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The Tax Bill And The Military


ROLLING STONES: (Singing) You can't always get what you want.


Last year, the Trump campaign played this song, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by the Rolling Stones. And here's why it's relevant now. The president and his fellow Republicans want to get big tax cuts. But if you pass tax cuts, the federal government doesn't have as much money to spend on building up the military, which the president also wants.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want to deter, avoid and prevent conflict through our unquestioned military strength. We have the greatest people in the world. We have to give them the greatest equipment.


INSKEEP: OK, so how does that desire match up then with the push to cut taxes for the wealthy and businesses and people who inherit $11 million or more? Peter Mansoor is our next guest. He's a retired Army colonel, now a military historian at Ohio State who joins us via Skype. Good morning, sir.

PETER MANSOOR: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking there was a remark by Jack Reed - Rhode Island senator - the other day saying there's a conflict here. You can't cut taxes and raise military spending. We put the same statement, though, to the Republican house speaker, Paul Ryan. And he said I don't even understand where that would come from. So let me put it to you. Does the tax cut effectively make a statement that we're abandoning military priorities?

MANSOOR: Well, it depends on whether the Republicans can get bipartisan consensus to raise the debt. Because a significant raise in military spending, say 15 percent, would add about $1 trillion to the debt over 10 years. And it's not clear that anyone has the stomach for that in Washington.

INSKEEP: Is that increase actually needed now that the U.S. is not fighting big ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan like they were a few years ago?

MANSOOR: Well, that's a good question. We do face a rising China, a resurgent Russia and a nuclear North Korea. But there's no clear and present danger the way there was, say, in the World War II or Korea or Vietnam War buildups. On the other hand, we have the smallest number of deployable U.S. Navy ships since World War II, an Air Force tanker fleet and B-52 bombers that are more than half a century old and the last major-weapons buy for the Army in the 1970s and 1980s. So the equipment of the military is aging rapidly.

INSKEEP: So what happens if funding is not increased then?

MANSOOR: Well, the military will make do what it has and improve existing weapons systems. But they will be harder to maintain. And the readiness of U.S. forces will decline slowly over time.

INSKEEP: Well, let me ask about the consequences of that. Because you mentioned if Republicans who control Congress were willing to increase the debt - borrow more to expand the military - then the tax rates don't really matter. You're just borrowing more. Is that a sustainable course?

MANSOOR: Well, it depends on whether you think $20 trillion-plus in debt is sustainable for our economy to support. If you believe that there will be massive growth in the years ahead and the economy will forge forward and become much larger, then that debt would be more sustainable. But if the growth rate remains under 2 percent, then you'll have rising interest payments. And you'll be saddling future generations with huge amounts of debt that they'll have to pay back eventually.

INSKEEP: Wasn't there a time when military officers were raiding the federal deficit and federal debt themselves as a national security threat?

MANSOOR: Well, to be clear, military officers don't make the decisions. The politicians do.

INSKEEP: You bet.

MANSOOR: And the last major military increase in peacetime was the Reagan defense buildup. But even then, the president said that it was necessary to win the Cold War. There's never been a major military buildup in peacetime absent a major strategic threat to the United States.

INSKEEP: But I guess if we said the debt is a national security threat, what we would mean is there might be a time when we really need to borrow lots of money for a serious military effort and we don't really have the money. Is that it?

MANSOOR: Oh, absolutely. The biggest increase in debt in U.S. history was to fight World War II. But again, it was an existential conflict that we had to win.

INSKEEP: Peter Mansoor, thanks very much.

MANSOOR: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: He's a retired U.S. Army colonel and now a professor of military history at The Ohio State University. And he joined us via Skype. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.