By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
We are now almost 10 years into the war that al Qaeda forced upon us. Our young men and women have been asked to fight bravely, on our behalf, and to suffer and die in great number. It is time we did a little something for them, and their generation, and dug into our pockets and paid for this war.
There is a lot of talk these days about the Founders. On television, we see the exploits of the Greatest Generation, saving the world from fascism in World War II. The Civil War generation is in the news as well, as we approach the 150th anniversary ceremonies of that conflict, which ended slavery and saved the Union.
All these generations did more than fight. They also paid their taxes. Indeed, by my reckoning, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the other corners of the earth where terrorists plot our deaths, are the first in which Americans have not met their patriotic duty by raising taxes.
The money for the Revolution and the War of 1812 was raised through tariffs and excise and property taxes: whiskey, sugar, and tobacco were among the items taxed. And when the Founders wrote the Constitution, they recognized the need to "lay and collect taxes" to "provide for the common Defense and general Welfare."
The Civil War was funded, in part, through the first personal income tax. It was a flat tax, of 3 percent across the board.
The Spanish-American War wasn't much of a contest, but patriotic Americans raised taxes on, among other things, beer, liquor and chewing gum, to pay for it.
In World War I, the country turned again to the income tax. The wealthiest Americans paid a 67 percent tax rate. That sounds high, but it was nothing when compared to the Greatest Generation and the costs of World War II. If you only earned $500 a year, you still paid an income tax rate of 23 percent. And if you made more than a million dollars a year, your marginal tax rate was 94 percent. That is not a misprint. 94 percent.
During the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, income tax hikes helped pay the bills. As much as Lyndon Johnson didn't want to sacrifice his dream of a Great Society to the costs of the Vietnam War, he did the right thing and pushed a surtax through Congress.
In those days of shock and mourning after 9-11, the country was united and willing to sacrifice. We missed a great opportunity then to enact a war tax to fund our armies. Instead, all the expensive improvements in homeland security, and the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been paid for by borrowing from the generation that is doing the fighting. Many of the trillion-dollar-plus costs have been hidden "off budget" and paid via "emergency" appropriation bills. The Obama administration ended the worst of these practices, at least. It is one reason that the debt and deficits look so big today. They are finally reflecting honest math.
Some liberal Democrats have proposed a progressive war tax--an income surtax with a sliding scale that would hit the rich at a greater rate than the poor and middle class. But the idea has gone nowhere.
So this is one for the Republican Party, which has opposed all forms of tax hikes, despite a tide of red ink, for two decades. If they really want to do something about the debt, and honor their patriotic heritage, Republican candidates should campaign this fall, or in 2012, with a war tax in their platform.
In keeping with the party's conservative creed, the tax could match the war, and raise only the money--say, two trillion dollars--that we have spent on offense and defense against al Qaeda. And it could expire when the debt is paid.
We are talking about shared sacrifice here, so Democrats should not object if this is an across-the-board flat tax that hits all tax filers, even those receiving federal earned income tax credits, or a national sales tax that affects poor, middle class, and rich alike.
A war tax would have added benefits, as well. It would free the Republican Party from its ideological corral, and allow it to participate in a reasoned national debate about how to pay off the soaring national debt. And it would revive an American tradition which, among other virtues, keeps demagogues from waging frivolous wars by hiding the costs from the citizenry.
There is much talk in Republican circles, these days, about "wanting my country back." Much of it is nostalgia. We couldn't go back to Happy Days if we wanted to. Nor can all of us go to Afghanistan. But one thing we can do, that the great generations of Americans did before us, is pay the bill for our wars.