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On Bayonets vs. Big Bird

October 25th, 2012 . by economistmom


(google image citation:  Horse And Bayonet Meme. Tumbler/horseandbayonet and

Debate coach Todd Graham, commenting on about President Obama’s “horses and bayonets” zinger of a line, calls it “the most memorable line of the night.”  But Professor Graham also makes the good budget-hawk observation that it wasn’t just cute; Obama actually has a (substantive) point (emphasis added):

The question was posed to Romney on how he would pay for his proposed $2 trillion increase in military spending, and he flat out didn’t answer it. He was busy finishing his previous answer. So by the time it was the president’s turn, Obama actually said, “You should have answered the question.”

Obama then asserted that the United States spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined. That’s a great attention grabber. By the time Romney finally answered, he simply said we needed a stronger military, and the Navy needs more ships because it has fewer ships than it did in 1916.

But Obama countered with the most memorable line of the night. “We also have fewer horses and bayonets.” Obama’s debating point was that the nature of our military has changed. He continued by saying that the U.S. has things like submarines and aircraft carriers that should suffice, and reminded viewers that the nation needed to study what its threats are and put money into things like cybersecurity and space. Obama said that the military neither wants nor has asked for this extra $2 trillion.

This was terrible for Romney for three reasons. First, it was the original area of real disagreement, and Romney couldn’t afford to be bested. Second, no matter what he may actually know, Romney looked like a neophyte when it comes to military spending, as though he were repeating old Republican talking points. Viewers could be left unsure whether he knew what century this is.

And finally, it’s two freaking trillion dollars! They both talked about the budget deficit and the need to balance the budget, and over three debates, this — $2 trillion on military spending — was the biggest difference on offer. Axing Big Bird would net a President Romney next to nothing in savings, but adding $2 trillion to defense sounded excessive, especially if it’s true that the U.S. already spends more than the next 10 countries combined. Point Obama.

Whether the $2 trillion difference in defense spending is really the biggest difference in the candidates’ budget plans depends on how you combine the various pieces of their tax policy approaches (do you look at Romney’s proposal to cut tax rates separately from his base-broadening, revenue-raising “proposal”–or on net?), but the point that Big Bird is chump change compared with the defense spending issue is an important one.  If it takes a cute line (”horses and bayonets”) to get people engaged and understanding that reducing the deficit is more than cutting “waste, fraud, and abuse”–or even foreign aid or “Big Bird” (public TV)–then it’s a good thing.

16 Responses to “On Bayonets vs. Big Bird”

  1. comment number 1 by: Patrick R. Sullivan

    Obama is the one who came off as a Defense Dilettante. Romney is proposing spending about 4% of GDP on Defense, which is less than half of what Eisenhower and JFK spent (before the Vietnam war).

    Further, we probably have MORE bayonets today than we did in 1916 (because we hadn’t ramped up for WWI yet). And they are still used. In fact, they’re used in Afghanistan today against the Taliban (speaking of warfare that resembles that of 1916). The Brits, just last month, awarded a medal to one of their soldiers for leading a bayonet charge;

    Submarines also existed in 1916 (one sank the Lusitania that year). Aircraft carriers came along in the mid-1920s.

    One of the reasons that there has been a resurgence of piracy on the high seas (but not in space) is that the British navy (traditionally the force that sought out and eradicated it worldwide) is a sad shell of its former self. The American navy has an even bigger mission today, since its allies aren’t up to pulling their weight.

    It’s pretty bad when even David Letterman isn’t buying Obama’s BS.

  2. comment number 2 by: Vivian Darkbloom

    I think we ought to adopt a new test for Presidential candidate rhetoric: are they targeting Jim Glass with those lines? (It’s sort of like the Man on the Clapham Omnibus, although I would give Jim more credit than that).

    This one, I suspect, fails that test even more than the line about Romney’s and Obama’s pensions. It appears that the most successful debate lines are now those that are the most sophomoric and least meaningful. That’s bad enough, but I hardly expected it (and the binder comment) to make the headlines here. I hope the next one isn’t about Romnesia.

