But I would like to see someone specify how far we could cut. Should we be spending the same amount as China? Twice as much? Would that be a stable equilibrium, or would we be encouraging the emergence of global competitors who would then force us to spend more again?
She attempts to answer her own question with a thought experiment/analogy using Google:
When I think about this, I think of Google. It's safe to say that Google spends more than anyone else on the development of web services, including improving stuff that they aleady spend more on than anyone else, and do better than anyone else, like . . . web search. You could argue that they should stop, because it's a waste of money: they've already got the top ranked search engine, and webmail program. Why continue to spend money making those things better when they've already got such a dominant position?
Not being a Writer of Import, when I thought about this I thought of something far less high-minded than Google. What came to my mind was an episode of, How Do They Do It?, where the show documents the steps it takes to transport plums from producers in Spain, through the Strait of Gibraltar, the English Channel and the North Sea, to market in Denmark.
The main mode of transport for these Spanish plums is the Estelle Maersk, a monster container ship capable of carrying over 15,000 TEUs (Twenty-foot Equivalent Units — i.e. "containers") with a gross tonnage of over 150,000 tons and length of nearly a quarter of a mile. That's bigger than a Ford-class aircraft carrier (though the Ford-class carrier is wider in the beam). During the How Do They Do It? voyage the Estelle Maersk carried somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 billion worth of cargo. (I'm losing patience trying to find it's annual cargo value, but let's call that trip typical and say the Estelle Maersk makes one trip a month, which would make the value of the cargo it moves in a year roughly equal to the GDP of a middlin'-to-small-sized nation like Costa Rica.)
Here's my thought experiment: imagine you're a German U-boat commander circa 1942 and you see the Estelle Maersk steaming out of the Strait of Gibraltar or off the coast of Denmark in the North Sea with or without a destroyer escort (yeah, I know, you also have to pretend Spain wasn't pro-Axis and Denmark wasn't occupied by the Germans) — what a prize! Big and fat and completely defenseless. If you didn't immediately sink her you would be an incompetent fool. Now repeat that scenario 1320 times as it did throughout the Mediterranean, North Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in 1942, replacing the much, much smaller freighters of that era with the massive container ships of today and try to imagine what the loss of billions of tons of goods would do to the global economy.
It's not at all out of the realm of possibility. Somali pirates driving speed boats and armed with nothing more than AKs and RPGs have demonstrated over and over again the ease with which one of these whales can be taken. Now imagine that a nation with a half-competent and trained navy decides that it should get in on some of that action. The results should be easy to predict.
In her piece, McArdle talks a lot about "competition" but she never comes out and says what we're competing for. Money? Land? A big ribbon to hang on the wall? She doesn't specify and frames her entire argument around this unspecified competition. The reason she doesn't specify can be found in her very first sentence, "I'm prone to like defense cuts as a solution to budget problems".
If she were to specifiy what we're competing for she would have to acknowledge specific reasons in favor of the US military's existence and refrain from making ridiculous statements about Canadians and "ice guns". Those reasons would serve as justification for specific expenditures on the military. She evidently knows (or merely senses) that those reasons exist yet they run counter to her propensity to "like defense cuts as a solution to budget problems", therefore she can't bring herself to come right out and say what they are.
We're no longer fighting a Cold War where we need to match a single strong opponent, frightful weapon-for-increasingly frightful weapon, and DoD is not Google. What we're doing is providing stability for trade and what we, US taxpayers, are paying $700 billion for is protection for a $15+ trillion GNP, so to argue in favor of cutting the DoD's budget by comparing our military expenditures in relation to those of China or Russia is a red herring. But that's not the end of it.
A side benefit — what we're effectively paying for — is protection for $70 or $80 trillion worth of Gross World Product. Put in other words, we are protecting the capacity for humans to have the freedom to better their lives. Libertarians and many Progressives don't see it that way, of course. They see it as World Policing, and why the Hell should it be on us to pay to clean up everyone else's mess?
Well, if not us, then who? South America? Africa? Don't make me laugh. Europe? If pre-1945 (not to mention some recent) history is any indicator, the Europeans can barely refrain from fighting amongst themselves, how are they going to manage to protect the planet? Russia? Yes, Russia, the Eurasian perpetual basket case which can't seem to figure out what the Hell it is and where it's going. They'd do a bang-up job of keeping the peace. And China. China has continually demonstrated over 5000 years that its main concern is itself. As long as it can control Asian-Pacific resources, the rest of the world can burn as far as it's concerned.
If McArdle insists on talking about Defense spending as a competition then she needs to more accurately represent who we're competing against. We're not merely competing against Russia or China, we're competing against any bad actor, or potential bad actor, whose actions threaten the livelihood of humanity. What we're paying for is to insure that those bad actors understand that an uneasy truce or stalemate is unacceptable to us, that we have the capacity and will to crush them into submission if they decide to act up. That even though it doesn't have a US military escort with it, if the Estelle Maersk doesn't make it to Denmark with those Spanish plums because some asshole decided he could just take the ship, everyone knows that the most overwhelmingly power military force ever assembled by man may have something to say about it.
Finally, as to McArdle's question, I think we can safely say that Yglesias and his ilk — if they could be forced to give a direct answer — would say, "Never enough". To them, the Defense budget will always be too large and the obvious choice for first cut in the federal spending reduction game. They would never admit that $700 billion may even be too small a price to pay in order to protect $70 to $80 trillion worth of human economic activity. Because to them — and even to McArdle to some extent — the Defense budget fight isn't about insuring that all people can live their lives peacefully and prosper, it's about playing politics and one-upping the other players in the game. Don't let them kid you. To a great extent they love sequesters and debt ceilings because it gives them a chance to fulfil their ideological dreams and chop away at DoD. As a nation and a species, we can't afford to let them have their way.