In 2011, then-President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans resolved a debt-ceiling showdown with “sequestration”: automatic spending cuts that would go into effect unless a more comprehensive deficit-reduction agreement was reached. That agreement never arrived, and two years later, the cuts took effect, resulting, for one, in a drastic reduction in military spending. This move looks increasingly unwise a decade later, with the US military chronically underfunded and under-resourced as the Ukraine war drags on and a conflict with China looms.
Unfortunately, raising revenues isn’t a realistic option: There is no political appetite for tax hikes, and there are no economic miracles on the horizon. Hence, the only real alternative for those lawmakers committed to maintaining American military dominance is to cut costs. To achieve this, there is really only one place to look: federal non-discretionary spending—Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the same portion of the budget Obama and the GOP proved unable to address a decade ago. Entitlement spending already swallows up more than half of the federal budget every year, and as the population ages, it is projected to balloon past the point where it is realistic to expect the US government to be able to pay what it owes.
“Entitlements are part and parcel of the functioning of America’s informal empire.”
Entitlement reform has long been the holy grail of the American right, but time and again, proposing cuts to Medicare and Social Security has proved politically suicidal for Republicans. For decades, Democrats have missed no opportunity to accuse the GOP of wanting to deprive grandma of her hard-earned retirement, and now Donald Trump is using the same line of attack against his primary rivals. But beyond the political unviability of entitlement reform, those calling for the level of cuts needed to ensure the system’s long-term solvency are oblivious to a more important point: Entitlements are part and parcel of the functioning of America’s informal empire. To cut them without re-envisioning the country’s entire economic model is a non-starter.