Are Taxpayers Getting Their Money's Worth From the Military?

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Is the federal government spending too many of your tax dollars on defense? A lot of people think so. Others worry that tax dollars aren't being spent on the right kind of defense. That's the upshot of two recent polls by Gallup.

The first, conducted of 1,023 adults in February, shows that when asked about U.S. spending on national defense and foreign military conflicts, more Americans think the answer is "too much" (37 percent) rather than "too little" (28 percent).

That's the bad news. The good news is that the correct answer to Gallup's poll appears to be "just right" -- that we're spending just about the right amount of money on national defense.

How do we know this? A quick glance at the chart shows that the gap today between Americans saying "too much" or "too little" is about as narrow as it's ever been and far narrower than we saw...
  • in the waning days of the Vietnam War (when there was about a 40-percentage point disparity between respondents saying "too much" and "too little").
  • in the start of the Reagan administration, when 51 percent of Americans said we weren't spending enough on defense -- 36 percentage points more than said "too little."
  • or in the start of the economic crisis in 2008, when fewer than half the people polled said we should sacrifice defense spending to help balance the budget.
And Speaking of Balance

The other bad news is that, according to a separate Gallup poll of 1,028 adults, the money we spend on the military may not buy the kind of military most Americans want.

Last month, Gallup asked which of the military's five branches was "most important to our national defense." More respondents (26 percent) named the Army. The Air Force came a close second at 23 percent, followed by the Marines (19 percent), the Navy (17 percent) and the Coast Guard (3 percent).

And yet, where does the money go? This illustration by the Center for American Progress, based on data from the Pentagon's fiscal 2015 budget request has the most money going to the Navy -- $147.7 billion to be split between the Navy per se and the Marine Corps. To an extent, this makes sense. The Pentagon routes Marine Corps funding through the Department of the Navy. When awarding contracts that benefit the Marine Corps, the Pentagon always classifies them as "Navy" contracts. And the Navy and Marine Corps, combined, get the most funding out of the Pentagon's budget. If you combine the number of folks saying either the Navy or the Marine Corps is "most important" to the nation, the resulting percentage (36 percent) tops both the Army and Air Force -- and probably justifies the outsized investment being made in the nation's maritime forces.

Funding for the Army and Air Force, on the other hand, doesn't match up as well with where American voters say our priorities should be.

Budgetary Priorities

Take the Army, for example. As an independent service (i.e, if you count the Navy and Marines separately), U.S. voters say the Army is more important than either one. Yet with "only" $120.3 billion in funding, it gets far less funding than goes to the Navy -- and less funding per capita as well. (At 541,291 service members, Army enrollment is greater than both the Navy and Marines, combined.)

Likewise with the Air Force. Gallup's poll shows that Americans view the U.S. Air Force as second only to the Army in importance. Yet the Air Force's "blue" budget of $109.3 billion makes Air Force a relative pauper in budgetary terms, trailing the Army and Navy alike. (The Air Force technically has a separate "non-blue" budget of $28.5 billion, too. But these funds don't really go to things the Air Force directly manages, such as salaries, weapons, training, bases and airplanes. For reasons even Air Force officers have difficulty explaining, the bulk of "non-blue" funds, although routed through the Air Force, fund America's intelligence-gathering activities).

So is the Pentagon -- and are the president and Congress -- misplacing their priorities? Are they spending money in one place, when most Americans would prefer they spend it in another?

Tell us what you think, below.

Motley Fool contributor Rich Smith writes daily on military matters for both The Motley Fool and DailyFinance.

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The question should have been, "are we spending too much on welfare?"
Or maybe, "The US has already allowed 16 million aliens to enter the country, how more more millions should we continue to let in?
Or, "How is Sen Harry Reid a multi-millionaire when he makes $150K as a member of Congress, and was broke when he was first elected?
I could go on all day.

June 10 2014 at 7:07 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dkk82d's comment

We're spending too much on the military and welfare. The military budget does not include, the VA, military retirement, military disability payments, tri-care, the nuclear program, NSA, CIA,FBI, Border Patrol, or Homeland Security, and all are either military or para-military. As for welfare, it was never meant to be a multi generational career, grandma, mom, daughter, or the male equivilent. It was enacted when divorce became more common, and females lacked the education, and or training to go out and earn a living. It was meant to be a stop gap of a few years out of a lifetime, to acquire the education/training required for gainful employment.

June 10 2014 at 9:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

A 10% cut in the military budget could fund 100% of tuition costs at ALL public colleges. We spend more on our military than the next 10 countries combined. The founders of this country envisioned a small standing military and a LARGE militia and stated it in the Consitution. We have just the opposite?? We crushed Russian by spending them militarily into the dirt. Now we are doing it to ourselves. Term Limits ONLY hope. It can't be a JOB if we are to survive as a country.

June 10 2014 at 6:08 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to cabo79's comment

10% cut in the military budget to fund tuition for ALL public colleges? No way. There's great doubt about collegiates and their loyalty to the US. There's no doubt about our military's loyalty and sacrifice. No way, 15% cut in welfare and food stamps, sounds much better to me. The military IS smaller in number than the State militias. The reason we spend more on our military is so that they can have the best equipment and technology to protect the USA and Americans.

June 28 2014 at 8:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Lots of areas in the miliray can and should be Cut. Examples (1) Why do WE keep 28,000 troops in the DMZ between the Koreas ? (2) Why do we keep over 100 military basis outside America? (3) Why do we keep Air Force bases in many states, such as Kansas, Nebrasks, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky? The military needs an overhaul away from the 1940s and in tune with needs of 2014-20...

June 10 2014 at 3:06 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to lyleva's comment

The Korean War has not ended.

June 10 2014 at 3:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply