Would Pay-Go Have Stopped the Iraq War?

Debt.jpgThe House of Representatives recently passed new rules to stop deficit spending: “the House will for the first time in years be required to pay for any proposal to cut taxes or increase spending on the most expensive federal programs by raising taxes or cutting spending elsewhere.” Most press coverage focuses on the pork-barrel projects such rules are meant to stop; for example, lawmakers now must “disclose the sponsors of earmarks, which are attached in virtual secrecy to legislation to direct money to favored interests or home-district projects.” However, I think there’s a lot more at stake in pay-go, given recent budgetary analyses of the Iraq war.

According to some analysts, the war’s total cost ranges between 1 and 2 trillion dollars:

Linda Bilmes, at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former Clinton administration adviser, put a total price tag of more than $2 trillion on the war. They include a number of indirect costs, like the economic stimulus that the war funds would have provided if they had been spent in this country. [Another study argues] for a figure closer to $1 trillion in today’s dollars.

Admittedly, not all this cost is direct government expenditures. But it is becoming clear that “[t]he operation itself — the helicopters, the tanks, the fuel needed to run them, the combat pay for enlisted troops, the salaries of reservists and contractors, the rebuilding of Iraq — is costing more than $300 million a day.” If we accept the figure that the cost of the war is about $200 billion annually, it’s rather striking in comparison with the cost of some other goals, including

Universal health insurance ($100 billion)

Universal pre-school ($35 billion)

Worldwide immunizations ($0.6 billion)

So an interesting hypothetical would be: what would have happened if the Iraq war had to have been proposed in conjunction with, say, at least $100 billion in annual tax increases? Would Congress have approved it so quickly? And if, say, an average tax increase of about $330 per person per year would have been an insurmountable obstacle to war, what does that say about the nation’s collective commitment to the endeavor?

All these points are raised in a more interesting way by Michael Ignatieff’s Virtual War, where he worries (inter alia) that advanced technology (such as unmanned drones) could so lower the cost of war for its owners that they turn to military action far more quickly than they ought to. Pay-go brings up a more quotidian, but just as pressing, dilemma: does the concentration of the costs of the war on certain groups, and effective mortgaging of those costs far into the future, make us too prone to conflict? While obscure budgetary rules barely make the headlines, they may well be at the foundation of political support (or lack thereof) for war.

Photo Credit: WWII Memorial, Flickr/nemahziz.

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