In a screed against President Bush’s tax-cut plan, Ronald Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times makes the perfectly sound point that most American wars have been financed, in part, by tax increases. He uses the example of the estate tax, which was regularly imposed to finance wars and then abolished once peace broke out. (Until, that is, World War One, when the happy habit of postwar repeal was shaken.) This time, however, President Bush is cutting taxes during a war. This strikes Brownstein as immoral. He writes, “It all amounts to Americans voting themselves a tax cut and letting their children pay for defending the country through a larger national debt.”
Brownstein’s history, while accurate, is a little misleading. Any increase in federal debt from the present and contemplated hostilities is chump change compared to the truly massive debt left over at the end of World War Two. Federal debt is running at one-third of GDP today; in 1946, the debt was ten percent larger than the economy.
The assumption that tax cuts today mean higher taxes tomorrow (paid for by the children) is unwarranted. There’s certainly no one-for-one trade-off. Tax cuts can create wealth, and can lead the federal government to restrain its spending. Both effects would reduce the amount of taxes that would be necessary in the future to pay for today’s tax cuts.
Anyway, what’s wrong with asking the children to pay for the national defense once they’ve grown up? If the pattern of American history holds, they will be richer than we are. Good liberals, in particular, should favor shifting the tax burden into the future on redistributive grounds. The war is, moreover, being fought not least for the benefit of these children. These two points are not unrelated. Assuming that the war goes well, the world will be a more prosperous place in 2050 because America fought it. And a 52-year-old American in that year will be better off for its having been fought, even if he has to pay slightly higher taxes as a result. We can leave the tab to our children with an easy conscience.
WILLIE SUTTON LIVES The subhed to an article in The Nation: “Money Is Needed for Social Programs. And the Rich Have More Than Their Share.”
SCOOP JACKSON DOESN’T Those conservatives who perpetually hope for the re-emergence of a hawkish faction in the Democratic party have been pinning their hopes on Sen. Joe Lieberman. But it looks like Lieberman’s not going to oblige. On North Korea, he’s taking the standard Democratic line: Kim Jong Il’s regime is acting up because Bush “bullied” it, and the Clinton administration’s 1994 deal with it was a smashing success. It’s hard to see how these views square with the senator’s attempts to position himself to Bush’s right on national security. But if that’s what he believes, he should by all means say so. In any case, the Scoop Jackson wing of the party has lost its brightest feather. Hawks will now have to make do with Dick Gephardt.