Bruce Bartlett, a conservative, asks a question on Forbes that all Americans should consider very carefully: what are the true costs of war, and are Americans willing to pay for them?
In recent years, Republicans have been characterized by two principal positions: They like starting wars and don't like paying for them. George W. Bush initiated two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but adamantly refused to pay for either of them by cutting non-military spending or raising taxes. Indeed, at his behest, Congress actually cut taxes and established a massive new entitlement program, Medicare Part D.
Bush's actions were unprecedented. During every previous major war in American history, presidents demanded sacrifices from rich and poor alike. As Robert Hormats explains in his 2007 book, The Price of Liberty: Paying for America's Wars, "During most of America's wars, parochial desires--such as tax breaks for favored groups or generous spending for influential constituencies--have been sacrificed to the greater good. The president and both parties in Congress have come together … to cut nonessential spending and increase taxes."
During World War II, federal revenues roughly tripled as a share of the gross domestic product (GDP) and the number of people paying income taxes expanded tenfold, from 3% of the population in 1939 to 30% by 1943. In 1940, a family of four needed close to $80,000 of income in today's dollars before it paid any federal income taxes at all. By the war's end, it saw its effective tax rate rise from 1.5% to 15.1%. (Today such a family only pays a federal income tax rate of about 6%.) But taxes weren't the only way the war was paid for. Spending on nondefense programs was cut almost in half, from 8.1% of GDP in 1940 to 4.4% in 1945.
Even during wars closer in magnitude to those in which we are presently engaged, significant sacrifices were made. In 1950 and 1951 Congress increased taxes by close to 4% of GDP to pay for the Korean War, even though the high World War II tax rates were still largely in effect. In 1968, a 10% surtax was imposed to pay for the Vietnam War, which raised revenue by about 1% of GDP. And there was conscription during both wars, which can be viewed as a kind of tax that was largely paid by the poor and middle class--young men from wealthy families largely escaped its effects through college deferments.
However, Bush and his party, which controlled Congress from 2001 to 2006, never asked for sacrifices from anyone except those in our nation's military and their families. I think that's because the Republicans understood, implicitly, that the American people's support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has always been paper thin. Asking them to sacrifice through higher taxes, domestic spending cuts or reinstatement of the draft would surely have led to massive protests akin to those during the Vietnam era or to political defeat in 2004. George W. Bush knew well that when his father raised taxes in 1990 in part to pay for the first Gulf War, it played a major role in his 1992 electoral defeat.
Consequently, Republicans resolved to fight our wars on the cheap and with deceptive cost estimates. On the eve of war in December 2002, Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Mitch Daniels claimed that the war in Iraq could be fought at a total cost of $50 billion to $60 billion. Indeed, Bush even fired his top economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, for saying publicly that the war might cost between $100 billion and $200 billion.
Of course, both Daniels and Lindsey grossly underestimated the actual cost. According to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost close to $1 trillion thus far. That is exactly what economists not on the White House payroll expected. (See this December 2002 report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.)
In his 2008 book, What a President Should Know, Lindsey said that lowballing the cost of the war was a "tactical blunder" because it allowed Bush's enemies to claim that he lied us into war. But at the same time, Lindsey acknowledges that the administration never rose to "Churchillian levels in talking about the sacrifices needed." He also says that asking for sacrifice in the form of spending cuts and tax increases would have served the important purpose of involving the American people in the war effort. As it is, war is largely out of sight and out of mind.
According to the CRS, the marginal cost of continuing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is about $11 billion per month, with no end in sight. Although there has been some decline in spending for the Iraq war, it has been more than offset by the rising cost of the war in Afghanistan. According to OMB director Peter Orszag, it costs about $1 million per year per soldier in the field, so adding 30,000 additional troops in Afghanistan, as President Obama is expected to do next week, will cost another $30 billion per year.
The White House has given no indication of how it plans to pay for expanding the war in Afghanistan. More than likely, it will follow the Bush precedent and just put it all on the national credit card. But at least some members of Congress believe that the time has come to start paying for war. On Nov. 19, Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., introduced H.R. 4130, the "Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010." It would establish a 1% surtax on everyone's federal income tax liability plus an additional percentage on those with a liability over $22,600 (for couples filing jointly), such that revenue from the surtax would pay for the additional cost of fighting the war in Afghanistan.
It's doubtful that this legislation will be enacted. But that's not Obey's purpose. He will probably offer it as an amendment at some point just to have a vote. Republicans in particular will be forced to choose between continuing to fight a war that they started and still strongly support, or raising taxes, which every Republican in Congress would rather drink arsenic than do. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see those who rant daily about Obama's deficits explain why they oppose fiscal responsibility when it comes to supporting our troops.
Obey makes no secret of his motives. He knows that deficits need to be reduced at some point and this will put pressure on spending programs he supports. "If we don't address the cost of this war, we will continue shoving billions of dollars in taxes off on future generations and will devour money that could be used to rebuild our economy," Obey explained in a press statement.
He is not alone in his fear that war presents a threat to the Democratic agenda. As Boston University historian Robert Dallek told Obama at a White House meeting earlier this year, "war kills off great reform movements." He cited the impact of World War I in ending the Progressive Era, World War II in killing the New Deal, the Korean War in terminating Harry Truman's Fair Deal program and the Vietnam War in crushing Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.
At this point, Republicans are probably nodding in agreement. If it takes wars to end ill-conceived social programs, then that's another argument in favor of continuing the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. But that's a very short-sighted view because, as essayist Randolph Bourne once put it, "war is essentially the health of the State." Historians Robert Higgs and Bruce Porter, among others, have documented the pernicious effect of war on the size and scope of government. It creates a ratchet effect in which taxes and spending grow and civil liberties are restricted permanently, because when war ends, we never go back to the status quo ante.
If it takes the threat of a tax increase to get people to think seriously about whether it's worth continuing to fight wars far from home--wars that have only the most tenuous connection to the national interest--then it's a good idea. History shows that wars financed heavily by higher taxes, such as the Korean War and the first Gulf War, end quickly, while those financed largely by deficits, such as the Vietnam War and current Middle East conflicts, tend to drag on indefinitely.
If Americans aren't willing to follow John F. Kennedy and "pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship" to fight a war, then we shouldn't be fighting it.
Bruce Bartlett is a former Treasury Department economist and the author of Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action and Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy. Bruce Bartlett's new book is: The New American Economy: The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward. He writes a weekly column for Forbes.