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War and Taxes: Sharing the National Burden

April 15 should remind every American that sacrifices by our soldiers on the battlefield require sacrifices at home, too.

Soldiers running on patrol near Baghdad. (AP)
Soldiers running on patrol near Baghdad. (AP)

On the eve of Tax Day, President Bush has again asked Congress for a virtual blank check to fund the Iraq war. This time he wants another $108 billion appropriated—on top of the estimated $500 billion to $1 trillion total estimated cost to the United States so far.

President Bush says he backs the stay-the-course strategy articulated by U.S. General David Petraeus "as long as it takes" to work. Yet never does the president say who will pay for this open-ended warfare, what the total cost will be, and how we measure the benefits. This is odd coming from a conservative leader whose supporters miss no opportunity to regularly decry "tax and spend" approaches to our national problems.

For President Bush and his conservative allies, however, the Iraq war fiscally has been more like a "spend and borrow" war and occupation. So as Americans file their tax returns today, here are some thoughts on the dissonance between simultaneous calls by conservatives for sacrifice and for permanent tax cuts, which sound ever more jarring.

These reflections by my wife and I, first published last year at tax time in The Boston Globe, are even more disturbing today amid ever-rising casualty counts among U.S. men and women in uniform and extended multiple tours of duty.

 

Sharing the burden of war and taxes

By David Abromowitz and Joan Ruttenberg

The Boston Globe, April 9, 2007

TAX DAY is coming. For most Americans, it’s merely a reminder to get that paperwork done. But for many years, tax day reminded Americans that war means sacrifice.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush has often invoked a spirit of sacrifice and dedication to the greater good. Yet this call to sacrifice has not made it into the administration’s economic and tax policies.

In past wars, those who could most afford to pay did so. During World War II, marginal tax rates on the wealthy reached over 90 percent. During wars in Korea and Vietnam, and throughout the Cold War, the most fortunate among us contributed almost as heavily to the national effort, paying at marginal rates of over 50 percent. Economic sacrifices were shared.

But now the Bush White House insists that those making $300,000 and up — already paying the lowest tax rates in 50 years — needn’t bother to pay a penny more toward national needs. This, despite stepped-up national security needs, active wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

In fact, since top tax rates were cut to 35 percent in 2003, millions of fortunate families, including our family, now pay many thousands of dollars less per year in taxes than we did before Sept. 11. Where’s the sacrifice in that? (You can estimate your own savings using the Responsible Wealth online tax cut calculator at responsiblewealth.org.)

Those fighting and dying in Iraq — and their families — are already sacrificing daily for all of us. Many have given their lives or their health in this war, but that’s not the only sacrifice these families are making.

It is no secret that families in military service are overwhelmingly of modest means, many barely getting by economically. Most military families have benefited only marginally from the tax cuts, while the sons and daughters of those who consistently reap the most economically from our system are, by and large, absent from the field of battle. It was once a truism that some fight, some pay. Yet because of our president’s policies, the same Americans end up fighting and paying, while most well-off families do neither.

This is not just shockingly unfair; it is unsustainable for a democracy. If the well off don’t pay their share, the burden falls on everyone else. A voluntary option is available: Well-off taxpayers can easily estimate their Clinton- and Bush-era tax cuts and redirect those savings with a donation targeted to efforts to help fix the problem. But given the massive scale of the shortfall, this will only go so far.

For six years, we have seen the erosion of service after service relied on by the average American. Schools are gasping for resources; infrastructure is crumbling; losses in benefits for the poorest and most vulnerable have been dire. Borrowing to cover essential spending is up as well.

The result is mounting national debt on top of rising personal debt. The current approach burdens not just this generation, but also everyone in the next generation. Yet once again, it is those of modest means who will experience the greatest suffering.

As we debate the course of the Iraq war on the eve of tax day, it is time for a different approach — one based on returning to shared sacrifice. If we do not plan to draft soldiers regardless of their economic class, then at the very least every American should bear his or her fair share of the economic burden.

Let’s bring back a 40 percent marginal tax rate on high incomes (over $500,000, perhaps) until this war is over. If the burden is borne broadly and fairly, the wealthiest Americans will have a powerful incentive to consider whether the costs of war outweigh its benefits. Only then will all of us have a personal stake in the discussion of how and when our exit from Iraq should proceed.

David Abromowitz and Joan  Ruttenberg are lawyers and members of the group Responsible Wealth.


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Authors

David M. Abromowitz

Senior Fellow

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