To understand Mitt Romney and Republicans on defense spending, “follow the money” may be less reliable than “follow the antlers.” (More)

Michelle and Nancy were watching the deer wander around Árbol Squirrel. They wanted to know why the deer didn’t have any antlers, as deer usually do in photos and drawings, and why squirrels don’t have antlers either. I explained that male deer grow antlers and use them to fight over females. Most male squirrels don’t fight over females, and those that do usually argue it out by twitching their tails. As for why the deer outside Árbol Squirrel have no antlers, deer shed their antlers in the winter and start growing a new rack each spring. The male deer here have only just started growing their antlers again.

I thought about the twins’ questions as I read about presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s Memorial Day speech:

We have two courses we can follow: One is to follow in the pathway of Europe, to shrink our military smaller and smaller to pay for our social needs. The other is to commit to preserve America as the strongest military in the world, second to none, with no comparable power anywhere in the world.

Predictably, Romney promised the latter. Never mind that the U.S. already spends more on our military than the next ten biggest-spenders … combined:

The U.S. has had no military rivals since the end of the Cold War. But Romney was not alone in proposing a draconian choice between the defense budget and the poor. Earlier this month House Republicans voted to cut a combined $110 billion in funding from Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and similar programs that help poor people to replace defense cuts mandated by last August’s debt ceiling agreement. Fortunately, President Obama has already said he will veto any attempt to evade the debt ceiling deal.

The conventional wisdom on defense spending is “follow the money.” Defense contractors are major campaign contributors, that theory goes, and Congress rewards their largesse with ever-rising defense budgets. Another common theory is military Keynesianism, the notion that defense spending keeps people employed and defense cuts would plunge the U.S. economy into recession. Yet conservatives are touting a new British think tank study that claims tax and spending cuts spur economic growth, and you can expect Romney and other Republicans to mention that study over the coming weeks.

So defense spending helps the economy, Romney and Republicans say, but stimulus for other hard and soft infrastructure is wasteful, and programs that help the poor are just legalized theft. Is the difference merely “follow the money” … that defense contractors give more campaign dollars and hire more lobbyists?

That’s part of it. But another part is “follow the antlers.”

The defense budget is a classic example of the positional spending Dr. Robert Frank discussed in The Darwin Economy. Like a male deer’s antlers, a country with a more powerful military gains some advantages relative to other countries. The bigger the antlers – or the military – the bigger the advantage. Right?

That feels like it should be true, but it’s not. One actor’s positional spending tends to be offset by other actors’ positional spending. The actors spend more resources – for bigger antlers, a bigger beach house, or a bigger military – but with everyone doing it their relative positions don’t change much. Worse, research shows that people often neglect other needs in favor of positional spending.

And then there’s Maslow’s hammer:

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

Or as then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asked then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell about intervening in Bosnia:

What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?

Finally, more aggressive countries tend to breed more resentment, meaning more rivals, requiring a bigger military, meaning more international problems look like military problems, meaning more aggression, and round and round. That’s how you end up with the U.S. defense budget greater than the next ten biggest spenders combined … while Mitt Romney and other Republicans still insist on more, more, more.

Male deer at least shed their antlers after breeding season. Romney and Republicans … aren’t that smart.

Good day and good nuts.