Learning (or non-learning) from the Classical Age

Or, what if George W. Bush had lived in 480 BCE; would we all be speaking Persian?

In discussing the decisive Greek naval victory of Salamis over the Persians in 480 BCE, Victor Davis Hanson observes:

“…the Athenian fleet of some 250 ships was recently constructed and in excellent shappe — entirely due to the persistence of Themistocles’ statesmanship two years ealier. In a heated and polarizing debate, he had previously convinced the Athenian assembly
not to dole out the returns from their newly opened Attic silver
mines in Laurium to individual citizens but rather to use that income to build ships and train seamen to protect the new democracy from either Greek or Persian attack. His prescient efforts in 482 had ensured that the Athenians now had a newly constructed armada right off its shores.” (p30, Robert Cowley, “What If…?”, Berkeley, 1999).

Now consider these paragraphs from a recently released CBO report:

“Since 2000, the Navy has spent an average of about $43 billion a year to buy and operate its fleet of 285 battle force ships and 4,000 aircraft. In the new 30-year shipbuilding plan that the Navy released in February, senior officials argue that the service needs 313
ships to perform all of the tasks assigned to it. Increasing
and modernizing ships and aircraft as implied by that plan would cost an average of about $53 billion annually over the next three decades, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates. (Those past and projected cost figures, like the others in this analysis, are in 2007

The Navy’s need for additional resources to fund its modernization
plan is likely to coincide with myriad other pressures on the federal budget — from elsewhere in the military, from Social Security and Medicare, and from the need to pay interest on federal debt [italics added–mdc], to name a few. If the Navy ends up not receiving any increases in funding other than for inflation, how big and how capable can the fleet be in future years?”

The report continues:

“Buying and operating all of the ships listed in the 2006 shipbuilding plan and all of the aircraft implied by that plan would cost an average of about $53 billion a year for the next three decades, CBO estimates. That amount is 23 percent higher than the Navy’s average annual spending on ships and aircraft between 2000 and 2005. Even such an increase, however, would be insufficient to keep the battle force fleet at the Navy’s goal of 313 ships indefinitely.”

The shortfalls in key categories (subs, major surface combatants) are shown in the figure below:


Summary Figure 3 from CBO, “Options for the Navy’s Future Fleet,” May 2006.

And for those who wonder if Salamis is relevant in an age of stealth fighters and ICBMs:

“Above all others, the specific potential threat that concerns much of the Navy’s leadership and many Members of Congress is a new naval competition with the People’s Republic of China. The future relationship between China and the United States remains uncertain. However, China is investing substantial resources in improving its military capabilities — especially those that would make it harder for U.S. forces to come to the aid of Taiwan in the event of a military confrontation with the mainland. In particular, observers of China’s naval programs note with concern that country’s investments in
quiet conventional and nuclear-powered submarines, antiship cruise missiles based on land as well as at sea, and tactical and theater ballistic missiles. Such observers argue that attempting to counter those systems should be of paramount importance in determining the naval capabilities that the United States needs to pursue in the future.” (CBO, p. 4)

And yet, CEA Chair Ed Lazear stated on 2 June:

Recently, Congress voted to extend the rate cuts on dividends and capital gains that were enacted by the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003. That was very good news. The President was delighted to sign the tax reconciliation bill making those lower tax rates effective through 2010.

A salutory tale for those who themselves forget George Santayana’s most famous aphorism.

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13 thoughts on “Learning (or non-learning) from the Classical Age

  1. ziggy

    Why don’t we just have China build our ships? It’s so much cheaper. They would probably do it for $ 30 Billion / year, we could get rid of the expensive American industry, and it wouldn’t be inflationary !

  2. David Baskin

    An interesting post. Xerxes had very extended supply lines by the time he got to Salamis, and his fleet had been knocked around earlier. The Persians were more comfortable on land than on sea, and probably should have pressed on, using their fleet for logistical support. Instead, they were sucked into a battle in a narrow strait where their numerical superiority could not not help them. What is more, they were duped into arriving early and rowing all night, while the Greeks were fresh in the morning.
    As tempting as it is, I think the analogy breaks down when you consider that China would be trying to control the Straits to invade Taiwan, and the U.S. would be in the roll of a blocking force, unlike the invading Persians. Moreover, the role of airpower, which the U.S. could project from Taiwan, and not from aircraft carriers, might render the question of number and quality of ships nugatory.