    The discussion, it appears, was about defense spending. Romney indicated we need a stronger military and more naval ships, noting we now have fewer than in 1916. The counter, which some seem to think was responsive and particularly clever, was that “we also have fewer horses and bayonets”. I checked out Romney’s web site to see what he had to say on national defense and he also says there we need more ships, e.g., more submarines (you know, the type of ship that runs under water).

    But the bayonet line was completely unresponsive and irrelevant to the issue of what the level of military spending should be. As far as I know, satellites and those modern high-tech weapons (like submarines) cost a heck of a lot more than bayonets and horses. The illogic of Obama’s response was that he seems to think we can buy all that high tech stuff (as if “ships” are not) without paying much for them. He completely evaded the issue as to how much the defense budget should be and why. He also did not explain why we need far fewer ships now even though the world is the same size as it was in 1916 and our strategic interests presumably are even larger. I guess that such a thoughtful response would not fit into a bite-size throw away comment.

    Debate coach Graham must specialize in coaching students in trying to make he best, ex post facto, out of silly, illogical and non-responsive debate comments. And, he appears to know nothing about national defense policy.

    This is all too bad, because it’s a serious issue, not only for national defense, but also for the budget. I tend to think that we need to scale back on spending for everything and that includes defense. On the numbers, 4 percent of GDP equates to $600 billion based on 2011 GDP. Per the FY 2013 Obama budget, defense spending is expected to be $716 billion in 2012, $702 next year and to hover just below $600 billion in the years up to 2018.

    If one thinks that the Defense Department “does not need or want extra money, he or she clearly doesn’t have any experience with the budget process or the Defense Department. Gates and his Joint Chief have clearly requested more than they were forced to accept. They clearly “want” all they can possibly get. And, I’ll bet the bank that if asked to give a professional judgement, they’d say, yeah, we need more ships.

    That, of course, doesn’t mean they should get it. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. They can probably do as much with somewhat less, if forced to do so. But, I don’t think those decisions should be made on the basis of such a silly comment.

  3. comment number 3 by: Jason Seligman

    The responses above seem a bit fevered. The horses and bayonets line is not all that new. I recall this fact from my college economics course on Keynesian militarism. Thank you Professor David Khan (UCSC, 1990). SO it’s not as if Romney should not have been aware of arsenal dynamics, he is applying for the job of Commander in Chief.

    Incidentally, as well as being Commander in Chief, the President is also Budget-er in Chief and that is the point of this post. Unfortunately Romney did not do a good job with the math here and Diane’s point can be boiled down to:

    In case there is doubt though, several credible sources have suggested that Obama was correct. Here is Bloomberg:
    “While Obama was correct that the U.S. Army has fewer horses and bayonets than it did in 1916, as anyone who has seen the movie or play “War Horse” knows, the days of the cavalry charge and fixed bayonets were already waning in World War I. They were victims of machine guns and artillery.”

    Ms. Darkbloom, whether or not you would bet just is not that meaningful, it is in fact “a silly comment,” to quote you.

    The DoD & Defense Secretary have been on record several times asking congress to kill projects that were not valued for the military over the past few years. For but one example the second engine type for the JSF, but there have been a few others of these as well. The president is in no position to misreport what his Joint Chiefs wrote.

  4. comment number 4 by: Jason Seligman

    sorry - bad key hit - Diane’s point can be boiled down to:

    PBS costs less than 5 billion over 10 years whereas we’re talking about 2 trillion in defense.

    for a nice article on the cost of big bird see:

    Let’s get back to fiscal policy… According to the Romney Ryan plan, as far as it’s been described,
    the deficit comes around to zero in 8-10 years… >> after they are out of office…

    What concerns me most about these sorts of pledges is wondering what they will say in the 2016 campaign when they are held up to the same fiscal tests? Let’s not forget that SSA and the Fed will not be buying all of the debt they are now, and the private sector’s flight to quality discount we’ve been enjoying on financing rates will be gone as well. So Supply will be up and demand will be down - debt is going to get expensive.

