March 2, 2010

Commentary: Here’s an old-fashioned idea: Pay for the war

By Randolph Brandt

Despite all the noise to the contrary, our great entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, actually pay for themselves, as would the pending health care reform bill.

Indeed, with the exception of the exceptional emergency efforts to bail out the economy in the closing months of the Bush administration and the first days of Obama’s, pretty much all the rest of our typical domestic needs remain pay as you go.

What doesn’t pay for itself is our war against terrorism and our military incursions into the Middle East and Afghanistan.

No, we’ve been borrowing every dollar to fight those wars for more than eight years, and all those hundreds of billions of dollars have been off budget, off the books, and a straightaway mainline injection of colossal debt shot so far into the body politic that there’s no conceivable cure in sight.

It wasn’t always like that. Our last “Good War,” World War II, was good in many ways, not the least of which is that we actually paid for it. We did that in large measure with increased taxation, with marginal tax rates of up to 94 percent, though the average percentage was closer to 20.

And, yes, we borrowed some, but mostly we borrowed it from ourselves, via liberty bonds sold in great campaigns to the American public. In that way, everyone was seriously vested in the war, and the payback from those bonds went into the pockets of Americans, who used it after the war to fuel the greatest economic expansion in the history of mankind.

We paid for World War II in blood and treasure, but it was the treasure part that paid back many times over for American business, industry, workers and their families.

Then, somehow, after those heady postwar years, we got the idea that we could just fight our wars on the cuff.

President Johnson encountered that public reality during one of our longest, most expensive wars, Viet Nam. Though he first tried to make the war a pay-as-you-go venture, so much opposition built up that he finally gave up on his tax surcharges and austerity measures, especially after people wouldn’t even let him close the Post Office on Saturdays to save money.

So, we printed more money instead, triggering the greatest decade of inflation since the Revolutionary War.

We won the Cold War mostly on borrowed money, too. President Reagan cut taxes but ballooned defense spending at the same time, hoping to drive the Soviet Union out of business. After a fashion, it worked.

We may not have been all that much stronger than the Russians in the beginning, but we did have better credit, so we just outspent them until their Soviet Union collapsed in bankruptcy, trying to keep up with us.

But it left us with the beginnings of the crushing national debt that’s plagued our country for three decades.

We’ve been fighting in the Middle East for nearly a decade, spending tens of billions of dollars — soon to be trillions — in borrowed money, while just putting the tab on a federal credit card, whose bills will come due for the next generation, and the generation after that.

But it’s even worse this time. It’s not only that we’re borrowing all that money, but also who we’re borrowing the money from.

We’re not borrowing it from American citizens this time, but from our erstwhile enemies, the communist Red Chinese.

So, for the foreseeable future and beyond, all the principal and interest that finances the wars we’re unwilling to pay for now will be going to our greatest international competitor, The People’s Republic of China, fueling its next greatest economic expansion in the history of mankind, instead of ours.

It’s also a pretty sure bet that the Chinese aren’t terribly disappointed that we’re exhausting the fighting effectiveness of our military at the same time we’re sacrificing our economic future, all the while contributing mightily to the stupendous growth of their military and economic might.

Perhaps the Chinese will never boast, as the Russians did, that they’ll bury us, but we’re certainly putting them in the position to be able to bankrupt us, much as we did the Soviets.

There is a solution.

For a millennium, the West has been invading the Middle East, whether to liberate the Holy Land in the Middle Ages, fill the power vacuum of the failed Ottoman Empire after World War I, secure the Suez Canal after World War II, or to make sure oil supplies reached the rest of the world in the 1990s and 2000s.

We’re no different, so let’s reach back into history for a possible answer.

During the Crusades, the West financed its wars in the Middle East with what was called the “Saladin Tithe.” That was a 10 percent tax on income named after Saladin, the fundamentalist Muslim holy warrior who vexed the West by trying to drive the Christian Crusaders out of Iraq, Syria and the rest of the Holy Land.

Everybody paid the Saladin Tithe, except those who “took up the cross” to fight in the Middle East, and their families.

Maybe we should consider the same thing, but this time, we’ll call it the bin Laden tax. Think about it; it even rhymes: — Saladin, bin Laden.

Let’s say, everybody pays an additional 10 percent on income and/or transactions for the bin Laden tax, except soldiers who take up the cross, or Jesus rifles, as the case may be. They pay enough just by being willing to go.

The rest of us, though, should be willing to pay for the wars.

So, instead of organizing anti-war protests or Tea Parties, we all ought to gather in front of Rep. Paul Ryan’s office in Racine for a “pay for the war” rally, insisting that our local representative come up with a plan to actually pay for the war, so that we no longer finance our former and future enemies in order to battle our current ones, and so to strengthen the United States of America, for ourselves and our posterity.