  3. menzie chinn

    David Baskin: I agree the military analogy is inexact, but my (intended) emphasis was on how an obsession with tax cuts can undercut national security.

  4. matt wilbert

    While it is true that obsession with tax cuts can cause any number of bad things, it is hard to argue that the US is spending too little on military hardware, tax cuts or no tax cuts, considering the level of spending relative to everyone else.
    It is easy to argue, on the other hand, that the composition of that spending makes no sense.

  5. Press

    Agd. Why is it that everyone focuses on the tax cuts and not the fact that spending has been going up so fast?

  6. menzie chinn

    Press: Both contribute to the deficit and hence the pressure to cut defense spending. The Congressional Research Service, in a report based upon CBO data, concluded that of the 3.7 percentage points of GDP deterioration in the standardized budget balance between FY2000 and FY2004, 2.8 percentage points were accounted for by a reduction in (standardized) receipts, and 1.1 percentage points by quasi-standardized policy changes in spending.

  7. Jim Glass

    If you think the national defense budget is suffering today due to the dividend/captial gain tax cut, just wait until the Medicare bills come due.

  8. Valuethinker

    Just wanted to say I think this is one of the Internet’s great all time blog posts.
    I have circulated it to a number of friends who do not read blogs.
    A few caveats:
    – Hanson is a tricky character. A man who lives on a farm which only exists due to state subsidised water, who preaches libertarianism. I have it from a few Classicists I know that he is not respected in their field. I know from a military historical perspective that he is making ridiculous analyses. The West always triumphs: has he heard of Saladin? Genghis Khan? The Maoris? The Seminoles? Tokugawan Japan? He is loved because he says things that fit what the neocons are preaching, with the veneer of academic accuracy (see Bernard Lewis).
    – historial analogy is always false, at some level. The past is never like the present, and neither like the future. ‘The lessons of history, aren’t’ — is a good way to put it.
    – beware the neocon inspired ‘China is the real enemy’ rhetoric. China makes a nice, clean, statal enemy– an extension of the ‘Axis of Evil’ idea. That model of threat died with the end of the Cold War. The US’ most implacable enemy in the 1990s was Serbia, a nation of 5 million people with no ability to hit the US militarily. The reality is the real enemies are anarchy, chaos, disease and societal breakdown induced by global warming. 11 million illegal immigrants in the US is a bigger potential threat to the USA (if not dealt with humanely and rationally and tolerantly) than rivalry over Taiwan with its largest trading partner. Imagine what happens if Cuba collapses and 2 million Cubans wash up on Florida’s shores? Or 2 million Haitians?
    – beware the military appetite for sexy hardware. You can bet the USN has a pretty elaborate justification, meeting the needs of each of the key bureaucratic interest groups (Surface Ships, Naval Air, nuclear subs) within the USN, why it needs 318 ships to fulfill its mission, and why they have to be multi-billion dollar per pop ships, too.
    All of which is to put caution on the bare facts of the argument, but not to obviate or negate the conclusion. The US is living beyond its means, and robbing its sinews of power to pay for current consumption.
    It is doing so with the worst pandering of populist politics. The closest parallel I can find is another Texan President, Lyndon B Johnson, who refused to raise taxes to pay for the Vietnam War. The legacy of that was, in part, the 1970s stagflation. Maybe this fiscal irresponsibility is a Texan trait?

  9. Ronald Brak

    I don’t think your analogy holds up very well. And I’m not talking about the fact that we speak neither Persian nor Greek but English.
    If Athens already had a fleet that was powerful enough to utterly destroy every other fleet in the world when Themistocles said, “Hey, let’s build some more ships,” then it might hold up.
    Living in a country could be brought to its knees by a single U.S. aircraft carrier and its support fleet I don’t see how U.S. citizens would be any less safe if their navy was slightly smaller. I do think that U.S. citizens would be safer with a smaller millitary and a balanced budget and a resulting stronger economy that will enable the United States to respond rapidly and powerfully to any future threats that might arise.
    If America is interested in promoting democracy and protecting innocent lives there are cheaper ways to do it than by maintaing a giant fleet.
    And just to make things clear, this is not a call for America to disarm, its a call for America to be realistic about the threats it faces and working to be strong in the future. China does not even have an ocean going fleet. By the time they do have one the current U.S. fleet will be out of date. I think it would be better to stop crowding out investment with government debt so the U.S. economy will be better able to build a modern fleet if and when a threat arises.