    As for the R&R plan, least there be debate, it has not been adequately described. These are from their website:


    The first is more detailed. Neither adds up to 2 trillion, 5 trillion (or anything larger).

    Many of the parts unfortunately are quite superficial - platitudes like “cap federal spending at 20 percent of GDP” which would impose very pro-cyclical spending patterns on the economy, over heating the economy in boom years and cutting spending, including defense spending in bust years. Now that’s no way to plan a military either.

    And before we start proposing to exempt Defense, from the cap let’s remember that entitlements spending grows in recessions and that is not something you can simply wish away, eligibility requirements for retirement are not likely to contain the proviso “Unless its a recession in which case your eligibility for social security medicare disability and other benefits may be postponed.”

    Finally coming back to the defense theme, increasingly Defense types see the US fiscal situation as a national security risk in the middle term. That is another reason a strong commander in chief is a strong budget-er in chief.

  5. comment number 5 by: Patrick R. Sullivan

    ‘SO it’s not as if Romney should not have been aware of arsenal dynamics….’

    Too bad Obama didn’t think to say that! Would have sealed his re-election, I’m sure.

  6. comment number 6 by: AMTbuff

    I thought that both candidates (for opposite reasons) were obscuring the fact that the sequester accounts for half the $2T. Thus “Defense Dept didn’t ask for $2T more” is misleading, since it really should be “Defense Dept didn’t ask for $1T more.” Unless they asked for a $1T cut!

    When the candidates intentionally confuse ordinary voters with misleading figures, voters are left to decide which candidate is less of a liar. It’s depressing.

  7. comment number 7 by: Brooks / Gordon


    Re: As far as I know, satellites and those modern high-tech weapons (like submarines) cost a heck of a lot more than bayonets and horses. The illogic of Obama’s response was that he seems to think we can buy all that high tech stuff (as if “ships” are not) without paying much for them. He completely evaded the issue as to how much the defense budget should be and why. He also did not explain why we need far fewer ships now even though the world is the same size as it was in 1916 and our strategic interests presumably are even larger. I guess that such a thoughtful response would not fit into a bite-size throw away comment.

    Ironically, given that you are ridiculing Obama for his supposed “illogic”, it is your argument that fits that label.

    1. Romney implied that Fact X (the fact that we have fewer ships than we had almost a century ago) makes it obvious that we need to have his level of Defense spending (or at least closer to it than Obama’s), and in particular that we need more naval ships. In other words, Romney’ implicit premise was that fewer ships than a century ago means obviously we have too few ships.

    2. Obama response was his reason why Romney’s statement was invalid — i.e., why Fact X does NOT make that conclusion obvious (and he may have been implying that Fact X doesn’t even indicate that conclusion). In other words, Obama rejected Romney’s (absurd) premise.

    Although I don’t think it was intentional, you have erected a straw man: that Obama was supposedly arguing that the invalidity of Romney’s key implicit premise is necessarily a reason to reject Romney’s conclusion, as if Obama was saying “Your comparison is so apples to oranges that it doesn’t imply that we need more ships. Therefore, we don’t need more ships”, or something along those lines. Do you see the difference between invalidating an argument in favor of some conclusion (which Obama did) vs. arguing that the invalidity of that argument is an argument for rejecting that conclusion (which Obama didn’t, but which you are attributing to him, thus erecting a straw man that you then ridicule)?

    If you (or anyone else) is not following me (or is being unreasonable), you probably think I’m getting lost in some detail, but I’m not. Romney made absurdly silly apples-to-oranges argument that probably would have fooled some people. Obama pointed out how silly it was, which was more than reasonable for him to to, and which I would expect anyone in his shoes to do. If Romney had sensible arguments he was free to make them.

    And your observation that today’s ships are expensive is irrelevant to the validity and appropriateness of Obama’s response to Romney’s argument (i.e., Obama’s rejection of Romney’s implicit premise), and your attribution to Obama, based on that response of his, of a belief that “we can buy all that high tech stuff (as if “ships” are not) without paying much for them is baseless, even if you are just implying that his response might only make sense per such a premise.

