Something wonderful happened in Washington in 2013 that can't be celebrated too much: the Pentagon spending lobby experienced a clear defeat in its efforts to prevent any real cuts to the Pentagon budget. When the music stopped on the budget negotiations, those paid to claim that if we gave the Pentagon a haircut foreigners would steal our lunch money came up short: half the planned Pentagon cuts were left in place.
A key reason that the Pentagon spending lobby lost was that for once, runaway Pentagon spending was framed as a trade-off whose significance most people could easily grasp.
It's one thing to shovel endless cash to the Pentagon if it's just numbers on a piece of paper. If the Pentagon budget is $700 billion or $500 billion, who's going to lose sleep over that? Iranians could be hiding under our beds enriching uranium, so we'd better shovel some more cash to the Pentagon. Why not? It's not like increasing the Pentagon budget actually costs us anything.
It's quite another thing to shovel endless cash to the Pentagon if we actually have to give up something that we care about in order to pay for it.
That's how the choice was framed this time. The budget deal that Wall Street-funded think tanks put on the table, the "Grand Bargain," was to turn off planned Pentagon cuts by cutting Social Security benefits and raising taxes instead. That put the question of runaway Pentagon spending in a very different context. Now there was a real cost. Now we had to pay for it with things that we really cared about. Suddenly the idea that perhaps we could squeak by with a little less Pentagon spending sounded a lot more attractive. When the choice was cutting the Pentagon or cutting Social Security benefits and raising taxes, most people thought it would be ok if we cut the Pentagon budget a little bit. We'll muddle through somehow with a couple fewer F-35 warplanes.
So now we know that it's actually not so hard to get Washington to do the right thing if the choices are framed correctly. Having learned this lesson, let us apply it to the question of future wars, and to the proposed Iran war in particular.
Chuck Schumer, Robert Menendez, and their Senate friends have introduced a bill to blow up President's Obama's diplomacy with Iran. If these Senators blow up diplomacy, the only thing left on the menu in the restaurant will be war. So now is the perfect time to ask these Senators who is going to pay for the war that Senator Schumer, Senator Menendez and their friends are trying to engineer.
Let us urge our economic populist friends in the Senate—people like Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown and Vermont Independent Bernie Sanders—to call the question by introducing a simple resolution: it is the sense of Congress that if the U.S. goes to war with Iran, the 1% should pay the financial cost of the war.
If we could establish the principle that the 1% should pay for the war, this would be a win-win for justice. We know well that the 1% aren't paying their fair share of taxes. So, even if making the 1% pay the financial cost of wars had no deterrent effect, it would be a win for justice by increasing taxes on the 1%.
However, the fate of the Grand Bargain strongly suggests that making the 1% pay the financial cost of the war would have a good deterrent effect. In order to start a war, Washington would have to convince the most privileged, most politically powerful people in society that they have to fork over a pile of money to the government to pay for the war. If a war were truly necessary, it should be no problem to get the 1% to pony up. But if a war were not truly necessary, then the 1% would be sure to complain loudly and be heard.
A Senate resolution with several co-sponsors should be sufficient to put this threat on the table. But in order to make sure to get the attention of the 1%, it may be helpful if such a resolution would give a few examples of ways that we could increase taxes on the 1% to pay for the war, such as:
- End the "carried interest" loophole that allows the heads of private equity firms to evade billions in taxes. Or, go "all the way" and tax all "capital gains" at the same rate as income earned by working.
- Impose a tax on financial transactions—a "Wall Street speculation user fee."