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Tillberg/My Turn: Show us the money

If you want a war, you need to pay for it. If you’re a king with lots of your own money and it’s a short war, maybe you pay for it from cash flow. Otherwise someone else is going to get stuck with the bill. Sometimes it’s the defeated enemy, all other times it’s your own people. As early as the 13th century, Henry III had to ask his own people through their Parliament for funds to go beat up on the French — ever a popular idea back then, but still one that needed parliamentary funding. In the U.S., it’s the Congress.

We are now being hyperbolized into a military action in Syria — something just short of war, but potentially long on financial expenditure. The proposed Syrian action has been compared with our actions in Kosovo — a $5 billion activity. Therefore, let’s assume that if we take military action in Syria, the cost will be about $5 billion, give or take a couple hundred million dollars. Why isn’t anyone in Congress asking how President Obama intends to make this payment?

Of course, wars are often fought for a “vital national interest” and so arguing over how to pay for them is indelicate at best and almost traitorous at worst. But, the president has never asserted that Syrian use of chemical weapons will, per se, somehow endanger the homeland. Rather, the proposed military action is being billed as one where we stand on principle, where we don’t let evil prevail, where we forestall even worse forms of aggression — it is because of these ancillary results an attack on Syria has become a “vital national interest.”

So be it, the argument has merit. But whether we “should” attack Syria or not does not reflect on the question: that, if we do, how will we pay for the attack? Since Syria is not remotely capable of sending chemical agents against the U.S. (at least this has not been asserted to date), any military action against Syria starts to fall into the definition of a national-defense program rather than a war of national interest. We are entering into the action phase of a national-defense program, which, somewhat like a program to build another aircraft carrier, is one of many national-defense programs that have to compete for funding. In this regard, an attack on Syria may well be worth a $5 billion expenditure. The cost to build a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is about $5 billion. Is our national defense better served by building another aircraft carrier, by attacking Syria, or by spending $5 billion on something else? That debate is not being addressed.

Where are the famous deficit hawks in all this? Those keepers of the purse who attempt to bespatter every congressional appropriation with requirements that some other appropriation be reduced by a like amount. Where are they now that we have a potential $5 billion cost staring us in the face? Why don’t I hear anyone — Republican or Democrat or Independent — asking for a funding source? Could it be that everyone knows any nitty-gritty discussion of funding will end up talking about increased taxes, increased debt or redistribution of existing federal largess? And seriously folks, who wants to spoil a perfect party by doing that?

There are about 138 million taxpayers in the U.S. One way to pay a $5 billion tab would be to enact a special, one-time only surcharge to everyone’s 2013 tax bill of $36.20. Not a lot of money to pay for a vital national interest, but an idea not likely to fly with Republicans who have taken the no-new-tax pledge (and Democrats are not eager to raise taxes either). Well then, how about coming out and saying the projected cost of the military action would be added to the national debt — period. Hold on here folks, the last four years have been nothing if not one bruising battle after another about the federal debt. Or, how about reducing a specific federal program by $5 billion? Maybe not such a good idea since we seem to have such trouble reducing federal spending.

And so the conundrum. Its all very well and good to talk about surgical strikes and targeted targets and limited engagements. But the fact is it all costs money — money that we have multiple uses for. When he was running his war, President Bush simply engaged the enemy and asked Congress to cover the costs later. But since there is no magic in Congress, the covering ended up as debt that we are now on the hook for. At least Henry III had the good taste to ask his Parliament first, then spend the money later. Now President Obama is asking for congressional approval to act, but he is not asking Congress to make clear and obvious the difficult question of how to pay for the action.

Call in the deficit hawks.

Richard Tillberg lives in Whately.

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