Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 25, 2011

THE (FINANCIAL) COSTS OF WAR.... Ezra Klein has a good post this afternoon, reminding folks that "wars cost money." It's one of those observations that should be obvious, but isn't.

In the case of the offensive in Libya, we're looking at a price tag of at least $1 billion, and that's if the conflict goes well. But Ezra's larger point is to use that as a reminder about budgeting responsibly for these conflicts.

Gordon Adams, a senior White House budget official for national security in the Clinton administration, points out that historically the practice of paying for war through off-budget legislation called "emergency supplementals" was governed by a few clear standards: They had to be modest, unanticipated expenditures for conflicts that were not expected to run long. The Bush administration turned them into massive, predictable expenditures serving two of the longest-running wars in American history -- and didn't even allow them to distract us from tax cuts.

The Obama administration has improved the process some, mostly by asking for war funding when the budget is submitted (although the funding itself is still classified as "emergency" spending and so is not actually ruled by the budget process), including some funding in the budget and more tightly defining what can go into the emergency packages so they don't simply become budgeting by other means for the Pentagon. But the wars are still charged to the credit card, and the Pentagon is still protected from trade-offs.

The two recommended reforms seem like common sense, but are worthwhile reminder to policymakers: cost projections for military conflicts should include a range of scenarios, including severe setbacks, and paying at least some financial costs for combat while it's ongoing. Ezra added, "If a war is not worth a tax or spending cuts, then perhaps it is not worth engaging in" -- a sentence that should be published on postcards and sent to every member of Congress.

I'd emphasize just one related point: history. When presidential administrations have launched major military campaigns, invariably they've raised taxes. Lincoln raised taxes to pay for the Civil War. McKinley raised taxes to finance the Spanish-American War. Wilson raised the top income tax rate to 77% to afford WWI. Taxes were raised, multiple times, to help the nation pay for WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. Even the first President Bush raised taxes after the first war with Iraq to, you guessed it, keep the deficit from spiraling out of control.

The notion of having future generations pick the tab -- literally, the entire tab -- for one generation's military/combat efforts has traditionally been unthinkable. Indeed, the only president in American history to actually cut taxes and launch a war was George W. Bush -- and he added $5 trillion to the debt en route to becoming the single most fiscally irresponsible chief executive the country has ever seen.

The offensive in Libya is clearly not on par with those conflicts, but it does coincide with an ongoing effort in Iraq, and the longest war in U.S. history, Afghanistan.

And yet, the very idea of raising a penny of additional revenue from anyone has been deemed completely unacceptable by one major political party (which happens to the party that most supports continuing the ongoing military conflicts).

Steve Benen 4:30 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (9)

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When I saw those cruise missiles and ordinance dropping on Libya I knew defense contractors were jumping for joy. Cruise missiles = 1 million a pop . I subscribe to Aviation week and with it you get a little rag called Defense Technology International, which is essentially a showcase catalog for the latest blow em up tech . Just thumbing through the pages explains why we spend more than the rest of the civilized world combined on defense.


Posted by: John R AKA Mr. Serf Man on March 25, 2011 at 4:50 PM | PERMALINK

But. . . but. . . but wars MAKE money, Steve. Don't you know that?

WWII is, after all the ONLY reason we pulled out of the Great Depression. Taxes and government spending have nothing to do with. Wars somehow mystically and magically generate income.

Or at least that's what my Repug friends say. Ad nauseum.

/end snark

Posted by: Mitch on March 25, 2011 at 4:53 PM | PERMALINK

I really like that we always find (i.e. borrow) money for wars, especially against brown heathens. But if you want to fund Head Start or provide heating assistance so people don't freeze to death in the dead of winter, "we're broke."

Posted by: Doctor Whom on March 25, 2011 at 4:54 PM | PERMALINK

Hmm... I'd forgotten that Obama started putting the wars on the budget. That would explain why the deficit ballooned even after the stimulus went away: people now were able to see what the cost of the da*m wars were!

An important point to remember: Bush lied about the size of the deficit!

Posted by: John Sully on March 25, 2011 at 5:24 PM | PERMALINK

The shared sacrifice of citizens when the country engages in warfare is standard in our history. Down to giving up your metal pots and pans, and rubber products during WW2, sharing the burden of funding our wars through increased taxes was the right thing to do......Until George W. Bush. How was this departure from the time-honored "share the burden" possible? A GOP Congress, that's how.

Posted by: T2 on March 25, 2011 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

Nothing changes. Here's a little blast from the past someone sent me yesterday:

If so, then we may state a general mathematical formula for determining the bomb poundage the United States will have to drop to save the hearts and minds of any given nation.

This formula is: HM = (4W/3)P, where HM represents hearts and minds, W represents weight of the average body containing the heart and mind to be saved and P represents total population of the bombed country.

Example: Suppose it is necessary to save the hearts and minds of Italy. How many pounds of bombs will we need? To get the answer we multiply the average Italian's weight (111 pounds) by 4 and divide the result (444) by 3, which gives us the hearts-and-minds-winning factor number, 148.

To save the hearts and minds of Italy we would have to drop 148 pounds per year per Italian, of whom there are about 55 million. This means we would have to drop 8.14 billion pounds of bombs or, to put it more manageably, about 4 million tons.

"All very well," the taxpayer will say, "but what will it cost me?" Here Mr. Richardson's figures are helpful.

The 63,000 tons dropped on Laos in three months he reported, cost $99.2 million, or $1,574 per ton.

In Cambodia 82,000 tons were dropped at a cost of $150.5 million, or $1,945 per ton.

In short, it costs 97 cents a pound to bomb Cambodia, but only 79 cents a pound to bomb Laos.

Posted by: martin on March 25, 2011 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

Sometimes, when my family spends too much money going out to eat, we have to make up the difference by buying fewer books or movies or clothes that month.

Maybe the U.S. could make up the difference for overspending on Libya by blowing up a few less buildings and killing a few less people in Iraq and Afghanistan this month...?

Just an idea.

Posted by: chi res on March 25, 2011 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

"...George W. Bush -- and he added $5 trillion to the debt en route to becoming the single most fiscally irresponsible chief executive the country has ever seen."

Yes, it was his single proudest achievement!

Grover Norquist gave him a gold star for his and Cheney's efforts.

Posted by: c u n d gulag on March 25, 2011 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK

Re my first comment. Here is a link directly to
Defense Technology International with a reader.


Just flip through the pages , I'm sure you will find the weapons system that suits you to a T.

Posted by: John R on March 25, 2011 at 9:41 PM | PERMALINK



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