How Much of U.S. Budget Goes to War?

This entry will be of most interest to those of you who are interested in war tax resistance in particular, and less interested in tax resistance in general. Maybe you’ve seen this pie chart from the War Resisters League that shows how that group believes your tax dollars are spent by the federal government:

But then maybe you’ve seen a pie chart like this one from the government itself that tries to show you the same thing (a similar one can be found in your tax booklet each year):

The government’s own pie chart shows Defense spending as only 16% of the federal budget

Well, which one is it? Does the government spend 47 cents of your tax dollar on the military, or 16 cents? Well, let’s dig a bit:

I’ll start with the 16 cent figure. It’s way off, or at least it doesn’t measure what you might think it measures. It certainly doesn’t tell you how much of your federal income tax dollar pays for war and arms and defense. It turns out there’s an interesting history of sleight-of-hand that led to this figure. The government has been steadily changing how it reports the budget to make it appear that less is being spent on the military than is really the case.

If you look at the pie charts published in the government’s budget report through the years, you’ll see the military section shrinking and shrinking. This is the case particularly during the Vietnam War years when the public was becoming more upset about the cost of the war in lives and in money. Some sample years:

YearBudget category pie chart name(s)Combined budget percentage
“National Defense, International, and Space”, "Veterans”69%
“National Defense, International, and Space”, “Veterans”56%
“National Defense,” “Vietnam,” “Veterans”45%
“National Defense”36%
“National Defense”29%

Well, what to make of this? Did military spending (as a percentage of the total budget) really drop that dramatically as the Vietnam war accelerated? Well, as you might guess, the answer is no. What changed was the way they used the numbers. Some examples:

In , note that “International” and “Space” are included in the defense category. This might have something to do with the larger numbers in those years, although when “International” became its own category in , it only amounted to 2% of the budget, and both it and the space program were at least partly military in nature.

In the government pie charters decided to pull the social security and other trust funds into the main budget. These trust funds aren’t supposed to be part of the general fund — they’re supposed to be our money held by the government for safe keeping, not the government’s money to budget and spend. But this accounting trick does make the pie chart much different, with a new 23% category of “Social Security and Other Trust Funds” shrinking everything else.

In , this new trust fund category got combined with some others, including what used to be called “Veterans” into a super-category called “Human Resources.” This new category replaced “National Defense” as the biggest one in the pie chart.

In short, by defining more and more military spending as not part of the “national defense” budget, and by absorbing trust funds into the budget for reporting purposes, the amount of your tax dollar going to war and defense has appeared to shrink over time. (It should be heartening to peaceniks that the government feels that all this obfuscation is worth the effort — they’re either ashamed of how they’re spending our money, or they’re afraid of what people would do if they knew the truth.)

Note also that all of that money that Bush has been requesting for the adventures in Iraq and for other aspects of the War on Terrorism wasn’t in the military’s bloated budget to begin with — that’s gonna take “extra” money that Bush has had to ask for above and beyond what’s allocated in the budget.

Now on to the 47% figure: When the War Resisters League tries to figure out its percentage each year, it looks not only at the Defense Department budget, but things like veterans’ benefits and those parts of other departments’ budgets that are also military spending (a lot of the nuclear weapons spending is done through the Department of Energy, for instance). Different people have different ideas of what constitutes military spending — is the Coast Guard a branch of the military, or is it more of a police force? is NASA military, or only the part of its budget that goes expressly to military satellites and such? etc. These are judgment calls, and the War Resisters League has its judgments but yours might very well be different.

Then there’s the question of estimating how much of the national debt was generated by military spending. If a certain percentage of the debt was accumulated to support military spending, then some percentage of the interest on that debt ought to be counted as military spending too. There are a couple of ways you could figure this:

Suppose that for a particular year military spending was $300 billion and total spending was $600 billion, and the deficit for that year was $100 billion. Methodology A: Since military spending was 50% of total spending, you could argue that the military portion of that debt was 50% or $50 billion. Methodology B: Or you could argue that if there were no military spending, there would be no debt — in fact, we would have a surplus; therefore, the debt for that year is entirely military-created.

Methodology A would yield a figure of about 50–60% (by some calculations); methodology B, of course, gives 100%. The War Resisters League uses a compromise figure of 80%, saying “we believe if there had been no military spending most (if not all) of the national debt would have been eliminated.”

The War Resisters league also uses the non-trust-fund portion of the federal budget in its calculations, the same way the government pie-charters did before . So it’s a more accurate view of where your federal income tax dollar is spent (because it doesn’t also include your payments to social security or medicare in the calculation).

Because of differences of methodology, different groups come up with different totals for the same budget: The Center for Defense Information believes that 51% of the federal budget went to military spending. The Friends Committee on National Legislation came up with a figure of 41%. The National Priorities Project leaves such things as interest payments, veterans’ benefits, and the like out of its calculation and gets a figure of 26.2% for the budget. The War Resisters League says in the budget, the number is 47% and they go into their methodology at some length on their site.

In addition to the web sites I’ve linked to above, I got a lot of information for this page (including the quote about different debt calculation methodologies) from the book War Tax Resistance: A Guide to Withholding Your Support from the Military 5th ed., , published by the War Resisters League.