Tuesday, October 28, 2014

There is NO Military Industrial Complex

It’s just that dirty Hippie Commies want you to think there’s one out there.

Alternative Title: What Military-Industrial Complex? 2014 Edition

I've noticed a recent uptick in references to Eisenhower’s ‘feared’ Military-Industrial Complex in public discourse across various media outlets; in print and online articles as well as the internet comment threads for same. It is almost as if a new generation of low-information consumers has discovered the MIC, aping the old ‘Sixties Left’ paranoia and deceit. They throw out the ‘MIC’ as if it were argument-ending proof or at least ‘evidence’ of a malevolent and destructive phenomenon: something that is wreaking havoc on the American polity and economy at this very minute or, ‘trust them’- by golly there would be if ‘we’ don’t put a stop to it. Just ask ‘em!

So it is time, once again, to insert proper perspective into the discussion…and slap the Military-Industrial Complex myth silly. This time, I plan on the ‘definitive’ debunking. Barring any wild economic gyrations in the near future, I shouldn’t ever have to revisit the topic, and should be able to just point others here whenever the topic comes up for a VERY long time.

This post is in two halves. In the first half, we’ll revisit (with a little twist) what we have covered in the past (here and here) to put proper perspective to the current relative economic power of defense activities within the total scale and scope of the American economic machine. In the second part, we will reach across time to examine the scope and relative impact of the Mythical MIC from the time Eisenhower first framed his now ‘infamous’ warning and compare it with today.

Some Housekeeping Up Front

Data Source

All data shown and not otherwise labeled/attributed is from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, Downloaded in early August.  The BEA data has since been updated at the source at least once in the interim, but for our purposes, there is no material difference in newer data and the data I used here.

Define Our Terms

It is particularly important that we first define our terms, since I categorically reject (obviously) the modern, clichéd definition of what a “Military-Industrial Complex” actually IS. If the accepted definition of the MIC in modern parlance was the same “manifestation” that Eisenhower noted in the ‘MIC’ speech where he stated “We recognize the imperative need for this development” then I would happily accept use of the term ‘Military-Industrial Complex’.

However, the term ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ has been routinely and now pervasively perverted to represent something only with those characteristics Eisenhower feared would come about, as specifically stated in following the acknowledged need for “this development”:
Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources, and livelihood are all involved. So is the very structure of our society. 
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.
Eisenhower above speaks of a Military-Industrial Complex that NEVER came into being. This is easily demonstrated by weighing the facts against the part of Eisenhower’s speech preceding the passages above:
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment. We annually spend on military security alone more than the net income of all United States corporations.
These passages describe the state of America’s economy at the time of Eisenhower’s speech. He saw his 1961 ‘MIC’ as part of an “imperative need” even though at the time, the US was spending more on “military security” than what the “US Corporations” ‘netted’ every year. (Which when you think about it, is not that surprising. Military Security is a whole sector of public spending. ‘Net’ profits are a small subset of the private sector.) By the time we complete ‘Part 2’ it will be obvious that not only did Eisenhower’s feared Military-Industrial Complex NOT materialize, his 1961 MIC atrophied into a shadow of its former economic presence. This real history unfolded not just through the relatively flattened or declining GDP proportions of military spending, but came about just as much, or more, through the growth of other parts of the economy.

Instead of the mythical Military-Industrial Complex, America’s defense has been and is still (perhaps too tenuously these days) supported by what we will refer to as a ‘National Defense Infrastructure’. From here on forward in these ‘MIC Myth’ posts I shall refer to the ‘MIC-that-never-happened’ as the Military-Industrial Complex (‘MIC’) and the MIC that actually came into being as the National Defense Infrastructure (‘NDI’).
We now proceed with the first half of the discussion…

Current Defense Industry Economic Impact: The Defense Industry Share of the Economic Pie.

We’ve been looking for the Mythical MIC for some time now, and once again it has failed to appear among the real powers-that-be in America’s economy. Following my past posts’ lead, here’s what the MIC’ looks like within the perspective of the Fortune 500.
No Military Industrial Complex Here

No MIC here.

The little blue scratches in the plot of this chart and the next are ‘defense revenues’ of the ‘biggest’ defense companies. As has become our custom, let’s zoom in closer to see the top Fortune 100 companies more clearly.