  10. menzie chinn

    ValueThinker: Thanks for the interesting comments. Let me assure you that I have not been blinded by neocon propaganda. I’ll place myself being more in the realist camp, having been inculcated in Thucydides and Waltz (as well, I must confess, Walzer). I agree that the United States faces all sorts of threats of the non-conventional kind. Indeed, I would argue that is why the U.S. needs to be more engaged with the world community in a constructive, non-ideological manner, via the multilateral development banks, the international financial institutions, and the UN (and not merely in the form of military intervention). At the same time, it is no use denying that the balance of power matters, and the US adventure in Iraq (with a direct fiscal cost alone of approximately $80 billion per year) has only complicated the choices over allocating scarce resources to various military activities.

    Ronald Brak: Interesting point. However, one doesn’t build an attack carrier over night. So one has an interesting optimization question here — how to trade off the costs against uncertain benefits of investment in military capital with time to build. I’d say reasonable people can disagree. However, one point I would not yield on is this: These decisions have been made much more difficult by virtue of profligate fiscal policy (increased spending and especially tax cuts — see this 2005 CRS report for the relative effects on the budget deficit) undertaken in the last 6 years. The lower taxes have undeniably accelerated growth, but it is an open question to me whether these led to sustainable growth in an efficient manner.

  11. Chapomatic

    Economics And Ship Acquisition

    Eagle 1 points to some fun graphs, including an interesting historical comparison by Econbrowser.
    what if George W. Bush had lived in 480 BCE; would we all be speaking Persian?

  12. Valuethinker

    The military has an inexhaustible appetite for high tech, inappropriate hardware. Consider the F22 fighter: 190 planes, $38bn pricetag.
    The existence of hypersonic cruise missiles and supersonic torpedoes means that a direct naval conflict with China is virtually impossible. Add to that that the best diesel electric submarines are almost undetectable and any Task Force steaming too close to the Chinese coast is, metaphorically, toast.
    We haven’t even begun to plumb what happens when RPVs are widely used in naval warfare. Imagine a stealth RPV which tracks the task force and steers aforesaid hypersonic cruise missiles onto their final targets.
    But that is not to deny your argument. CVNs (nuclear propelled carriers) take 10 years to build and kit out. They last 40 years (longer in extremis). Nuclear propulsion greatly increases their strategic flexibility (refueling a conventionally powered CV mid ocean is a terrifying task) and reduces their long run operating costs.
    The decisions we take now on platforms are what the USN will have to patrol the seas of the planet in the 2040s. CVNs aren’t great for superpower to superpower warfare, but in any less extreme scenario (eg US bombing Somalia or intervening in Bosnia) they are the best ‘over the horizon’ system there is. And they can be adapted to a world of RPVs and stealth submarines.
    Where I get worried is things like the Littoral combatant, a vastly expensive ship of limited strategic flexibility, when there are German frigates and corvettes one could buy now which would meet the need.
    Also the surface navy is run by flyboys, who have trouble imagining a world of RPVs, where the manned aircraft are a minority.
    The best popular realist, in my view, is Robert Kaplan, the journalist. Ignoring his more recent hagiography about the US military, his basic notion, crafted in the mid 1990s, that the real enemy is anarchy, has been proven right:
    “The Coming Anarchy” (February 1994)
    How scarcity, crime, overpopulation, tribalism, and disease are rapidly destroying the social fabric of our planet.
    (back to my commentary)
    Al Quaida was born out of the chaos of Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia, which nurtured it, and more fundamentally out of the economic, political, demographic and environmental crises of the south western corner of Saudi Arabia and of Egypt, Algeria, Jordan.
    Robert Brak
    A navy can keep on active duty station no more than 1/3rd of its fleet strength. Could be as low as 1/5th (I would have to check). Of any 3 major ships, one is in dry dock, one is sailing to or from station, one is on station. So to keep 2 carriers in the Persian Gulf region, protecting half the world’s oil supply, requires a fleet of 6 (plus c. 60 escorts and logistics vessels etc.). And the US has at maximum 12, which leaves only 2 others for crises in the Balkans, the Far East, Carribean etc.
    So you can see how it is easy to get the USN completely overstretched.

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