Monday, July 25, 2011

Defaulting While At War

I know I have written about this issue before. I just want to say it again for those who aren't paying attention. We are on the brink of defaulting on our sovereign debt at a time when we have troops in combat in three different places (please don't say, "But we're out of Iraq!" because we have 45,000 or so troops there in the midst of an on-going civil war), with obligations to a fourth - Libya - that strain the credulity of the Obama Administration's arguments that it doesn't count as a war.

When terrorists attacked the United States 10 years ago, Congress had just passed a massive tax cut, weighted heavily toward the highest income brackets. As it became clear there would be a military component to our response, the first thing to be tossed to one side should have been those tax cuts. Please remember, even Pres. Bush claimed the war would be long and difficult. We had troops and advisers sent not only to Central Asia and the Middle East, but the Philippines, Indonesia, Africa - pretty much anywhere there was a potential or actual threat of Islamist activity. Rather than seek a formal, Congressional declaration of war - as the Constitution demands - the Bush Administration merely rode a wave of public favor in sending troops to Afghanistan. This was an odd choice, as Congress would have made such a declaration easily.

Had there been a formal declaration of hostilities, the Administration and Congress could have acted under its authority to mobilize much of the economy and industrial infrastructure to support it. Wage and price controls could have been enacted. Tax rates that under normal conditions would have been considered unduly confiscatory would have passed without a dissenting vote. Consumer economic activity would have become secondary to keeping the United States on a war footing.

Most important, with a formal declaration of hostilities, a formal end would also be clear. The various war-time economic mobilization measures would have been removed slowly, to reduce the amount of shock to the system. The tax rates could have been lowered, at the very least, to Clinton-era rates, and the drop would have felt like a huge cut, freeing up billions of dollars in demand.

Instead, we did the whole thing, from Afghanistan through Iraq and now to Yemen and Libya, as if we could finance a major military venture on a wing and a prayer. Bush Administration officials appearing before Congress made up numbers about the cost of an invasion of Iraq, then speculated that we would either confiscate their oil wealth, or they would gladly give it to us for having invaded their country.

The on-going wars have been fought not only on the cheap, but by and large invisibly. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen are called upon, again and again, to return to the field of battle, using equipment that is taking a beating from the use. Not just regular troops, either. National Guard and Reserve units are sent over, performing support roles yet still exposed to the hazards of combat in a war without fronts. The toll on their bodies and minds continues to rise, as evidenced by Pres. Obama's decision a few weeks back to send condolence letters to the families of military personnel who commit suicide.

And now we are weeks away from defaulting. While most people are pointing fingers, insisting it is someone else's fault for the situation we are in, it would be nice if everyone stopped for a moment and realized where the fault really sits - on all of us. This is our problem, and we need to find and demand a solution to it as soon as possible. We can no longer afford, in any sense of that word, to pretend we have the capacity to operate as a nation at peace even as hundreds of thousands of our sons and daughters face combat.

Virtual Tin Cup

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