For the second year in a row, Joe Biden is planning on increasing the military budget.
The fiscal year (FY) 2023 budget request Biden will send to Congress this month reportedly proposes more than $800 billion in military spending; $773 billion for the Department of Defense (DOD) and most of the rest for nuclear weapons programs in the Department of Energy. Save for the stretch of military budgets between 2007 and 2011 that sponsored back-to-back troop surges — first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan — Biden’s plan would give more money to the Pentagon in FY 2023 than in any year since World War II.
A massive Pentagon budget entails a massive redistribution of wealth, and the primary recipient isn’t “our troops” as US politicians like to say. Instead, most of the DOD budget goes to for-profit companies: 55 percent of the $14.5 trillion Congress gave the Pentagon between FY 2002 and FY 2021 ended up going to private sector firms through contracts.
The portion of annual DOD spending obligated to contracts varied little during this twenty-year span; contract values largely grew and shrunk as overall budgets did. How much federal funding a given Pentagon budget can be expected to privatize, then, can more or less be inferred from its top-line number. This means that a $773 billion DOD budget proposal — as Biden will reportedly offer — is essentially a proposal to privatize $425 billion in public funds.
This doesn’t bode well for the social programs in the FY 2023 budget. The DOD spending bill — despite being just one of twelve appropriations bills that comprise the federal discretionary budget — typically eats up about half of all discretionary funding. Biden’s first budget request looked like this. However, a key difference is that it was proposed soon after the American Rescue Plan passed in Congress and before the collapse of the president’s multitrillion-dollar plan for climate, infrastructure, and health.
In other words, Biden’s FY 2023 proposal will probably look like the typical pre–COVID pandemic budget where “national security” spending crowds out social spending. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Even quintessentially establishment figures like Hillary Clinton argued that the pandemic would bring a “national security reckoning” where nonmilitary threats would finally be taken as seriously as military ones — new priorities that would be reflected in future budgets.
The president has looked increasingly disinterested in that. Biden has gone out of his way to stigmatize social spending but not military spending, even when the latter would’ve been a more appropriate target. For example, Biden blamed the $1,400 stimulus checks for causing inflation, even though the provision’s total cost ($391 billion) was less than the amount Biden’s first and second military budgets will likely divert to for-profit military contractors ($405 billion and $425 billion, respectively).
Moreover, there’s plenty of evidence that the output of social spending — like stimulus checks — reduces hardship and boosts safety, while military spending does not. The Pentagon budget gives life to an imperial architecture that includes 750 military installations abroad and active counterterrorism operations in at least eighty-five countries. Through his budgets and stated policy, Biden has already established that he doesn’t plan on making any substantive changes to the US military’s global footprint, despite empirical evidence indicating this posture promotes insecurity. Studies have found that stationing US military personnel abroad increases the probability of terrorist attacks against the United States; that states experience more terrorism after conducting military interventions; and that overseas bases often escalate geopolitical tensions.
The foreign policy establishment often describes military spending using phrases akin to “investment in our national security,” as if the mere act of funding the Pentagon somehow produces security as a policy outcome. Biden will likely lean on this assumption — that more military spending means more security — to justify his gargantuan FY 2023 Pentagon funding request.
Recent polling suggests that most Americans reject this framing. Congress should, too.