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Is Guns vs. Butter a Winning Argument?

David Callahan

House Republicans want to avoid big defense cuts by whacking other areas of government instead -- like programs that help low-income people.

No big surprise there. Putting guns before butter has been a staple of the GOP playbook for decades -- ever since Reagan pushed sweeping cuts in social spending while giving the Pentagon a blank check.

The liberal reflex in the face of such priorities is to argue that human needs should come first, and to make stirring comparisons between spending on jet fighters and new schools. Eisenhower was no liberal, but he made one of the famous guns vs. butter arguments ever in a 1953 speech, when he declared that "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. . . . We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people."

It's tempting to invoke such comparisons today, especially as we learn more about the budget plans championed by House Republicans. Their goal is to avoid some $64 billion in automatic defense cuts next year, and they plan to do it with deep cuts to programs that serve some of America's neediest people. So, for example, House Republicans would cut food stamp spending by $7.8 billion next year, and $35.8 billion over the next decade. Medicaid spending would be cut by $23.5 billion over the same period.

All of this is very troubling. But what's the best way to argue against such callous priorities? That is less clear.

Messaging on defense spending is complicated. The public generally supports a strong military and is lukewarm to defense cuts per se. For instance, a February 2011 poll found that less than a third of respondents favored cutting the defense budget and a majority wanted to maintain spending at current levels.

Yet polling also finds that the public is more supportive of defense cuts when such cuts are aimed at reducing the deficit. And support is even greater when such cuts aim to spare domestic programs from the ax. As Steve Kull has written:

As respondents are given more information, support for reductions rises. When Quinnipiac University in March simply told respondents that defense, Social Security and Medicare together constitute more than half of the federal budget, 54% favored cutting defense spending. 

And when they are asked to choose between defense and other programs, defense is consistently the most popular program to cut.  When CBS/NY Times, on several occasions over the least year asked respondents to choose where they would prefer to cut Medicare, social security or the military, 45-55 percent chose the military, 16-21 percent Medicare, 13-17 percent Social Security. . . .

A poll that I conducted in December 2010 with colleagues at the Program for Public Consultation, affiliated with the University of Maryland, went much further. It informed respondents how much was being spent on 31 of the largest categories in the federal discretionary budget, and asked whether and how much they wanted to adjust those amounts. As they made choices, it gave them constant feedback about the effect of their decisions on the deficit. In this information-rich context, 70 percent cut defense spending. The average respondent cut defense $109 billion, or 18 percent of the department’s annual spending (outside of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan). This was by far the largest cut, constituting two-thirds of all the cuts made. . . .

The more Americans are asked to think like policymakers — where they consider the deficit, make trade-offs against other budget priorities and, perhaps above all, when they understand the relative amount devoted to defense — the more they cut defense. When respondents have less information or are asked the question in isolation, they mostly tend to endorse the status quo.

These findings would seem to strongly support using a guns vs. butter argument to fight the right's budget priorities.

On the other hand, there are some good reasons to be wary of such comparisons. National security abroad and human security at home are both important concerns of the public, and progressives don't want to seem dismissive of national security. Nor do want to popularize a frame that posits America's role in the world as disconnected from our domestic well-being, since these spheres are entwined in this age of globalization.

A  better frame for attacking defense spending, as research by U.S. in the World implies, is to argue that the United States should not go it alone militarily in the world and that, anyway, force is not the best solution to many of the complex global challenges confronting the United States. Many Americans get that our leaders have defined security too narrowly, only in military terms. This is the bad idea that needs to be challenged -- an idea now ascendant in the Republican Party.