Obey's tax would only fund a sliver of the Afghanistan war

Today, U.S. President Barack Obama is announcing his plan to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. This is, he says, the endgame; the White House press secretary has reportedly indicated that Obama plans to end major military operations within three years. But, in the meantime, Congress will have to figure out how to pay for all of those soldiers, who will cost an estimated $1 million each to deploy.

To that end, Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, last month introduced the Share the Sacrifice Act of 2010. It makes the war in Afghanistan pay-go, with a progressive tax (that would amount to an additional one percent of income tax for average-income Americans, and more for bigger earners) gauged to prior-year war spending. If we spend $100 billion on Afghanistan one year, the tax raises $100 billion the next; if we spend $1, it raises $1.

It's an obviously sensible idea. To date, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars are the only ones the United States has funded without raising taxes -- mostly by running multibillion-dollar deficits and borrowing 40 percent of the wars' costs from other countries, who will have to be paid back, plus interest, in the future. (George W. Bush famously cut taxes during wartime.)

But Congressional sources, The Cable reported, have said that the bill will never reach the House floor, let alone Obama's desk. It's galling not just because the bill makes some obvious sense. It's shocking because it was a very moderate measure that would have covered just a sliver of the cost of war to the United States. The Share the Sacrifice Act sought to pay for only the yearly cost of Afghanistan war operations: not the aggregate cost of Afghanistan, or the interest the United States needs to pay its creditors, or the aggregate cost of both wars, or down-the-road costs (like healthcare and social security for added troops or the cost of replacing and repairing equipment).

Through 2009, the United States has spent $944 billion on Iraq and Afghanistan, with more than 70 percent of funds going to the former war. For 2010, the requested budget is $139 billion -- with $63 billion apportioned for Afghanistan. The Obey bill would have raised just that $63 billion with a tax levied in 2011 (and the option for presidential deferment if the economy hadn't recovered). That's 6 percent of aggregate spending over the past nine years.

In a smart post about the subject, Matt Yglesias writes, "The reaction to David Obey's 'war tax' idea is telling -- nobody seems to really think there are national interests at stake that are critical enough to be worth paying slightly higher taxes for. But if a war's not worth paying for, how can it be worth fighting? And if we don't pay for the war in the FY 2010 budget, we still need to pay back the loans."

It's worth remembering that Obey was attempting to fund just 6 percent of the war with income raised from taxes.


Three years

This, to put it very mildly, seems optimistic:

President Obama is sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan but plans to conclude the war and withdraw most U.S. service members within three years, senior administration officials told CNN Tuesday.

I would expect that Obama will probably frame this as a goal rather than a commitment tonight. But given the enormous strain this is accelerated strategy is going to place on the military, I hope the White House will avoid making statements like this one in the future: 

The push for a speedy deployment surprised some observers, because White House officials who defended Obama's slow pace of coming to a decision had said the Pentagon wouldn't be able to get new troops to Afghanistan that quickly.

Asked to explain that seeming contradiction, a White House official told CNN: "The president is saying this has to happen, so the military will make it happen."

Update: The White House denies it.