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The Price of Liberty

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Follow-up Responses

I was very grateful to see the number of comments on my post of April 29. Some I agreed with, some I did not. But because my aim in writing my book The Price of Liberty: Paying for America's Wars and in submitting my April contribution to Huffington Post was to begin, or deepen, a dialogue on the subject of war funding, I was eager to read and respond to both those who agreed and disagreed with me.

A few comments appear appropriate.

First, I share the view of many that the war in Iraq had been badly mishandled and that a number of tragic and costly mistakes have been made. The fact is, we have troops there -- our fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives -- and they need to be supported as long as they are there to minimize casualties and to ensure proper health care for those who are wounded, and to ensure that families at home do not suffer while they are serving. It is a sad tragedy that relatively small portion of the population is making major sacrifices for this war, but the average American is not. That differs considerably from any other American war in past.

Second, the comment was made that most of wars are not about "liberty." It is true that some have not been, although even those were justified that way at the beginning. But the title -- The Price of Liberty -- was not meant to apply to all wars. One contributor called it a "hackneyed statement that turned me right off."; but it did not come from me; it came from Alexander Hamilton. He used it to describe the borrowing done to liberate the U.S. from Britain during the Revolution as the "price of liberty." The book makes that very clear.

And, despite the contributor's dislike of the phrase, many of America's subsequent wars have been about "liberty": the Civil War held the Union together and freed the salves; World War I avoided a German takeover of much of Europe; World War II was about countering fascism throughout the world; the Cold War was about preserving liberty in the face of threats of Communist insurrections and Soviet efforts at dominating much of the World; and the war to counter terrorists is about preserving our liberties and our security in the face of those who would undermine both.

Third, I agree with the criticism of the government's use of Social Security funds to subsidize the rest of the budget and to disguise the size of the deficit. That -- as one contributor put it -- would not be permitted under Sarbanes Oxley. In addition to disguising the actual size of the deficit, it is money that we cannot rely on in the future because the Social Security system will begin to run deficits in the next decade.

Forth, I am not suggesting -- as some responders implied -- that we use Social Security funds to pay the military or national security budget. Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable from a financial view, because payouts will vastly exceed the amounts paid in a decade or two. So they need to be put on a more sustainable basis if we are to keep faith with our comments to the elderly who need government support in their retirement years and ensure that they have needed medical care. But without reform that commitment will be harder and harder to pay for; it will cause the deficit to mushroom, which will lead to elevated interest rates that will hurt all Americans, and cause a hike in taxes, including the payroll tax that will be especially regressive because many low wage earners pay that tax who don't even pay an income tax. We could make it less regressive by upping the level paid in by upper income people, but that hasn't happened yet, and we could means test recipients, but that has opponents as well.

Fifth, by comparing the cost of this war as a portion of GDP to those of the past -- this war costs less than 1% of GDP annually whereas at their peaks World War II cost nearly 40%, the Korean War 15% and the Vietnam War 10% -- I was not trying -- as some suggested -- to downplay the cost of the Iraq War of the War on Terrorism. I was trying to explain why it was so easy for the administration and Congress to side step any major changes in fiscal policy -- e.g. a tax increase or spending cuts in other areas of the budget -- to pay for them. In fact, by the end of this year, spending fro these wars, plus the war in Afghanistan, will likely cost more in inflation adjusted terms than any in U.S. history, except for World War II. But because the U.S. economy has grown so much over the last 60 years, even such a costly war does not constitute a large portion of GDP. That should not be seen as an excuse for funding these thorough supplementals -- which I criticize in by book -- that skirt the normal budget process or for failing to prepare Americans for the prospects that these wars could be a lot costlier than originally predicted.

AFTER IRAQ

The current Iraq War funding dispute -- with such passionate feelings on both sides -- will likely leave a legacy of bitterness, as occurred after the Vietnam War. But the country cannot afford a decade of internal rancor; and while a modest "peace dividend" is appropriate after American troops are ultimately withdrawn or scaled down, we cannot afford a dramatic pullback in national security spending as occurred after the Vietnam War. This is true for several reasons:

  • The Iraq War has diverted funds from important programs to bolster homeland security and resilience -- e.g. public health services and first responders, plus improving the security for key domestic infrastructure such as chemical factories, public transit etc. More funds are needed, as recommended by the 9/11 Commission
  • America will continue to face threats from terrorists. That requires vigilance around the world, enhanced intelligence capabilities, improved outreach programs to try to dispel the anti-American feelings that have intensified in many parts of the world.
  • The Middle East, on which the United States and much of the world depend heavily for oil, will continue to be a potentially volatile place, and U.S. forces may be needed there for a long time, particularly the presence of a U.S. fleet to protect vulnerable facilities.
  • Much of the equipment used in Iraq has been destroyed or worn out, and new weapons systems for the war on terror need to be built. These will not be cheap.
  • Many wounded veterans will need medical care for their lifetimes, and the country owes them the best possible facilities and attention

Financial flexibility and resources will be required to cope successfully with these requirements and challenges -- and a variety of potential extraordinary and hard to predict security events of other types, such as another calamitous hurricane or flu pandemic. And doubtless the United States will be forced to confront security issues that might erupt and require military deployments elsewhere. This is not to say that the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security should receive a blank check; they need to set tight priories and demonstrate that their funding is used to confront the highest risks and that unneeded or ineffective programs are shed. And Congress has to resist providing earmarked funds that the military does not seek or need, and allocating homeland security funds on the basis of political considerations rather that risk assessments. But we cannot escape the fact that terrorism is still a threat -- and that there are others as well. The government needs to prepare the nation to meet these and be candid with Americans about the costs.

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