Bring the boys back home. Bring the boys back home. Don’t leave the children on their own. Bring the boys back home. So intones Roger Waters in the rhythmic dirge from Pink Floyd’s 1979 masterpiece, The Wall. Over the 6 years of the Obama Administration, the country has indeed brought the boys back home in large numbers. This is one of the Administration’s most touted accomplishments, and were it true it would have a major beneficial impact on the economy.
Military actions are expensive, and in-spite of what radical Keynesian’s like Paul Krugman suggest, spending taxpayer money wastefully does not benefit the economy. It is a perfect example of what real economists call the broken window fallacy. As Frederic Bastait, the originator of the parable of the broken window wrote in 1850, If we confine ourselves to this answer – “The hundred thousand men, and these hundred millions of money, are indispensable to the national security: it is a sacrifice; but without this sacrifice, France would be torn by factions, or invaded by some foreign power,” – I have nothing to object to this argument, which may be true or false in fact, but which theoretically contains nothing which militates against economy. The error begins when the sacrifice itself is said to be an advantage because it profits somebody.
A hundred thousand men, costing the tax-payers a hundred millions of money, live and bring to the purveyors as much as a hundred millions can supply. This is that which is seen. But, a hundred millions taken from the pockets of the tax-payers, cease to maintain these taxpayers and the purveyors, as far as a hundred millions reach. This is that which is not seen. Now make your calculations. Cast up, and tell me what profit there is for the masses?
Were the President to bring the boys back home in a rational and well thought-out way, there would be immediate positive economic benefits as money now being spent to blow things up in Kabul or outside of Takrit would now be available to spend on tax relief, on paying down the debt or on providing better systems for Ebola management. The fact is that just as destroying windows does not create jobs (except for glaziers), spending on the military does not create jobs but rather transfers money from taxpayers to makers of military equipment.
While I was an Army officer, I am no expert on military deployment, and it is not up to me to question whether the President was right to pull out of Iraq or to leave just 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan. What I do question is whether the US is bringing the boys back home at all. While reliable data on military strength and deployments is no longer readily available, some data exist up through 2014. As the table shows, the number of US military personnel deployed overseas by the Obama Administration has barely budged over the past 6 years. True personnel have been shifted from Iraq and Afghanistan to other deployments but overall the number of troops stationed on foreign soil or at sea is down by only 32,000. And while this may represent a smaller share of the overall troop level, there is really not a significant peace dividend that can be found from retrenching 3 divisions of soldiers. And, if as many are arguing the redeployments are not being done in a way that will enhance security, any economic benefit that might be gained from bringing the boys back home would be quickly lost again as troops were once again sent to battlefields of the Middle East or Asia.