For completeness, I have also included the only non-publically traded company with significant ‘defense’ revenues in the position they would hold if they were a public company.
This chart actually displays some useful details. First, the biggest company with significant defense revenues (a Global Top 100 Defense company) is General Electric, but GE's defense revenues are almost insignificant compared to the company’s non-defense revenues. In fact, only Boeing, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, could be unquestionably characterized more as ‘defense companies’ than just 'non-defense companies with defense business interests' in the Fortune 100.

If one wants to be concerned about concentration of economic power, take a look at Berkshire Hathaway.

Over half the companies in the Fortune 100 took in MORE non-defense revenues than Lockheed Martin’s total income, and any two non-defense companies on the Fortune 100 list, even those companies smaller than Lockheed Martin, took in more revenue than Lockheed Martin. I observe here that each of the top 3 largest companies at the top of the Fortune 500 took in more revenue than ALL of the defense revenues brought in by the U.S. Global Top 100 Defense Companies on the Fortune 500 list, and the fourth company on the Fortune 100, Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, had revenues equal to about 86% of the defense revenues of those same Global Top 100 Defense Companies on the Fortune 500 list. 

A Global, More Encompassing Perspective

In the past, I’ve focused on data sources that relied on contract awards to identify the ‘big boys’ in the American ‘Defense Industry’. This year, I took a different tact and extracted data for all listed American companies in the “Global” Defense 100: i.e. the US Companies that are among the biggest defense companies in the world. This obviously excludes state-run industries that do not report revenues, found in places like the PRC and NoKo. But then, their industries are hardly direct participants in the US economy.

The breakdown by country of the Top 100, illustrating the distinction between defense and non-defense revenues is shown here:

The US company revenues dominate the list. Note that even the ‘World Top 100’ defense revenues tail off to almost undetectable levels once the top few counties’ contributions are counted. To make it easier to see the non-US revenues, here we exclude the US total to show ‘the rest’ of the world’s Global Defense 100 economic impact: 

There are minor ‘quirks’ in this breakdown, such as tiny Netherlands shows up as a major defense player due to the Airbus Industries consortium being headquartered there, and there is a possibly-significant portion of BAE Systems US-based businesses being rolled into the UK totals, but what is important to us is the overall scale, and relative proportions of defense and non-defense revenues. This will later be put into the greater perspective.

The breakdown by country of the Defense 100 finds 48 U.S companies on that list Sorted by percentage of revenues from 'defense', with reliance on defense revenues from most to least and bottom to top we see: 

 Most of those companies are remarkably ‘small’ in size when measured against all other companies and industries. 

Revenues for the biggest US Defense 'Defense' Companies
Twenty-One (21) of those 48 U.S. ‘Global Top 100 Defense’ Companies don’t even make it into the Fortune 500 ranks. And if Non-Defense revenues are taken away from the total revenues, more than three quarters (37!) of those 48 U.S. defense companies on the ‘World Top 100 Defense’ list would not even make it on the Fortune 500 list. All but Lockheed Martin and Boeing would drop out of the Fortune 100, and those so-called defense ‘giants’ would be hanging on somewhere near the bottom of the Fortune 100 list.

Defense as a part of the GDP: 1960 vs 2013

We now return to Eisenhower’s speech, and the world that existed during that time Does the economic impact on the U.S economy by the defense industries bear any resemblance to the 1959-1961 era?

The short answer is NO.

Here is a ‘snapshot’ of Government spending as a percentage of GDP running from the end of the Korean War through to 1965:
Percentages of GDP for Government Spending in the Eisenhower Era

Note that the percentage of the GDP attributable to ‘Non-Defense Federal’ spending rose only about 1% overall in that time-frame. ‘Defense Federal’ spending expressed as a percentage of the GDP actually declined from ~16% of the GDP to less than 10% of the GDP. ‘State and Local Government’ increased ~2.5% over the same time-frame. This is the ‘kind’ way to view the changes. An equally valid and ‘less kind’ observation would also note that the percentage of the GDP attributable to ‘Non-Defense Federal’ spending increased by about 30%, the percentage attributable to ‘Defense Federal’ decreased by about 40% and the percentage attributable to ‘State and Local Government’ spending increased nearly 41%. True, the percentage increases were for relatively small numbers for ‘Non-Defense Federal’ and ‘State and Local Government’, but those small numbers can and do compound over time. The two most important things to take away from the chart above are:
  1. Even at the time of Eisenhower’s farewell address, ‘Defense’ spending was in decline as a percentage of the GDP, and thus was in decline as a relative influence on the total economy.
  2. Federal Non-Defense spending and State and Local Government spending were becoming larger factors of influence on the total U.S. economy.

