The War at Home

Once upon a time, the war at home meant frugality and sacrifice. Our parents or grandparents collected string and made balls of tinfoil, one gum wrapper at a time. They accepted rationing and went each week to the grocer with coupons for butter, meat, and sugar. They took all sorts of jobs to serve the American industrial machine. They spent memorable years discharging shared patriotic duty.


What does the war at home look like today? The messages are confusing. There is no call for personal frugality. On the contrary, Americans are urged to buy, to travel, and to entertain themselves. Much sport has been made of such appeals, but they may be rooted in concern for workers who lose their jobs when personal consumption falls.


No such rationale explains the conspicuous silence on energy consumption. Despite the concern about dependence on foreign oil, our leaders do not ask us to drive less, turn down the heat, or purchase fuel-conserving vehicles.


Sacrifice helps to structure meaning. But in the short run, the main personal sacrifices we are asked to experience are longer lines at airports, uncertainty over public health, and severe challenges to civil liberties.


Paradoxically, while we are not asked to sacrifice personally, we know that a campaign against terror must be a protracted and expensive enterprise; that we need new systems to protect borders, air travel, mail, food, and drugs; and that we must help rebuild Afghanistan. Yet instead of shoring up our ability to finance these measures through a balanced tax system, our leaders are dismantling the capacity to pay for them. It is as if they believe that calls to pursue the costs of war activate portions of the political brain far removed from those cranial regions that process information about tax policy.


The truly astonishing thing about the anticipated new "war at home" is the apparent indifference of our leaders to the need to cultivate a deep sense of national unity, on which long-term support for the war effort surely relies. National unity depends upon perceptions of a common purpose--a sense that all Americans are invested in the struggle and contributing their fair share. So far, the entire country seems to be united in common purpose. But there is virtually no attention being paid to issues of fairness.


Since we don't have to change our lifestyles except to conform to new security requirements, and since we don't have to conserve anything or make do without, our sense of shared purpose will be tested by the extent to which fairness governs the distribution of the burdens that war inevitably exacts.


This is why the debate about the stimulus package was so perplexing. If some of the leadership had prevailed, people could easily have concluded that the war at home was being fought, secondarily, to enrich a small number of already wealthy Americans. Even an imperfectly informed public would not long support such a war effort.


It is not surprising that the political parties sought to realize their pre-existing priorities in the stimulus debate. War, after all, is politics pursued by other means. But it is surprising how indifferent they seemed to the implications of their proposals for national unity.


The president's budget director has plainly declared that the war, at home and abroad, will be financed mostly through reductions in existing outlays. This would likely mean cuts both in direct federal assistance for lower-income households and in federal grants to states for programs that mainly benefit the poor. So the war, far from entailing unity or common sacrifice, will evidently exacerbate the divide between rich and poor.


A national debate is coming about how to pay for the war: reducing domestic programs, canceling last summer's tax reductions, or increasing the budget deficit. In the bruising partisan battle, issues of national unity may receive scant attention.


The decline of revenues in the states presents another crucible for determining whether the war will be perceived as one of shared sacrifice. Because by law almost all states must balance their budgets each year, many, in this period, as in past recessions, are planning to cut their budgets. Few are contemplating raising taxes to keep programs whole.


Some governors are looking for cuts in human services--particularly Medicaid, a program that mostly serves low-income people. This is dismaying considering that in a recession many more people become reliant on Medicaid. It is also worrisome because over the last decade the country has dismantled the safety nets of public assistance and general relief while significantly compromising unemployment insurance.


Income-based social policies such as Medicaid are designed to be beneficially countercyclical, expanding in a downturn as people lose jobs. Such programs provide self-regulating boosts in total purchasing power when personal incomes decline. So these cuts would perversely retard economic recovery as well as prove cruel to individuals.


Federal revenue sharing with the states, maligned by liberals in the past because it appeared to be a way to reduce states' commitments to federal priorities, now seems to have some appeal as part of countercyclical fiscal policy. The now defunct stimulus package included a narrowly constructed revenue-sharing plan that would have increased the federal contribution to state Medicaid budgets--a bright gesture toward ensuring the continuity of this critical program and bolstering states' ability to keep funding education, child care, and other priorities.


Indifference to unity is manifest not only in the uneven distribution of burden but in our leaders' failure to imagine this period as one in which to build a new sense of national purpose. During this period we could, with public and private dollars, repair the infrastructure of American cities and schools and turn deteriorating buildings and bridges into places of pride. We could restore New York City as a national monument to brave engagement with adversity.


With leadership, we could rededicate ourselves to putting our nonprofit service infrastructure on a stable financial footing instead of watching the community groups on which so many people depend struggle to meet the increasing needs that predictably arise during recessions.


We could support new proposals that have recently been put forth to expand national and community service. The authors of these proposals dare to think that Americans want to make positive contributions to their country--and would do so if the opportunities were there.


Most obviously, we could extend to every American the benefits of an expanded, modernized public-health system that would protect against a range of risks considerably broader than those posed by potential terrorist attacks.


But even if the country does not seize the moment to repair the civic fabric and cultivate a new sense of purpose, it is imperative--I would say as a matter of national security--that we dedicate ourselves to making sure that the burden of paying for the war is fairly and evenly distributed and that the programs on which our poorer compatriots depend are not sacrificed on the altar of fiscal stringency and aversion to taxes.

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