In the past few weeks during a visit to Croatia in the former Yugoslavia, I was struck by how much ancient civilizations spent to protect themselves from enemies. Cities along the Dalmatian Coast built walls as early as the 12th century that were 50-feet high and 15-feet wide, stretching for a mile or more in circumference. Think of what that capital expenditure represented as a percent of their gross national product at the time.
Which brings us to the present. Economist Paul Krugman makes the point that our government is nothing more than a giant insurance company that also has a military. If we sum up what we cycle through Social Security, Medicare, and the armed forces, everything else is chump change by comparison.
Being reminded of how fortresses have been built since time began prompted me to reflect on the importance of military might. Learning from firsthand accounts of what it was like to live in Yugoslavia during what they call "the aggression" (the 1991-94 war between what has now become the separate countries of the region), I came away with a reminder of how human relationships can get out of hand. That war, for example, was about money and territory. Leaders at the time called upon nationalism, religious differences and a version of manifest destiny that lead to unspeakable behavior that ultimately resulted in war crimes convictions.
Madeleine Albright, our secretary of defense at the time, argued that we should intervene by asking Colin Powell, "Why do we have such a huge military if we are not prepared to use it?" As it turned out, we provided air support and orchestrated a truce that has lasted now for almost 20 years.
What is so crazy about the world is that people can manage to seize control of, and run, countries. Closer to home, we have, for example, a recent cover of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine saying "Ted Cruz and his band of deadenders took the U.S. through the looking glass. Now crazy is the new normal." Think about the damage behavior like this can cause in other countries that lack the moderating influence of a democracy. At least, in the end, we have the wisdom of crowds that can help us prevail and get back on track. Crazy totalitarian governments present a real threat to us.
Here in Croatia, given their recent history, I am reminded that rational, educated people -- people just like us -- can represent a real threat and create a lot of misery. In the face of this, we have the so-called "sequester," which cuts our military budget by 10 percent so that wealthy Americans can enjoy a tax break. People who think that this is a good idea should realize that we are no longer as isolated as we once were. If it costs more in taxes to provide the security we need in a post-9/11 era, then so be it. Paying the price was no problem for people some 800 years ago. Why are we such slow learners?
Stephen J. Butler is CEO of Pension Dynamics. Contact him at 925-956-0505, ext. 228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.