    By the way, did Romney offer an argument (or more of an argument than Obama) for why we are better off with the Defense spending level he plans, or the number of ships he plans? I don’t recall if he did or not, but if not, your criticism of Obama would seem to be a double standard. (I do recall, I think, Romney quoting Gates as saying the sequestration cuts would be “devastating”, but where that fits in the overall substantiveness of arguments from each I’ll leave up to you to argue, if you wish).

  8. comment number 8 by: Steveinch

    This exchange between the President and Governor Romney is exactly why we will never solve our budget problems. On the merits, in my opinion, the President is much closer to right than wrong, basically arguing that we need to find new, more efficient ways of doing things in defense and that failure to do so is a budget buster. This is very consistent with my own view that the right way to think about defense spending is that it ought to grow at something like inflation minus 1 percent, nearly flat in nominal terms. It is the job of the military leadership to figure out how to work within that constraint. Like any established bureaucracy, they are claiming that a reduction in levels of funding increase will result in disaster. It’s reflexive and silly.

    But, where is the Preisdent on the need to find new and more efficient ways to do the other things that government does. Simply put, he is nowhere. On entitlements, he has proposed nothing beyond the demonstration projects in the ACA and demagogues any mention of anything by the other party. In point of fact, 75 percent or so of the budget is not defense.

    You can disagree with governor Romney on defense but his notion that total federal spending as a percentage of GDP needs to decline materially is, in my opinion, the only path to fiscal stability.

  9. comment number 9 by: Vivian Darkbloom

    To Jason and Brooks,

    I’m not military expert (though I’ve did my duty). Whether the Navy needs 313 ships is probably something I would leave to the military experts. And, I think that’s probably true of Presidents and Presidential candidates, with a good dose of skepticism, of course.

    But, when it comes to naval matters, I can’t dispute the Chief of Naval Operations. Romney has been attacked for saying that we had more ships in 1916 than we do now, and that we need more ships, not only as a matter of logic, but as a matter of fact.

    And, Jason, I agree: The President *shouldn’t* be in a position to misreport what his Joint Chiefs wrote. The Chief of Naval Operations is not in the JCS, but that’s close enough for me:

    Here’s Admiral Gary Roughead last year in testimony before the Senate Armed Forces Committee (it’s a good thing the military talks to Congress, too):

    ““To deliver the above, we’ve been pushing the fleet hard. We have 288 ships today. It’s the smallest it has been since 1916 when our interests and our responsibilities were smaller than they are today. And that’s why the floor of 313 remains the floor of our future force and why sustaining fleet capacity is essential to reaching that floor.”

    In retrospect, it strikes me that this sounds a lot like what Romney said. Can you imagine Obama scoffing and Roughead “bayonets and horses”?

    Current projections are that given budget constraints, including the Budget Control Act, the naval fleet would drop to under 250. As I said above, sometimes the military confuses wants and needs. The Navy Secretary has recently been making noises that well, maybe we can get by with a minimum of 300, but the message is clear: the number needs to go up.

    But, who am I do say? The only thing I can say, is that given the above, the bayonets and horses rejoinder was not only non-responsive to Romney but the Naval experts currently under Obama’s command.

  10. comment number 10 by: Brooks / Gordon


    Thanks for that quote and link. I admit that I’m surprised to see the admiral make that argument, and I certainly defer to him on expertise regarding the composition and capabilities of our ships relative to our objectives, but I still think that, at least in itself, it’s a silly argument. Given that we know we cannot possibly compare the capabilities of ships in 1916 to our ships today (nor can we simply assume that all other relevant factors have increased in the exact same proportion to the increases and differences in capabilities of our various ships vs. those we had in 1916) — i.e., given that this is an extreme apples-to-oranges comparison — what does the mere (total) quantity of ships now vs. then tell us in terms of the level of strain between our current force and our objectives (commitments)? Other than the fact that any one ship can only be in one place at a time (as opposed to two or more ships even if they have vastly inferior capabilities), I don’t see how this isn’t way too apples-to-oranges to be informative. Do you?

