Monday, January 3, 2011

Boxes: A Tale of Abstraction

After watching the beautiful first video from Information Is Beautiful (appropriately named, aren't they?), I can't help but throw another naive rallying cry out into the void for a shift along our production possibilities frontier from knives to butter. It all looks so simple! If that box is that big and this box is only this big, shouldn't we be able to move a little from that box to this box? Come on! They're just boxes!

More butter please.
In the alcohol-haze of New Year's Day hangoverdom, I decided to see if I couldn't scrounge together enough money from the military budget to save the Amazon. I'm fully aware that a unilateral move by the US to protect the Amazon, the territory of several sovereign nations, would be a political ambiguity. But if it is possible to move a few blocks around in theory for this cause, imagine what more could be done domestically?

While I wish I had the technological savvy to put together something as impressive as the New York Time's interactive infographics, I'm afraid we'll have to settle for spreadsheets and simple numbers. But Mad Men is cool right? And they use spreadsheets. Just picture me writing this in a three-piece suit with my shoes off.

Cut the Marketing Budget by $4bn:
According to a 2008 report on the impact of America's Army, an online military video game developed as a recruitment and training tool,
"30 percent of all Americans age 16 to 24 had a more positive impression of the Army because of the game and, even more amazingly, the game had more impact on recruits than all other forms of Army advertising combined." - Source: Foreign Policy
Said article goes on to clarify that the game had cost the army, to-date, $3.28m and yet had outperformed traditional marketing initiatives costing $8bn annually. Recognizing that their target demographic is an internet-savvy, virtually competent group of 18-24 year olds, the army should adjust its recruiting practices accordingly. In so doing, they could save enormously on the overhead costs for face-to-face approaches and give us a $4bn large square for our game of save-the-Amazon Tetris.

Reduce Troops in Germany:
The US Army currently has 51 active installations in Germany alone. These are largely a relic from the Cold War in which a strong on-the-ground military presence was deemed necessary for deterrence against the Soviet Union. Cutting this presence in half only for Army installations and only in Germany would save the US roughly $4.7bn annually. We could get far more aggressive and take the ax to the hundreds of other military installations in Europe but let's be conservative here. (Estimates derived by extrapolating from Jeremy White's plan to cut the defense budget.) Now we've got an $8.7bn sized block. Only $12.3bn to go!

Slash the Military Vehicle Procurement Budget by $8.5bn:
Reducing the procurement of new military vehicles could save $8.5bn without hampering military competency. Given that our current wars are being fought not with massive armies but rather against unconventional militants, we should shift our procurement away from 42 new Joint Strike Fighters and 34 new F-18 aircraft and toward better intelligence, training, and armor protection against IEDs. Our existing air force is more than capable in handling what little is required of them in all theaters. Purchasing 76 new jets seems illogical when faced with the type of enemy and style of combat we are currently facing. Given that the budget for the Joint Strike Fighters is $11.4bn and the budget for the F-18 jets is $2.0bn, we could save $6.7bn simply by cutting these numbers in half.

Program↓2011 Budget request[11]↓Change, 2010 to 2011↓
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter$11.4 billion+2.1%
Ballistic Missile Defense (AegisTHAADPAC-3)$9.9 billion+7.3%
Virginia class submarine$5.4 billion+28.0%
Brigade Combat Team Modernization$3.2 billion+21.8%
DDG 51 Aegis-class Destroyer$3.0 billion+19.6%
P–8A Poseidon$2.9 billion−1.6%
V-22 Osprey$2.8 billion−6.5%
Carrier Replacement Program$2.7 billion+95.8%
F/A-18E/F Hornet$2.0 billion+17.4%
Predator and Reaper Unmanned Aerial System$1.9 billion+57.8%
Littoral combat ship$1.8 billion+12.5%
CVN Refueling and Complex Overhaul$1.7 billion−6.0%
Chemical Demilitarization$1.6 billion−7.0%
RQ-4 Global Hawk$1.5 billion+6.7%
Space-Based Infrared System$1.5 billion+54.4%

Source: Wikipedia

Also, what the hell is this? According to Wikipedia, the development of Littoral combat ships (valued above at $1.8bn) has long been a costly and inefficient process. Previous year's projects have been outright canceled twice and the list of politicians, both conservative and liberal, calling the process out for being unnecessarily wasteful, is long. Furthermore, the limited tactical application of this ship makes it an easy target for our chopping block.
Think of poor Jimmy.

This brings our box size to a hefty $17.2bn. Or rather, hefty when viewed through the layman's eyes. This amount in the above video would be piddling even before the whole infographic zooms out to display the credit crisis. And at that scale, it would barely merit a pixel. But imagine what $17.2bn could do for our school systems. Or our police forces. Imagine Jimmy McNulty for chrissakes. The fuck did he do?

But let's finish saving the Amazon before I go off on a Wire tangent.

Reduce Investment in Missile Defense Systems by $4bn:
This is one cut which has received sane bipartisan support since before the end of the Cold War and yet still manages to soak up almost $10bn per year. It is an easy target for rational oversight on both sides of the aisle due to both its limited applicability and the various programs which have been riddled with overrun. Some programs, such as the space-based laser system, are downright laughable with 15 years of failure as their only legacy. Yet Congress overruled Obama's proposal for cuts and authorized an additional $50m in FY2011 for this Reagan brainchild.

But even without the sore thumbs in the crowd, arguments against investment in missile defense are strong. The greatest threats to American security come not from ICBM's but rather dirty bombs capable of being smuggled into the country in backpacks and briefcases. Even in the advent of a credible ICBM threat rising the future (I'm looking at you North Korea and even so, I'm not particularly worried), the most optimistic hypotheses regarding our system's effectiveness are not particularly strong. And the system, assuming an effective response to an ICBM, is still unequipped to handle scatter payloads or decoys.

Put simply, the missile defense system is the offspring of our obsession with total security and our lingering fears of Cold War-inspired nuclear war. It is a cash-hole in response not to any modern threat but to our own insecurity. The $5bn cut suggested here would leave plenty of money for funding research and development without supporting systems either demonstrably ineffective or, at best, unlikely.

And there we go. I just saved the Amazon. Wearing my best three-piece suit and my socks no less. What have you done today?

I am in no way qualified to make the arguments above based on my own experience or professional education. Nor am I naive enough to think that carving a $21bn square out of our military budget and sending it down to the Amazon would immediately solve the environmental issues there. Finally, though I feel confident in arguing that the above suggestions would not have any negative impact on US security, I am well aware that a large part of this budgetary bloat comes not from real military necessity but rather from the employment and investment it supports. 

But this is the brilliance of infographics. They make problems appear bite-sized so that we at least try to find alternatives. And though I'm not qualified to make these decisions, I can try and sway public opinion and their corresponding votes my way. Also...did I mention I'm wearing a three-piece suit?

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