(Randolph Brandt is a retired newspaper editor in Racine, Wis.)


  1. Despite all the noise to the contrary, our great entitlement programs, Social Security and Medicare, actually do not pay for themselves. Same with the pending health care reform bill...

  2. Randolph, This makes far too much sense to actually happen.

  3. Tim the Shrubber3/03/2010 8:15 AM

    " President Reagan cut taxes but ballooned defense spending at the same time.."

    Should be corrected to read...
    " President Reagan and the House of Representatives led by Democrat Tip O'Neil cut taxes but ballooned defense spending at the same time..."

    None of that happened without the House leadership being complicit in the changes.

  4. Brandt has got a great idea. If this became a law,Tax the people 10% of earnings for wars, the people would be against it and WE would be out of there,Iraq etc. If we have to pay, we don't want it.

  5. After reading Randy's first sentence which is totally untrue, it is not necessary to read further.

  6. 9:44 said "If we have to pay, we don't want it."

    You would pay for it one way or the other. Seeing that the Iraq war is actually about oil, if we weren't there we would no doubt pay for it by the lack of oil we would get from Iraq. Then in domino fashion, the rest of the middle east would go the same way.

    You want to use your car? Eat food transported to your plate? Provide the thousands of products oil is used in their manufacturer? Brother, you will pay.

  7. I wish both Republicans and Democrats would have gotten the pay-go religion ten years ago. It makes me shake my head at how much further along our country would be if our leaders wouldn't have taken the politically easy way out then.

  8. ...Brandt has got a great idea. If this became a law,Tax the people 10% of earnings for wars, the people would be against it and WE would be out of there,Iraq etc. If we have to pay, we don't want it...

    Why Tax just for wars. Why not everfything else - the people may be against it, and WE would have a smaller fed & state budget and more economic (and political) freedom.

  9. What economist is blowing smoke your way that the entitlement programs from the feds are doing fine? Everyone I listen to in government or economics indicate they are headed for certain disaster in my life time. Furthermore, the only way that the health care plans can look like they will only create a trillion dollars of new debt is if they steal a half trillion from medicare and tax 4 years before the entitlement starts. Year 11 and beyond are envisioned to be a train wreck. These aren't GOP numbers they are from both parties and in the bill.

    What you call noise is reality and it isn't pretty. We are very close to the debt to GNP number that Greece is dying with. The US press is doing little to cover the chaos in Greece as their country falls into debt and entitlement ruin. Spend a few minutes on the European website to find out what is going on. In the US we are being shielded from the Greek disaster because we are so close to the same thing.

    Sorry but your "facts" don't match reality. The debt and failed fed entitlements are going to create some real problems in the US soon.

  10. 10:29 - You are blaming the entitlement programs in the country for our debt. The entitlements haven't markedly changed since the pre-Bush years when we had a budget surplus. What did change was unfunded wars and upper class tax cuts, Katrina and a housing bust leading to recession. You are right about our overall debt problem though. I believe we are in for more tough times than we know. Our government today is paying for the sins of the past.

  11. 10:44

    Amen to that!

  12. Social Security gets by on its current tax revenue through 2016 and through its trust fund until 2037, when an additional 2 percent in revenue would be needed. If the economy improves significantly, Social Security could exist in its current form indefinitely.

  13. How aboyt a rally in fron of Randy's house to demand they pay for the $800 million train?

  14. Anon, 2:12,

    Picket someplace else. I don't particularly care for trains.

  15. Alida Harper Trocke3/03/2010 7:56 PM

    I truly wish "anonymous" posts were not permitted on these types of venues. Then perhaps some of the nasty vitriol would be cast aside for some honest and open debate and discussion. Hiding behind a cloak of anonymity is easy. Maybe it's fear, perhaps lack of true conviction or simply a twisted enjoyment of bullying, threatening or proselytizing. In any event, let's not kid ourselves that any one party or person has all the answers. It's way too complicated for that.

    Mr. Brandt, I appreciate the fact that you have the courage of your convictions (which is more than any of the "anonymous" commenters can say) to share them in writing and publicly. It sure does get the discussion moving, does it not?

  16. Good for you Alida. Randy needs all the help he can get to defend himself from the evil anonymous. Thanks for stepping forward.

  17. "(Randolph Brandt is a retired newspaper editor in Racine, Wis.)"


    (Randolph Brandt is a retired newspaper editor in Racine, Wis. WHO SHOULD SIMPLY STAY RETIRED)

  18. Here's another old fashioned idea: Take personal responsibility! Let the government do what's defined in the constitution and figure out how to take care of yourself.

  19. Anon, 12:43,

    There's another old-fashioned idea in the constitution, getting Congress to declare war before we fight one.