A couple recent examples demonstrate the point. As Christopher Preble pointed out the other day, both Pentagon and House Armed Services Committee leaders have lately substantiated their claims about job losses from Pentagon spending cuts with shoddy studies (actually, summaries of nonpublic studies). These assume that the money saved by cuts would disappear rather than get reinvested elsewhere and employ others. Indeed, because defense uses relatively little labor, most reinvestments of military spending, including tax cuts, are likely, over time, to increase demand for labor. A bevy of blog posts by people favoring military cuts got a few journalists to question the official job-loss claims, but the majority of stories did not.
Or take military service chiefs’ testimony last week to the House Armed Services Committee. The gist is that sequestering $600 billion from the Pentagon over ten years (more like $500 billion, but who’s counting?) would destroy the U.S. military. Leave aside for now the truth of that view, and consider its context. Here we have agency leaders defending their budgets with coordinated talking points in front of a committee run by members with districts dependent on military spending. The hearing, even more than most, is a performance intended to frighten Americans. Yet reporters, bound by tradition, cover it like a graduate seminar—where the end is truth. No witnesses noted that sequestration would merely return us to 2007 levels of inflation-adjusted Pentagon spending (a time when, if memory serves, the military was doing OK), so no reporters did. The Washington Post even cut and pasted the chiefs' gory and largely inaccurate claims into an editorial.
I’m not begging for better reporting to balance debate and improve policy. More skeptical defense reporting would be terrific, but reporters, as I said, lack incentive to reliably provide it. What’s needed, instead, are more mechanisms that concentrate defense spending costs on powerful interests and prompt policy fights, which in turn produce skepticism. Budget caps are a start, but more can be done.