The second point will become of greater interest a little later in our discussion.

Here is a graph comparing defense spending and personal spending (including investments) for the same time frame as percentages of the GDP:
Defense Spending Was Not Eating into Personal Spending  in the Eisenhower Era
Just looking at this snapshot one would have to wonder just what Eisenhower was so worried about? But if we consider the state of the world at the time, what we as a nation had gone through since the prelude to WW2, and what Eisenhower was facing as the Cold War intensified, it is easy to see what his fears were about. Expanding that snapshot in time to 1935-1960, we see what Eisenhower and his contemporaries had experienced and remembered all too well. 

When Eisenhower stated:
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment…
He and others were remembering what it took out of the civilian economy to mobilize and mechanize for WW2, and he knew we were headed into new and uncharted territory

On top of the (obviously) huge impact on the economy that defense spending had between 1936 and 1945, we also see a slight hiatus in defense spending levels coming down from WW2, to increase slightly in support of the Korean War and then the early Cold War, Ike knew that the Korean War caused a haitus in Post-WW2 economic growth and by 1960, personal spending had still not returned to pre-Korean War levels. He feared this might go on or get worse. He feared a future that, as we are now illustrating, did NOT happen.

 Eisenhower himself had tried to reduce Defense Spending by moving away from ‘expensive’ conventional forces via his ‘New Look’ strategy, but quickly (in ‘political’ measures of time anyway) realized he had to back well away from replacing conventional forces with nuclear forces as much as he had originally planned. By the time Kennedy took office, the buzzword had become “Flexible Response” with a marked re-emphasis on conventional forces (I touched on this back and forth in policy and how it affected the tactical force structure somewhat here). But also by the time Kennedy took office, the American economy was clearly moving beyond being a defense-driven one and it was personal spending that was on the rise. Interestingly, neither Vietnam and the war in Southeast Asia nor the much misunderstood 'Reagan Buildup' caused more than an economic ‘blip’ in the 'defense spending' vs' personal spending' timeline:

And all the while, the GDP itself was growing by leaps and bounds, uninterrupted (at least until 2009, when the bookkeeping rules changed) :

This growth in GDP was not just all due to inflation either. 'Chained' to 2009 Dollars, the GDP still shows pretty much the same steady increase over time:


Relative percentages of GDP is a good way to show relative impacts on the total economy, but this could still have meant relative shares of a shrinking or stagnant economy could be hiding behind those percentages. In absolute GDP dollars, what was the private sector of the economy doing?

It was growing, and growing far faster than Defense Spending:

So Where Might We Find Growth in  Government Spending? 


After WW2 we began to see a near inexorable rise in State and Local Government spending, pausing only for the Carter “Malaise” and perhaps the current (2009 and on) economy, while defense spending as a percentage of the GDP since the Korean War consistently declined to the current levels. Non-defense Federal spending appears to have just loped along at about the same level. But there is something hidden in the State and Local Government GDP contribution. That hidden something is Federal funds transferred to the State and Local ‘pots of money’ yet not accounted for as Federal spending in the GDP.

I rarely find Cokie Roberts useful, but in 2009 she provided the impetus for Politifact to check something she said on the Oct. 4, 2009 episode of This Week With George Stephanopoulos:
"You know, right now, 40 percent, 40 percent of GDP is state, local, or federal money. I mean, that's an incredible number. So that, you know, adding more [government spending] to that, I think, is going to ... distort things even more. And the public is so concerned about it."
Politifact took up the challenge to test Ms. Robert’s numbers, and related this bit to its readers:
Marc Goldwein, an economist with the New America Foundation, framed the conundrum in this mind-bending fashion: "What percent of GDP is made up of government spending is a different question from what government spending equals as a percent of GDP."
That's because when a government "transfers" money — such as through Social Security — it is shifting money around rather than spending it directly. "This can have real and large effects on GDP, but it does not directly impact GDP, since tax and transfer policies simply take money that one person could be using for consumption or investment and give it to another person to use for consumption or investment," he said.
So hidden ‘off the GDP books’ and in transfers to state and local governments is a large chunk of money above and beyond the official Federal GDP contributions (BTW, Politifact found Robert’s claim for 2009 “Mostly True” (within ~5%).

