The Right Opinion

Guns and Pensions

By Thomas Sowell · Feb. 19, 2013

A nation's choice between spending on military defense and spending on civilian goods has often been posed as “guns versus butter.” But understanding the choices of many nations' political leaders might be helped by examining the contrast between their runaway spending on pensions while skimping on military defense.

Huge pensions for retired government workers can be found from small municipalities to national governments on both sides of the Atlantic. There is a reason. For elected officials, pensions are virtually the ideal thing to spend money on, politically speaking. Many kinds of spending of the taxpayers' money win votes from the recipients. But raising taxes to pay for this spending loses votes from the taxpayers. Pensions offer a way out of this dilemma for politicians.

Creating pensions that offer generous retirement benefits wins votes in the present by promising spending in the future. Promises cost nothing in the short run – and elections are held in the short run, long before the pensions are due.

By contrast, private insurance companies that sell annuities are forced by law to set aside enough assets to cover the cost of the annuities they have promised to pay. But nobody can force the government to do that – and most governments do not.

This means that it is only a matter of time before pensions are due to be paid and there is not enough money set aside to pay for them. This applies to Social Security and other government pensions here, as well as to all sorts of pensions in other countries overseas.

Eventually, the truth will come out that there is just not enough money in the till to pay what retirees were promised. But eventually can be a long time.

A politician can win quite a few elections between now and eventually – and be living in comfortable retirement by the time it is somebody else's problem to cope with the impossibility of paying retirees the pensions they were promised.

Inflating the currency and paying pensions in dollars that won't buy as much is just one of the ways for the government to seem to be keeping its promises, while in fact welshing on the deal.

The politics of military spending are just the opposite of the politics of pensions. In the short run, politicians can always cut military spending without any immediate harm being visible, however catastrophic the consequences may turn out to be down the road.

Despite the huge increase in government spending on domestic programs during Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration in the 1930s, FDR cut back on military spending. On the eve of the Second World War, the United States had the 16th largest army in the world, right behind Portugal.

Even this small military force was so inadequately supplied with equipment that its training was skimped. American soldiers went on maneuvers using trucks with “tank” painted on their sides, since there were not enough real tanks to go around.

American warplanes were not updated to match the latest warplanes of Nazi Germany or imperial Japan. After World War II broke out, American soldiers stationed in the Philippines were fighting for their lives using rifles left over from the Spanish-American war, decades earlier. The hand grenades they threw at the Japanese invaders were so old that they often failed to explode. At the battle of Midway, of 82 Americans who flew into combat in obsolete torpedo planes, only 12 returned alive. In Europe, our best tanks were never as good as the Germans' best tanks, which destroyed several times as many American tanks as the Germans lost in tank battles.

Fortunately, the quality of American warplanes eventually caught up with and surpassed the best that the Germans and Japanese had. But a lot of American pilots lost their lives needlessly in outdated planes before that happened.

These were among the many prices paid for skimping on military spending in the years leading up to World War II. But, politically, the path of least resistance is to cut military spending in the short run and let the long run take care of itself.

In a nuclear age, we may not have time to recover from our short-sighted policies, as we did in World War II.



Anton D Rehling in Olympia, WA said:

There are several watchful enemies that are sizing us up daily. If it is perceived that we do not have the will or capabilities, any foreign interests we have can be challenged and taken with not much resistance.
There are several recent events that prove the ineptitude of our government that in my opinion crosses over to malfeasance.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 1:31 AM

Howard Last in Wyoming replied:

Anton, not malfeasance, but TREASON. Notice I am still not PC.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 1:37 PM

Tod the tool guy in brooklyn ny said:

Al qaeda used Benghazi as a testing ground. The united states attacked, then did not follow through. Lefties had 18 months to either secure our position, or close it down, in Libya. Case Two:We built hospitals, roads, and schools in Baghdad. We still have an embassy there. Iraqis provide their own security, as we trade some oil, for devalued dollars. We should have made a chrome plated contract (on oil) with Iraq.Who gets fighter jets---Egypt instead!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 6:44 AM

Doktor Riktor Von Zhades in Western KY said:

The left loathes the military. Likewise they know that the military when push comes to shove will side with the people. Hence their desire to eviscerate it in every way possible.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 8:20 AM

L.L. Smith in Savannah, Tn. said:

An excellent article. It has been said that hell is not hot enough for those who lie, steal,cheat and destroy others. They are wrong. The one who controls the temperature of hell has the thermostat in His hand.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 9:28 AM


I hope the bombs head straight for Washington DC!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 9:56 AM

Wayne in Hinesville, GA said:

I served in the Army for 22 years with the worst years being during Carter's presidency. The military was cut so badly that planes couldn't fly for lack of parts and ships stayed in harbor for the same reason. The Army in Eurpope was such a hollow force that if the Russians had decided to invade western Europe they would have been on the English channel in two weeks. The only way they could have been stopped was the use of nuclear weapons. I know from personal experience having served in Germany on four different occasions. Then President Reagan came along and brought the military's readiness back to where it should have been all along. Now Odumbo and his cowardly Democrats want to put us back into the same situation with the Russians starting to rebuild their military and flexing their muscles again. The weaker we become militarily the more we set ourself up for failure throughout the world. We have to be engaged economically and militarily with the rest of the world because we cannot survive in isolation. Odumbo and his minions are trying their best to turn us into a nation of cowards who just go along with the status quo.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 10:03 AM

CAPnMASS in Fitchburg MA replied:

Thank you for your service.
I was stationed in Norfolk on the Intrepid for 6 weeks as a reservist in the summer of 1982. We could not have fought our way out of wet paper bag. This helicopter carrier was only 10 years old, but was in such shape that it barely managed to float.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 11:09 AM

wjm in Colorado said:

In a nuclear age, we may not have time to recover from our short-sighted policies, as we did in World War II.

Precisely what the marxists hope for, and from the destruction they emerge dictators.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 10:50 AM

Mike McGinn in People's Republic of Maryland said:


Oh darned! Was that a N. Korean nuke exploding on American soil? Perhaps we can get the U.N. to issue another strongly worded sanction?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 12:39 PM

Tapdaddy in Indiana said:

Remember when Barry O's father, Jimmy Carter cannibalized the military back in the early 80's? We couldn't even send a rescue mission to Iran to rescue the Americans taken hostage when the embassy was overtaken by the radicals?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 2:55 PM

XCpt in the ether said:

I too am a military veteran but frequently find myself wondering why our military industrial complex is such a large part of our society when we are not at war.

Has our global political system changed so much that if we don't have sabers to rattle that we are at risk of being invaded? Do we not have weapons capable of completely annihilating any foreign enemy that poses a threat to our country?

Sure, there is the hard choice of actually using them but if we don't intend on having them available why keep them? If you owned a handgun for self defense but wouldn't ever use it to stop someone that had broken into your home then it is pointless to keep it.

Despite any rhetoric to the contrary the majority of military functions do not require extensive training. Functions are broken down to the lowest possible skill level of point and shoot. The same people that would operate military equipment can be readily pulled from the civilian counterpart IF we were truly going to war.

The Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines of WW1 and WW2 were drafted from the general population and given crash courses in what needed to be done. Those with training or certain skills were placed into those positions for the war. The concept of maintaining a trained military when so much of what is done in war doesn't require extensive training seems to be at odds with the role of the military to start with - to defend the country.

Who really is the threat to us that justifies the continued expansion and development of a trained military? We were 16th prior to WW2 yet retained the capability of quickly becoming number one by changing the focus of our industries. The wars are over, when are we going to shut down the war factories and return them to some other purpose?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 4:31 PM

CAPnMASS in Fitchburg MA replied:

Yes we recovered for WW2, but as addressed by Mr. Sowell, at the expense of how many wasted lives? War has changed if you have not noticed and is being waged whether we like or not. It no longer is "a country" we are fighting. If you think we can put a wall up and prevent terrorism from behind that wall without sacrificing our freedom and standard of living, you are only fooling yourself. This "war" has been going on for over 2000 years and the distance from declared enemies in this modern world is no longer a viable defense.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 5:46 PM

MAJ USA Ret in Saint Louis said:

Dr. Sowell: You are spot on. The decisiveness of the nuclear age makes the lessons of history far more lethal if ignored.
Furthermore, the devestation of the nuclear age will make the interval between devestation and recovery far longer.
Remember, Russia would not hesitate to dominate. They are still a greater threat than Iran, N. Korea and China combined. They have proven over sixty years they will not hesitate to exploit any weakness without prejudice or mercy.
Too many believe that since the USA is the world leader in nuclear lethality (more accurate, effective nuclear weapons) then the USA is certain to emerge victorious. Regretably, they assume the USA will use those nuclear weapons in a timely manner. It will only take a moments hesitation to make a difference that will last for centuries. I do not believe we have the administration to make that decision in a timely manner.
The policy has been to maintain and employ a strong conventional military deterent to avoid being forced to use the nuclear deterent. The weaker our conventional defense, the more likely we will be forced to use nuclear force for defense. Our weak conventional forces embolden our enemies. If we then hesitate too long to use nuclear defense, we will be another "has-been" in history. With the USA the last best hope for freedom, this is truly a tragic and ignoble end to a once great inspiration and the hope of mankind.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 at 5:55 PM