Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Tax the War

When the recent elections in Iraq failed to descend into total chaos as some had feared, many of the war’s supporters shared another “mission accomplished” moment. While a far cry from the establishment of a stable democracy, I agree that the outcome does provide sound justification for cautious optimism.

But at what cost?

Seldom have so many people engaged in a cost/benefit analysis of an action on this scale while simultaneously making the most generous assumptions about future benefits and working so hard to ignore, deny, forget or obfuscate the costs.

The war in Iraq has many costs. There is the cost in lives, in pain and suffering, in leveled buildings and hollowed out cities. Most of this is quite removed from the people who enthusiastically decided it would a good idea to invade Iraq in the first place. It is not without effort, but the American public generally does a fine job of insulating itself from looking upon the death and destruction that are the price of the security and liberty they hope they are opting for.

Even the cost in American lives and injuries, though keenly felt by our troops and their families, is assiduously kept away from most Americans by the mainstream media. To this day, Ted Koppel is a punching bag for the right for daring to read the names and show photos of the then 700 or so fallen American soldiers in Iraq on April 30th.

The additional $80 billion dollars President Bush plans to request for the war effort is another kind of cost. Bringing the total cost so far to $280 billion, with no end in sight, the war in Iraq now surpasses the cost of the Korean Conflict (in current dollars) and is edging in on the police action in Vietnam.

There are opportunity costs too. By extending our military resources to the breaking point, we are simply less able to respond should a genuine threat to our security appear. Yes, it’s easy to theoretically spend and re-spend $280 billion on all the wonderful things we could have done with that money besides the war. But it’s true, we could have done wonderful things with the money, not the least of which would be simply not to spend it at all.

Now wait, a supporter of the war might respond, how can you put a price on liberty and security? The seed of democracy planted in Iraq will one day bear the fruit of liberty across the Middle East and, in doing so, help to secure America from the threat of terrorism.

With apologies, I will sidestep the central question with the promise to return to this complex and difficult issue later. Will the Iraq war make us safer? Has it? Has it or will it bring freedom and stability to Iraq? To the Middle East? Could we have accomplish the same goals at less cost to blood and treasure? Was it worth all those deaths? Who gets to make those decisions?

For now I want to concentrate on the degree to which those who feel that the war is indeed worth the cost are not themselves generally paying the price. In particular, at present, I would like to zero in on the fact that this $280 billion is entirely borrowed. That is to say, given our spiraling national debt, in this war endeavor we are not able to pay as we go, or pay as we bomb as the case may be. Instead we are charging it on our national credit card, leaving future generations with the task of figuring out how to pay for it.

I have a remedy.

A war tax. This would be a separate tax, proportionate to gross income, to cover the ongoing costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be listed on our tax forms as a “War Tax”. There would not hiding or disguising its nature. Members of the military and their immediate families would naturally be exempt. We could further exempt those with incomes below a certain level, say $10,000. It should become a matter of established law that no war (or police action) may be waged without a separate tax to pay for it. Amend the constitution if necessary.

To all those people so certain that the war in Iraq is worth the cost I say, then pay for it. I suspect that back in March of 2003, if people knew that they were signing up for a new tax, they would have been a bit more skeptical about the stated reasons for war. Americans have become alarmingly willing to expend other people’s blood and tears and future generation’s money to meet their present day perceived needs. But if they need to pay for something out of their own pocket books, they become more interested in what they’re getting. It is not unreasonable to ask people to at least as much attention to decisions about war and peace as they do about which car to buy.

It would be nice to find a way to only assess the tax on actual war supporters. But this is impractical. People would have to register their preferences in a binding referendum before the war. It’s not the constitution I’m worried about. Congress has already largely abdicated that responsibility. But there are privacy concerns and logistical issues.

Since the tax would be limited to only America’s share of the cost, it would encourage building genuine coalitions. Ideally, there would be some formula for compensating the families of civilian casualties if the US is the aggressor. On the nights of “shock and awe” few Americans paused to worry about Iraqi “collateral damage”. Perhaps if they knew that each dead innocent would cost them money, they would care a bit more.

It is also likely that having to pay a war tax would make Americans watch war expenditures much more closely. The $9 billion that simply went missing or unaccounted for by the American Provisional Authority in Iraq would be a bigger concern if that amount added to the war tax. We would also be more concerned about overcharges by Halliburton if we needed to pay in real time.

The proposal is not without problems. New revenues create lots of room for government mischief. There would be political pressure to move war costs off the “war books” and onto other budgets. (Although there are those that argue that this is already happening.) It would also make Americans more reluctant to expend resources on military intervention to halt the bloodshed in places like Rwanda, the Sudan, the Congo or… oh, wait….

The point is, for those of you so certain that the objectives and likely outcome of this war will make it “worth it”, put your money where your mouth is. For those of you unwilling to engage the issue of war, you will when the bill comes due. For the rest of us, well, we should be used to being saddled with cleaning up the messes of everyone else. Wouldn’t it be nice if the burden was shared?

As long as the costs of the war seem remote and the bullets are flying past someone else’s window, it is just too easy to sit your comfortable chair, munch on some chips and muse, “Yeah, it was worth it.”

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