Why fund wars with debt, but not health care?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A READER recently challenged us to explain what he sees as a contradiction in our editorial positions. We support the goal of universal health care, but argue that President Obama must keep his pledge not to pay for it with borrowed money. We have also backed Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's request for additional troops and other resources for Afghanistan -- but without specifying how the reinforcements should be funded. Why is it okay to finance wars with debt, asks our reader, but not to pay for health care that way?

In principle, all wars should be paid for, just like all other federal spending. We criticized President George W. Bush for sticking with tax cuts rather than calling for national sacrifice after Sept. 11, 2001, and for failing to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If Mr. Obama were to propose offsetting the cost of additional troops in Afghanistan with a gasoline or carbon tax, we would support it.

But is a new war tax needed? In fact, if you apply the same logic to defense spending that Mr. Obama has used for health care -- that projected future savings offset new spending -- he has paid for the proposed escalation in Afghanistan many times over. Overall, Mr. Obama's plan for defense spending projects $1.5 trillion in savings over 10 years. While overall federal spending will rise 75 percent from 2008 to 2019, defense spending would increase only 17 percent.

That percentage will be a bit higher if the Afghan mission is fully funded. But spending on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- which have been budgeted jointly since 2003 -- has already fallen from $180 billion in the 2008 budget year to $150 billion this year. Even counting the additional troops Mr. Obama has already approved for Afghanistan, spending is due to drop to $130 billion in 2010, and the Congressional Research Service estimates it will fall to $70 billion in 2012. That's because in the next year, twice as many American troops are due to leave Iraq as would go to Afghanistan under Gen. McChrystal's middle-course request. If Mr. Obama supports the option of sending 40,000 more soldiers, annual war spending could still drop to $110 billion.

All this assumes that defense and health care should be treated equally in the national budget. We would argue that they should not be, for two reasons. One is that wars, unlike entitlement programs, eventually come to an end. A guarantee of health care for all, particularly in the context of steadily rising costs, will bankrupt the nation if not matched by a steady stream of revenue.

The second reason has been laid out eloquently by Mr. Obama. "As president, my greatest responsibility is the security and safety of the American people," he said in an address to the Veterans of Foreign Wars two months ago. Mr. Obama went on to say that Afghanistan "is not a war of choice; this is a war of necessity. . . . This is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people."

Universal health care, however desirable, is not "fundamental to the defense of our people." Nor is it a "necessity" that it be adopted this year: Mr. Obama chose to propose a massive new entitlement at a time of historic budget deficits. In contrast, Gen. McChrystal believes that if reinforcements are not sent to Afghanistan in the next year, the war may be lost, with catastrophic consequences for U.S. interests in South Asia. U.S. soldiers would continue to die, without the prospect of defeating the Taliban. And, as Mr. Obama put it, "if left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans."

So, in answer to our questioner: Wars end, and the spending for them tapers off; entitlement programs must be funded in perpetuity. Wars compel decisions, like the one now at hand; new entitlement programs can be phased in or delayed. And the nation's security must be the president's first priority. To quote Mr. Obama once more, it is "the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning. It's the last thing I think about when I go to sleep at night." Even for a president dedicated to domestic reform, that must hold true.

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