How much is ‘hidden’ from the GDP federal (overwhelmingly non-defense) numbers over time? I’ve not found ‘hard data’ to plot, but I have found significant snapshots of data and other indicators.

First, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) provides this handy graphic:

This shows a fairly constant 4-5% of the GDP tied up in Federal grants to state and local governments from 1980-2010. This tells us the Federal Government gives away money to the states and localities that is about equal to the current federal spending levels on defense.

Another CBO (2013 chart of 2011 data) chart gives us a snapshot of how those Federal ‘grants’ are 'apportioned':

Thus we can see there is quite an 'economy' all in itself sitting ‘off the GDP books’, and only some trivial subset of the ‘other’ category goes to ‘national defense’. All of the rest is ‘non-defense’. 

At the ‘State’ level, these funds show up as significant portions of the State General Fund. from taxfoundation.org:

If the US Government were an official criminal enterprise, this might reasonably be viewed as a money laundering operation.

So we can now state that while State and Local Government spending has been increasing, it is clear that one of its driving forces is the Federal dispensation to the states and localities above and beyond what is found in the Federal GDP contributors.


In summary, we have shown:

  1. The feared Military-Industrial Complex never materialized. 
  2. The Defense Industry is relatively minute compared to the rest of the world’s and U.S. industrial base. 
  3. Personal Spending as part of the GDP has risen constantly over time, even when inflation is accounted for. 
  4. Defense Spending to support the National Defense Infrastructure has declined as a percentage of the GDP since 1953. 
  5. As a percentage of GDP and in absolute dollars, only State and Local Government spending has grown consistently over time since the end of WW2. 
  6. Defense spending has only increased in dollars, not as a proportion of the GDP, and at lower rates than all other forms of government spending over time since 1953. 
  7. Much of what State and Local Governments are increasingly spending actually involves spending significant Federal ‘Non-Defense’ dollars off the record as far as GDP books. That money which is ‘laundered’ through the State and Local Governments, overwhelmingly goes to ‘Health Care’ and ‘Income Security’. 


There is not now, nor has there ever been pernicious and/or detrimental “acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought” by a “military-industrial complex” in these United States. Eisenhower’s fears were never realized, or if you like, his ‘warning call’ headed off one ever coming into existence. 
Instead, we have— “sought or unsought”— maintained a National Defense Infrastructure that to date has admirably supported the National Interest since WW2 without ever rising to being an unreasonable economic burden, much less a threat to the “structure of our society”.

Can the same be said for all other government endeavors? 


Don M said...

I was once treated to an undersecretary of Defense teaching a young Army captain (he knows who he is) that suppliers get their money from their customers, and if he didn't understand that, he had best do some remedial study.

I once considered legislation to forbid people who collect a government check to make campaign contributions, directly or indirectly. That would include Unions, retirees, civil service, military, contractors, and contractor's employees, but might not include supermarket employees in towns with military bases.

Unworkable? Yes, because it is too hard to come up with a place where government money is laundered enough so corruption is no longer a worry.

Of course I grew up when Army officers would often refuse to vote as a matter of integrity.

SMSgt Mac said...

Hi Don!
Y'know in delving into sociological 'research' into the MIC and the alleged effect on America, I'm repeatedly struck by the way the military establishment is viewed as populated by the 'other': those that would somehow corrupt the American Way of Life. Yet everyone in the military or contractor world I've ever known well enough to know their thoughts or attitudes on the topic always view the Way of Life as the the thing they are working to preserve, and universally, all of them know that no matter what their involvement, eventually they will retire/move on out of the defense biz and reenter what they perceive is the mainstream of the Way of Life. I note here, that conversely sociologists,most academics in many other disciplines, and politicians seem to always operate from the premise that they will always view America from whatever insulated perch they're squatting on at the time.