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.)