    To be clear, the matter itself is over my head, and I’m not commenting on whether or not we should have more naval ships, and I’m certainly not implying anything regarding the validity of the admiral’s view on the matter. I’m just taking issue with that one argument, in itself.

  11. comment number 11 by: AMTbuff

    Brooks, on the now-closed thread you asked:
    “Also, what is your basis for assuming 40% of GDP iwould be a good (more precisely, the best) number to use for maximum possible total federal, state, and local revenue? I know Laffer Curve stuff is a big unknown (as far as I know), but why do you think 40% is best?”

    This is a both a guess and a value judgement. I’ll take the second aspect first. Increasing the government’s % of GDP beyond a minimal level (think pre-1997 Hong Kong) reduces the economic growth rate. After many years of this the revenue will be less than it would have been at the minimal % level. That is, the minimal % level of spending and taxation will always yield more revenue than a higher % level of taxation if you just wait long enough. Balancing the future against the present is a value judgment, as is balancing the perceived value of, say, 5% of GDP spent by government vs 40% of GDP spent by government even if the dollar amounts are equal.

    Laffer curve guesswork is involved in the attempt to identify the point in the economic growth vs. % of GDP collected curve where the growth rate gets so low that the economy stagnates. Our recent 1% to 2% growth demonstrates that this is the stagnation range. I believe that exceeding 40% of GDP in collections would cause stagnation. That number could become higher if the country became much richer: I’ll bet the stagnation threshold was much lower than 40% in the year 1800. My guess is 40% because we have seen countries in Europe exceed it with poor results. If we had a different mix of transfer payments vs. other spending, my guess would differ. Transfer payments suppress output. War spending does not. In my opinion a country can sustain spending more than 60% on a war footing if transfer payments are a very low % of GDP.

  12. comment number 12 by: Vivian Darkbloom

    “Laffer curve guesswork is involved in the attempt to identify the point in the economic growth vs. % of GDP collected curve where the growth rate gets so low that the economy stagnates. Our recent 1% to 2% growth demonstrates that this is the stagnation range.”

    I think this is the wrong formulation, or at least it is incomplete (although I agree with calling it “guesswork” ). The biggest problem is simply equating GDP growth (”stagnation”) with the level of (current) revenue collected. That is one factor, of course. It strikes me, though, that an important factor, and perhaps the most important in the longer term, is the percentage of debt to GDP. That is the story the US now faces, not solely the level of tax that we *currently* extract from the economy which even by Laffer guesswork standards is probably not excessive. As Friedman observed, government deficits are simply a form of deferred taxation. So, the more correct formulation, in my view, would be: current revenue collected *plus* the deferred taxation implicit in current government debt and projected future deficits.

  13. comment number 13 by: Vivian Darkbloom

    To make myself more clear (I hope):

    Imagine the level of taxation that would be needed to (1) eliminate the current deficit *and* (2) restore our existing debt to zero (not necessarily at once, but reduce it to NPV). What effect would (does) this have on real per capita GDP growth? That, I think, puts one well above the Laffer “threshold”.

    Seen in this way, I think it is clear that simply raising taxes to eliminate the shortfall in the deficit (or even just Medicare and Medicaid) is not the answer. Reducing spending, (including those two large programs), needs to part of the equation, and by far the larger part.

  14. comment number 14 by: Brooks / Gordon


    Thanks for addressing one of my questions in my last comment addressed to you on that thread, but, given that it was closed (for whatever reason), I’m reluctant to continue that exchange on this thread.

  15. comment number 15 by: Vivian Darkbloom

    A further thought on “Laffer curve guesswork”:

    The Laffer curve does not directly address the issue of the percentage of revenue raised of the GDP of an economy—the measure that AMT has mentioned. Rather, as I understand it, the curve represents the effect of increasing *marginal* income tax rates. And, higher implied marginal tax rates are one, but not the only consequence of high deficits and debt.

