Thinking Magically About Generational Spending Preferences

Writing for Vox about the striking divergence in young (less than 35 years old) and old (over 65) Americans’ views on the importance of government spending on military and defense, Dylan Matthews says:

The military spending trend is where this gets really interesting. You can think of reasons for why young people would be less inclined to spend a lot on defense. Older people are likelier to be veterans and to have friends who were veterans, for one. But all of the most plausible theories have nothing to do with life cycles. If knowing or being a veteran helps explain this, then one would expect younger people to put a lower priority on defense spending more or less indefinitely, as the all-volunteer military isn’t going anywhere, and if anything should be expected to shrink relative to the population.

There’s no obvious reason to think the share of adults under 35 who think military spending should be a major priority will grow over time. And if it doesn’t, that implies a pretty significant political shift on that issue.

But that second paragraph seems (if I am parsing it correctly, and I may not be) to host a smidgen of magical thinking. It does seem true that a current snapshot of the generational distribution for increased support for military and defense spending would match what you would expect if direct or indirect military experience (via being or knowing a veteran) is an important determinant – the oldest people exhibit the highest levels of support and thanks to World War II and Korea that tracks with a greater percentage of the population having been involved with the military. The emphasis placed on military spending then drops seemingly in concert with each subsequent generation’s level of mass involvement in the armed services. People aged 55-64 have Vietnam as a driver of contact with or being a veteran, and those aged 35-54 were more likely than those under 35 to encounter members of the military thanks to the larger personnel numbers engendered by the Cold War.*

So you can tell a plausible story wherein the presence of an all-volunteer force which, as Matthews rightly notes, one would expect to make up an increasingly small fraction of the population, serves to minimize the population at-large’s enthusiasm for government spending on military and defense. But saying that there is “no obvious reason” to think the views of the under-35 crowd might evolve to place a greater priority on military and defense spending ignores all sorts of quite reasonable explanations:

1. Republicans tend to favor defense spending more than Democrats and young people skew Democrat**
2. Young people have led shorter lives, seen less go wrong abroad, and thus take a more benign view of the international system
3. Young people care quite a lot about military spending but as the slice of the population containing (one suspects) most of the country’s students and facing the highest rates of unemployment those two areas are consistently rated as most important

In short, to say that under-35s’ current relative lack of enthusiasm for military spending is prima facie evidence of a “pretty significant political shift” (which also happens to be favorable to theories of an emerging and constant democratic majority) seems to be a bit uncritical, a bit the type of magical thinking that takes a trend favorable to one’s political predilections and extrapolates indefinitely into the future. Let’s check back in thirty years and see how the figures hold up.

*Interestingly, the size of the armed forces during Korea and Vietnam seems to be roughly equivalent – make of that what you will
**This assumes (safely, in my opinion, but it is an assumption nonetheless) that the Republican Party skews old more or less independent of the effects of higher levels of contact/experience with the military