was $881 billion. Assuming that will be static over 10 years (and it won't be) gives us a 10-year figure of $8.8 trillion. That's almost certainly an underestimate, however, because Congress keeps compulsively stuffing more money into the Pentagon — the House just added $24 billion to the 2022 military budget though Biden didn't ask for it and we just ended a major war.

Manchin voted for the one-year portion of that $8.8 trillion — and so much more. He was first elected to the Senate in 2010, giving us a full decade of defense budgets under his watch. If we take the figures for each year from 2011 to 2020, adjust them for inflation, and add them all together, we get a total of $7.6 trillion in 2012 dollars. Then if we adjust again to get 2021 dollars, we get a total of $9.1 trillion over a decade. Again, these are rough figures, but they are certainly in the right ballpark.

Manchin voted for every single one of the military budgets over the last decade — in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. He voted for all $9.1 trillion. While he occasionally complained about wasteful military programs and asked for an audit of the Pentagon, these quibbles were never enough to get him to vote differently. He helped inflate the already-bloated war budget and regularly boasted about thus "supporting" the troops. This year, he did it again.

So on one level, all this operatic moaning about $3.5 trillion is ridiculous hypocrisy. Manchin has casually voted for nearly three times that for defense spending — money that killed hundreds of thousands of people and turned half the Middle East into a smoking crater. A modest fraction of that total to help parents pay their bills, give seniors dental coverage, fight climate change, and so forth is not some intolerable burden on the economy.

More importantly, even that $9.1 trillion figure mentioned above is not all that large. It amounts to roughly 4.4 percent of GDP over the last decade — not nothing, but not a crushing burden, either. For comparison, Denmark has the highest tax share of GDP in the rich world at 46 percent, while France is at 45 percent and Belgium 43 percent. Those taxes fund ultra-generous welfare states (at least by American standards). The U.S. tax share, by contrast, is a piddling 24 percent.

Now, it is not strictly necessary to fund spending with new taxation, but this proves beyond any doubt that America has a tremendous amount of running room to create new social programs like those contained in the Biden agenda. New spending of $3.5 trillion over a decade is modest — on the order of 1-2 percent of GDP. We could pass ten times that and still be short of the cutting-edge European countries. America won't struggle to cover current obligations or a modest expansion thereof.

Manchin knows this. He likely knows, too, that his complaints are misleading and his arguments against Biden's spending are complete nonsense. He can vote as he wishes, but let us hear no more claptrap about how we can't afford it.

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