Thursday, December 10, 2009

Cost-of-fighting index

    Make that $1 million a soldier, $1 million a Marine.

    Or, one sixth of an elementary school. Or one rural fire station. That's what it will cost to deploy someone to combat in Afghanistan for a year.

     Time flies. According to White House estimates in the New York Times, three whole years ago the cost was $390,000.

     That puts the cost of Barack Obama's decision to deploy 30,000 combat personnel to Afghanistan at $30 billion. Or more than the annual budgets of the Interior and Commerce departments combined, with the Environmental Protection Agency thrown in.

    Credit Obam for not obfuscating this. He used the figure in his West Point speech — leveling with us, unlike the purveyors of cotton-candy assurances of costs and consequences when Iraq was in our cross-hairs.

    Obama said that he would work with Congress to lessen the effect on the federal deficit. That's one bit of leveling for which none should hold his or her breath.

     Yes, a few members of Congress are acting and talking responsibly about the matter. Rep. David Obey, D-Wisc., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., are among a small group calling for a war tax. Talk about outrageous: To spend $30 billion, we cough up money to pay for it. Off with their heads.

      We await word from the new generation of Republican "deficit hawks" on to how to pay for the Afghan surge: Maybe by nuking the Interior Department and the EPA?

      It is more than fascinating to hear the GOP and the Tea Party megaphonies with their so-late-in-the-game bluster about deficits. Under the previous regime, deficits were just the price of doing business.

     So-called deficit hawk Phil Gramm, in an interview years ago in which I impertinently probed about Reagan-era deficits, said that what we did then to spend the Soviets under the table was "worth every penny." So, if it was worth spending, why wasn't it worth assessing Americans what it cost? Why instead assess future generations with interest added?

    Americans have got to start paying for the amount of government they are buying. That includes every American, regardless of income. Obey's proposal is most responsible:  a graduated tax increment on all income, starting at 1 percent for low-income earners, rising to 5 percent for high-income earners. A surtax, he calls it, because it would be a tax on income that is already taxed. 

     You can't do this, of course because (a) it will hurt the fragile economy; (b) it's a "jobs killer"; (c) Americans already pay "too much" in taxes. These pat responses have held reason in check for nearly three decades.

     Recall how the GOP assailed the tax hike on the wealthy implemented by Bill Clinton. It was going to destroy the economy. In fact, Clinton rode out of office on a wave of economic fitness we've not seen since, and with a federal surplus. Remember? Time flies.

     Economist Robert J. Samuelson could never be accused of anything but pure fiscal conservatism. But under the heading in Newsweek, "We want more government: Just don't ask us to pay for it," Samuelson suggests gradual increases in energy taxes, along with fiscal austerity measures like raising the Social Security retirement age, to confront a future in which, unless we start paying for the amount of government we buy, we could be in a Brazil-style situation, in which "default" — on our global debts — no longer is an unutterable word.

      Energy taxes? Oh, no. That would cost every American.

      Oh, yes. That's the point. And do we assume war costs no one?

      Do you realize that at the current course, annual interest payments on the national debt, an already-staggering $170 billion, will be approaching a trillion dollars — $799 billion — in 10 years?

       Yes, raise energy taxes. Gasoline taxes mean everyone shoulders the nation's escalating burdens, and all use oil more, um, conservatively.

       Yes, impose a war tax of the mold proposed by Obey.

       While we're at it, let's establish a mechanism that is the reverse of Social Security's cost-of-living index. It would be the cost-of-fighting index. As the cost goes up, so will our taxes, steadily, uniformly, until we decide we have fought enough, or paid too much for what the fighting achieves.

    John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:


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