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Commentary: Casual patriotism has moral hazards

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 10, 2009 - I remember the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. It was a beautiful October day in the Midwest; my wife and I were driving back to St. Louis from a wedding we'd attended in Kansas City the day before. The air waves were dominated by war news, and we were glued to the car radio, following developments in six-speaker stereophonic sound.

As an automotive purist, I've always balked at the notion of turning a vehicle into a bulletin board for one's personal beliefs, but I purchased a magnetic American flag for the tailgate of our SUV when we stopped for gas. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

As soon as we got home, I grabbed a beer and retired to the sofa with the dog to monitor cable news updates on the conflict. My wife heeded President Bush's domestic call to action and went shopping. We were, I suppose, comfortable patriots.

Much has changed in the interim. President Bush is now gone, as is the magnetic flag and the car on which it was mounted. We moved from our house the following year, and I understand that it has since been resold. My wife and I later divorced and went our separate ways. The dog died. But the war in Afghanistan endures. In fact, it's picking up steam.

After President Obama announced plans to send an additional 30,000 troops into the fray last week, a CNN poll indicated that his job approval ratings had fallen to 48 percent -- the first time they've dipped below half. However, the same poll indicated that six in 10 Americans supported his decision to escalate the conflict.

That polling result is puzzling: The decision to invest more heavily in a war that is now several months into its ninth year is more popular than the man who made it. What gives?

I am reminded of an account I read of a meeting that took place at the dawn of the Vietnam War. LBJ and House Speaker Sam Rayburn were briefed by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and his staff about the proposed military intervention. McNamara and his entourage were holdovers from the Kennedy administration -- the so-called "whiz kids" who would transform the way the government operated.

Charts and graphs were displayed while the Defense Secretary explained in crisp, technical terms how the war would be prosecuted using modern business management techniques. Body counts and kill-ratios were discussed. It turned out that saving Southeast Asia from the grip of monolithic communism wouldn't be all that different from monitoring production at the Ford Motor Co.

After the presentation was concluded and McNamara had departed, a reluctant Johnson turned to his old friend to ask his opinion. Rayburn reportedly mulled the question and then replied to the effect that he'd be a lot more comfortable with the plan if just one of them boys had once run for sheriff.

The old political pro understood the practical implications of all those flag-draped coffins returning home from desolate places. He'd seen Harry Truman's approval ratings plunge to 29 percent during the war in Korea and knew what it was like to shake hands at the county fair while American boys were dying in an unpopular conflict on the other side of the world.

Fearful of being seen as soft on communism, Johnson would ignore Rayburn's cautionary reservations only to demonstrate their prescience by becoming a political casualty of Vietnam about three years later. By contrast, Bush won re-election handily with wars raging in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and 60 percent of the public approves of Obama's decision to send more troops.

The different fates of these various leaders can be explained by the public consequences of their policies. During Korea and Vietnam, every able-bodied American male between the ages of 18 and 26 was eligible for the draft. The only out available to most was a student deferment to attend college.

If you got one of those, the draft board allowed you exactly four years to graduate, after which you re-entered the draft pool. And you had to demonstrate annually that you were making adequate progress toward a degree. I remember taking an anthropology course called "The Cultures of Southeast Asia." The joke had it that if you flunked the course, you'd get to study its subject matter in person.

Today, of course, the only people going across the pond are those who volunteer to do so. To further insulate the general public from the consequences of national policy, citizens are no longer required to foot the bill for military expeditions. These have been put on our collective credit card, as it were.

Bush didn't even count the money borrowed to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns against his budget deficits. He simply carried these enormous expenditures as off-book, emergency appropriations. One reason Obama's deficits have ballooned so alarmingly is that he has been candid enough to acknowledge the actual debt being incurred.

When people are protected from the consequences of their actions, they tend to behave recklessly -- a phenomenon economists refer to as moral hazard. Small wonder the modern chief executive enjoys such latitude in his military prerogatives -- the voters are largely unaffected by the consequence of folly. Unfortunately, acting without regard for consequence is a good functional definition of madness.

To instill a sense of public responsibility for national behavior, perhaps a full mobilization is in order. Because there's little appetite for a revived draft, we'll mobilize economically. All citizens will be called upon to shoulder an equal share of the burden.

The IRS says there are currently about 138 million U.S. taxpayers. The Afghan surge will cost an additional $30 billion a year, so you owe $217.40 for the effort. But we already have 71,000 troops in Afghanistan; your combined tab for the next year of that war is thus $731.88, twice that if you're filing jointly.

We also have 124,000 GI's deployed in Iraq. Some of those will be transferred to Afghanistan as part of the surge there that you've already paid for, but the remaining force still needs to be funded.

To keep the math simple, let's agree that an individual owes $1,500 ($3,000 for couples) -- in addition to your normal tax obligation -- to fund one year of the war effort. If there's any money left over, we'll apply it to the gargantuan debt we've already run up.

I know the holidays are coming, but you'll have to pay up now. No deductions, no loopholes: The troops need our immediate support. Still want to spread the blessings of liberty throughout Central Asia? I didn't think so.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.

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