Defense spending is way higher than it seems

Just when you thought the conversation over government spending had moved firmly from the executive branch to the legislative, Christopher Hellman, a military spending analyst with progressive think tank the National Priorities Project, comes in with a fresh take on President Obama’s budget proposal.

Though Obama’s 2012 budget remains in legislative limbo, the figures offered within provide a meaningful glimpse into the sorts of costs government programs are expected to incur. Hellman’s breakdown sheds light on just how much money the U.S. really spends on national security.

Last week, Hellman wrote an article for political blog the Tom Dispatch in which he explained that the $558 billion Pentagon budget and the $118 billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan don’t come close to depicting the whole picture of national security spending. Nuclear program maintenance, additional war and terrorism-related operational costs and homeland security all drive up defense expenses by nearly $90 billion. Intelligence, veterans programs, miscellaneous peacekeeping and counterterrorism efforts and military pensions push national security spending yet further, tipping total costs just over $1 trillion. Hellman caps that figure off with the $185 billion the U.S. must pay in 2012 in interest on standing defense debts and arrives at a sum total of $1.22 trillion. To put that number in perspective, Hellman says that a country with a gross domestic product that high would have the 15th largest economy in the world, ahead of Indonesia, Australia and Saudi Arabia.

This is a good deal higher than the number typically reported in the media — a report on defense spending that appeared on The Economist’s infographics blog Thursday, for example, uses the base Pentagon and Iraq/Afghanistan figures to arrive at a total of $693 billion in 2010 American defense spending. The Economist uses that figure as part of a calculation determining that the ten biggest defense budgets in the world add up to more than $1.1 trillion — a number that is in fact smaller than the actual defense budget of the U.S. alone, using Hellman’s calculations.

The news that well over a trillion dollars are spent on defense every single year would likely not sit well with the general American public. Recent polls report that Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of slashing defense spending to deal with the federal deficit.

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