Indefensible!

National Defense

by James Fallows
Random House, 206 pp., $12.95

Rarely has a book been published at a more opportune moment than James Fallows’s National Defense. At a time of widespread dissatisfaction with American defenses, we need a clear view of how they can be improved besides pouring more dollars into the same system. This book provides such a view. It should be read by President Reagan, and thoroughly absorbed by Secretary Weinberger and David Stockman before they throw many tens of billions more dollars at the defense program.

James Fallows was President Carter’s chief speech writer for two years, but he has never had any direct responsibilities for the national security. Yet his observations are so full of common sense, a quality which he finds badly lacking within the Pentagon, that it is unfortunate that his wisdom was not used in the past and not available earlier to the new administration. (In his recent article, “The Great Defense Deception,” [NYR, May 28] Fallows applies the logic of this book specifically to the Reagan defense program.)

It might seem easy to find $20 billion to add to the defense budget in a national budget of $650 billion. Fallows shows that in practice it is not that simple. More than 60 percent of all federal funds consists of “entitlements” or “uncontrollable” expenditures to which anyone who meets certain criteria is legally owed. Social Security, farm price supports, and veterans’ pensions all fall into this category, and a new administration cannot easily cut them off. The political costs and legislative difficulties of trying to reduce these and many other programs are high and may be insurmountable. Without these savings and with much higher taxes, higher defense spending can only further unbalance the budget.

But when he wrote his book, Fallows did not count on Stockman’s determination to cut the budget and Weinberger’s huge increases for defense. Weinberger was nicknamed “Cap the Knife” for his budget cutting under Nixon, but this talent has deserted him in his present job. Stockman has persuaded Reagan to cut social expenditures by $40 billion while Weinberger is seeking authority to spend $44 billion more on defense in fiscal year 1982 than will have been spent in this fiscal year. Will Congress go along with this transfer of funds from civilian to defense programs? The political tide is running strongly in that direction. The Reagan tax cut, however, promises to increase still further the deficit, and there is also strong sentiment in Congress in favor of balanced budgets. Inflation fueled by these tax cuts and higher military expenditures will also make it harder to find real money to increase defense efforts.

These difficulties will be made even worse a year from now, since Weinberger proposes yet another $40 billion increase for defense, and it will be very hard for Mr. Stockman to find another $40 billion to take away from the poor during the congressional election year of 1982. Since the beginning of the Korean War, defense spending in constant dollars never increased more …

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