Total Pageviews

Saturday, February 14, 2009

How Big Does the Federal Government Need to Be?

I couldn't sleep the other night, so I decided to make a list of all the government's activities that seemed unnecessary or wasteful. Pretty soon, I had quite long list going. Then it struck me
to phrase the question in reverse: what, at the absolute minimum, should the government be doing? I came up with three main tasks: defense, printing money, and sale of bonds to fund itself.

Defense is one of the major categories of government spending, but it's mostly overkill. The main threats I see to the safety of the US (aside from terrorism which I will address separately) are ballistic missiles (from land or submarines), bombers, and conventional attacks from surface ships or submarines along the coastlines. The possibility of a land invasion strikes me as remote in the extreme, and anyway individual states could easily provide adequate land defense with their National Guard units.

As for terrorism, given the abundance of small arms in the world and the relative ease with which they can be acquired, I don't really see what the government can do to stop it. It makes more sense to put resources where they will be most effective. Shooting down a bomber or detecting a missile launch is a lot easier than trying to catch two or three guys before they set off a truck bomb or looking for a guy hiding in a cave somewhere.

To counter the threat of ballistic missiles, nuclear deterrence seems like the best choice, and it's been working for over 50 years. 300 missiles armed with one or two warheads plus another 20 or so tactical seems like enough firepower to deter any potential foe. I estimate the total cost for the missiles, warheads, warning/detection installations (including satellites), and personnel to be about $20 billion. Here are some estimates from the experts:

"In 1957, Admiral Arleigh Burke, then the chief of naval operations, estimated that 720 warheads aboard 45 Polaris submarines were sufficient to achieve deterrence. This figure took into account the fact that some weapons would not work and that some would be destroyed in a Soviet attack (Burke felt that just 232 warheads were required to destroy the Soviet Union).
At the time Burke made this estimate, the U.S. arsenal already held six times as many warheads.

Several years later, in 1960, General Maxwell Taylor, former Army chief of staff and future chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote that “a few hundred” missiles (armed with a few hundred warheads) was adequate to deter the Soviet Union. Yet by this time the United States
had some 7,000 strategic nuclear warheads.

In 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his “whiz kids” calculated that 400 “equivalent megatons” (megatons weighted to take into account the varying blast effects from warheads of different yields) would be enough to achieve Mutual Assured Destruction and destroy the Soviet Union as a functioning society. At that time, the U.S. arsenal
contained 17,000 equivalent megatons, or 17 billion tons of TNT equivalent."


For the possibility of bombers, civillain radar would detect them easily enough, so all that would be left would be to scramble enough interceptors to bring them down as well as having a few surface-air-missiles to catch any stragglers. 500 interceptors seems like more than enough to me. The total cost for these interceptors and the associated infrastructure and personnel I estimate at $25 billion.

For the last threat, sonar nets would catch the submarines so they could be destroyed by aircraft. The interceptors could easily be armed with anti-ship missiles or depth charges, so they could serve both purposes. Total cost for that I estimate at $5 billion.

So, for $50 billion, the US could be adequately protected from the most destructive threats facing it.

Having a uniform system of currency is really convenient, so I think everyone can agree the government can continue with that. The total budget for the Mint in 2007 was about half a million dollars. You see, if you look long enough, you can find a cost-effective government program.

And lastly, the government needs money to pay for itself. In 2006, about 9% or $200 billion of the government's revenue came from the sale of treasury bonds and the like. That's more than enough to pay for the activities listed.

Everything else can be done at the state and local level: police, courts, jails, schools, welfare, etc.

No comments: