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Competing interests of war and debt on a collision course


Editor's Note: This editorial ran on July 22, 2010. Three years later and except for Edward Snowden, that homeless guy living in the Moscow airport, little has changed. Return with us to yesteryear...


(July 22, 2010) - A trillion dollars is a thousand billion dollars. It’s a million million dollars. It’s a one followed by twelve zeros – looking like this 1,000,000,000,000. For those of us still having trouble getting our heads around the size of a trillion dollars, try a pictorial illustration of how a trillion dollars stacks up cleverly illustrated on Pagetutor.com

Two competing interests passed milestones in the past year. The War on Terror reached the one trillion dollar mark and the US deficit went over one trillion dollars.  And the cash register keeps ringing on both. 

The War on Terror has become a multibillion dollar business. Dana Priest and William Arkin at the Washington Post worked for two years before their series on the numbers and the growth of the anti-terrorism arm of the government began running this week. Their findings even surprised government officials.  

 Since 9/11/2001, the date we all agree the War on Terror began, the US government has spread over 10,000 security related locations. Around Washington alone, security occupies buildings equivalent to three Pentagons. Over 850,000 people hold top secret clearance.  Top Secret America: Washington Post  

The War on Terrorism now has offices in every state. So called fusion centers are clearinghouses for information coming in and going out. In at least one instance, elected officials in the very places the centers are located can’t see the data because they don’t have the proper clearance. There is a fusion center in Frankfort as there is one in every state capital across America.  

The growth of the War on Terror begun under the Bush Administration with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the emphasis on preventing another day like September 11th has continued into the Obama Administration. With only those on the far left protesting, a surge in Afghanistan was authorized by a Democratic White House modeled on the one in Iraq authorized by a Republican White House.

There has not been another 9/11 in America since 2001. The War on Terrorism may or may not be credited with the prevention of another successful attack. Certainly, extremists have sent/authorized/encouraged their followers to keep trying. For at least two of the attacks, vigilant citizens have prevented tragedy.  Americans are more aware of threats now than any time since World War Two when enemy saboteurs and spies were the subject of unrelenting public awareness campaigns. The results were not always positive – as the internment of Japanese Americans demonstrated.  

So the War on Terror goes on. And on. And on. Sun Tzu said that no country benefits by protracted war. One wonders what he would say about a war on an idea.  

presidential deficits LBJ to GWBThe US deficit – spending more than we take in is a fairly recent phenomena. (See chart) and despite what the GOP says, deficits have gone up under every Republican president since Richard Nixon.  

Lyndon Johnson was the first post WWII to engage in deficit spending. With a war on (Vietnam) and a country changing in the chaos of the Sixties, Johnson’s “guns and butter” program was the first to use the federal credit card. He cracked the door.  

Other presidents have flung it wide. The GOP preference for military spending and tax cutting led to deficits during their administrations.  Bill Clinton came to office and with the help of a booming economy, a Republican Congress and baby boomers at the apex of their earning power, turned the red ink blue.  

Now a new dynamic is developing. We have a War on Terrorism, a stubborn recession, boomers are beginning to take out what they put in and a Washington (no branch gets a pass here) more excited about putting points on the board that facing the real economic problems that lie ahead.  

It’s not like they didn’t know. Way back in 2005, the Government Accounting Office looked into its crystal ball and in an October 2005 statement:

"Over the next few decades, the nation’s fiscal outlook will be shaped largely by demographics and health care costs. As the Baby Boom Generation retires, federal spending on retirement and health programs — Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid — will grow dramatically. A range of other federal fiscal commitments, some explicit and some representing implicit public expectations, also bind the nation’s fiscal future. Absent policy change, a growing imbalance between expected federal spending and tax revenues will mean escalating and ultimately unsustainable federal deficits and debt."  

Bingo. US History.com, the website concluded in its article on deficit spending: 

“A government budget deficit, along with such other fiscal tools as credit, can stimulate the economy, resulting in business activity and profitability. A deficit can help to create business and investor optimism along with more employment opportunities. But too much of a good thing can also fuel a rise of inflation. Deficit spending may also create a rise in unemployment, but lower the inflation rate. The object is to maintain a balance.” A history of deficit spending 2005

Where does America go from here?

The question of the long, costly, bloody War on Terror is being debated on the left. The question of the federal deficit and its long term effect on the American way of life is being debated on the right. The problem is that the problems are interlocking and no one is talking across the lines.

Is federal spending out of control? Of course. So, who wants to be the first to have their program cut, their sacred cow culled from the herd? Anybody?

Is the War on Terror a back door jobs and corporate welfare program that has colored our relationship with every other nation on this planet? Of course it is. So, who wants to cut their little corner of the military industrial complex first? Anybody? 

Rand Paul is running on a platform of cutting the deficit. I get that. But he is not running on a platform of cutting military spending because “everybody” knows that the military is sacred to conservatives.  Paul’s dilemma is that if military spending isn’t left “on the table” to consider cutting, then the campaign to cut the deficit is hypocrisy.

On the flip side, we would think that Jack Conway would be concerned about the War on Terror. However, there is nothing on his website at all about cutting spending of any sort – except to manage Medicare and prescription drug costs more wisely. There is a good reason for Conway, the progressive with Kentucky values, to avoid a discussion of ending the War on Terror. Kentucky is a beneficiary of some serious military spending with Ft. Campbell and Fort Knox located in our borders. Cut military spending- cut Kentucky’s piece of the pie.

The conundrum is that cutting the War on Terror means cutting jobs and government paychecks, whether directly or to contractors. Cutting government spending without cutting back on military spending is looking at one side of the elephant and pronouncing it a wall. Will only the old and the sick and the disabled bear the cost of a leaner, meaner federal government?

The battering rams of deficit spending and military/homeland security spending are on a collision course. When they hit, the American economy will suffer a bigger headache than the bulls on Wall Street ever gave it.

Those on either side of the issue prefer name calling and sloganeering to dealing with the economy that is more than a series of unconnected rooms with no interior doors. When the house falls, it all falls. Not just the wing the Left hates or the section the Right despises. It will all go boom and we all go with it.  It is only a matter of time.  

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