    So, to yet again amend my prior comments, per Laffer, imagine what the *marginal* tax rate would need to be (say, on the top 10 percent of taxpayers) under a system as progressive as the one that now exists if the level of taxation would 1) eliminate the current deficit *and* 2) eliminate the existing debt. I suspect the answer is over 100 percent.

    As a relevant aside, Mankiw has directed us to a recent paper by Michael Boskin on the very issue of the effect of debt and deficits (largely caused by Medicare and Medicaid) on future GDP growth:

  16. comment number 16 by: Jim Glass

    “So, to yet again amend my prior comments, per Laffer, imagine what the *marginal* tax rate would need to be (say, on the top 10 percent of taxpayers) under a system as progressive as the one that now exists if the level of taxation would 1) eliminate the current deficit *and* 2) eliminate the existing debt. I suspect the answer is over 100 percent.”

    It’s simply impossible to cover projected spending increases by increasing taxes alone.

    It can’t be done, not because the rates required are arithmetically impossible per se but because of the “deadweight cost” that taxes impose on the economy — which cost rises not as rates do but exponentially, by the square of the increase in tax rates.

    This simply crushes the economy. And before the economy is physically crushed, the pain imposed on important participants in it forces the political revolt that leads to countries like Russia, Argentina, Greece, etc. defaulting on their debts. After all, if taxes could “simply be increased as high as required” there’d have been no need for any of those countries to default. None of them had tax rates anything like 100%, so the failure point is long, long, before then.

    CBO has looked at this issue as to its ‘long term projection’ and concluded…

    With no economic feedbacks taken into account and under an assumption that raising marginal tax rates was the mechanism used to balance the budget, tax rates would have to more than double. The tax rate for the lowest tax bracket would have to be increased from 10 percent to 25 percent; the tax rate on incomes in the current 25 percent bracket would have to be increased to 63 percent; and the tax rate of the highest bracket would have to be raised from 35 percent to 88 percent. The top corporate income tax rate would also increase from 35 percent to 88 percent.

    Such tax rates would significantly reduce economic activity and would create serious problems with tax avoidance and tax evasion. Revenues would probably fall significantly short of the amount needed to finance the growth of spending; therefore, tax rates at such levels would probably not be economically feasible.

    I think that’s clear enough. And that was back in 2008, when the long-term projection was a lot *better* than it is today. Well, a lot less bad than today.

    There is no way the long term budget can be brought into balance without major spending cuts to balance tax increases. For two reasons:

    1) Politically, it is just not possible to have a deal that increases taxes in a big way without corresponding spending cuts that are large enough to be the other side of the deal.

    We have political precedent for this. When Social Security went broke in 1983 there were all the denials and threats and lines drawn in the sand by all parties just as we see today — until the last moment arrived when the deal had to be made … and then that deal enacted to “save” SS was virtually exactly 50% tax increase and 50% spending cuts. Because that is the essence of “political deal”.

    2) Economically, it is just not possible. Period.

    Being that spending cuts must be enacted to close the deficit and survive the long-term debt position…

    (a) all proposals to “attack the debt problem” via tax increases alone, without such spending cuts, are fundamentally deficient, *cannot work*, and thus should be rejected on the merits.

    (b) any such proposal that is actually enacted will only make the situation *worse*, by kicking the can down the road, postponing the necessary reform as conditions deteriorate further, and assuring that when the final deal is reached later, when conditions are worse, as it must finally be, the final general tax level *and deadweight cost* imposed after the deal will be higher, more costly to the economy, *permanently*.

    Thus … I can happily support the repeal of the Bush tax cuts, and revenue increases even larger than that, when there is an agreement to reduce spending by at least the exact same amount, i.e. current spending cuts in real current dollars, not vague promises of future “cuts” that are no more than promised slowing of increases of future spending, to be imposed by some future committee…

    Absent that: no current spending cuts, no current revenue increases. None. Period. If I Had the Power, that would be the rule I’d impose.