Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Taxes and War

Taxes and War: Ross Perot Was Sort of Right
Mary Durfee

Long ago, Ross Perot ran as a 3rd party candidate for U.S. president. 3rd parties have no luck in the US any more than they do in Malta. I did not vote for him, but I’ve been thinking about one of his crazy ideas. He said every time US troops were in harm’s way (under threat of enemy fire), US taxes should automatically go up 10 percent.

This was a crazy idea because, under the US Constitution, only the House of Representatives can initiate a revenue bill and most US fighting would be over by the time the full Congress actually approved such a thing. It would take forever. I doubt Congress could just pass a law saying they would automatically raise the tax, because it would be struck down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. No president would want the law, so there would be no help from that quarter.

The only way you could get such a rule in place would be through a constitutional amendment. Now, that’s REALLY tough to do. Just figuring out the wording/definition would be hard. What's war or warlike? When is a US soldier a soldier, does it include intelligence operatives (I'd say yes on that one, but that's another story),? Does it include terrorism ? Would it apply if it were prompted by a UN Security Council decision? Here's an example of what it might need to say somehow : ten federal or federalized employees or contractors engaged in military or military-related activities killed non-accidentally by non-US citizens operating in a country outside the United States and its territories. Even that would be litigated forever, but you get my drift.

But, maybe the effort to mount such a doomed constitutional campaign would be worthwhile for the US. We'd have to talk to each other about what we are doing to ourselves and others and how we going about doing it.

The US Constitution says the President is supposed to get a declaration of war from Congress when the US goes to war. That was a nice idea, but not really too practical. It’s rarely been used since 1787, though US troops have been sent off to fight somewhere nearly every year of the United States’ collective life. Declaring war, for example, causes huge international legal consequences. Better to save declarations of war for massive problems—something I hope never to experience.

But, two problems with the situation have made themselves clear over the years. The president is very hard to control when he wants to use force. We Americans get no say except through the very unclear voice of the ballot. Second, Americans aren’t generally held responsible for their government’s policy in the sense of serving in the military or paying for it. Thus, even the ballot isn’t too likely a control.

Congress will nearly always back down when facing the president—especially when he sends troops first and then reports it later. Congress is, it seems to me, not nearly as energetic in these matters as it should be (after all Congress can fire the president but the reverse is not true, Congress can pass a law over the president’s objections…etc, etc). Congress has all the cards, except for speed. Congress is supposed to be slow, but we hardly communicate any more by sailing ships and horses and the power of the executive matches the world of today better than the world of the 1700s. So, the virtue of legislative deliberation tends to get stomped on by the virtue of executive speed.

The US media is not helpful. It will print or broadcast whatever the president gives them. Then when it is too late to stop foolishness it will get critical for a bit. After a while being critical stops selling ads, and so they stop being critical or even reporting the news.

The other problem with the current method is that Americans don’t really suffer any immediate consequences when a war is going on. We only used a peacetime draft in the year or two before US entry in WWII and in the 1950s, ‘60s, and part of the 70’s. We’re spending $12 billion a month in Iraq alone and hardly anyone notices other than those who lost someone.

Yet, the war does cost American lives and we are going deeper and deeper into debt, our states are having troubles managing various disasters, social security is failing and the list could go on. Meanwhile, Americans have recently gotten tax money back from the US government in order to spur spending. This is like putting a happy face bandage (plaster for you Maltese) on a rapidly spreading cancer.

I should also point out that, despite appearances, Americans aren’t as warlike and stupid as they seem. I taught international law to my mostly engineering students (19-22 years old) the fall before we went in to Iraq. We did a problem on whether the US could go to war without another approval from the UN. I had them prepare the arguments for both sides, split them up, and we had at it for 40 minutes. It was wonderful and many times more sophisticated than anything on TV. As we closed it down with some general discussion, one of the women asked, “But, professor, even if it is legal under international law to attack, how will we get out?” I told her we would not get out, it would drag on and on with a number of deaths on our side and many thousands more on the Iraqi side.

Which brings us back to Perot’s idea. Emmanuel Kant, the philosopher, said that democracies would value peace more than nondemocracies, because the public would pressure the government against war. Tocqueville, the brilliant observer of American life in the 1840s, doubted democracies could even do foreign policy because of the open and pacific nature of democracies.

Perot’s idea of instant tax increase would put some teeth into the impact of the public on foreign policy in a democratic country. The president and Congress would have to cooperate with each other more, if both sides knew that once the deployment started it would mean higher taxes on individuals and businesses alike right away. After all, the fighting could end up being an election issue because it hit the pocketbook. At the very least, Congress would ask more questions.

If Congress asked more questions, the press might spend a minute or two reporting on those questions each day. Bloggers would spend a lot more time on it. Public opinion could actually have an influence on a decision to fight. Americans would have to be responsible citizens, at a minimum paying cash for their policy instead of charging it to future Americans.

No comments: