Inequality of sacrifice

Uwe Reinhardt, a professor of political economy at Princeton and the father of a Marine, makes some important points about the huge inequality of sacrifice that seems almost an essential part of the Bush administration’s approach to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At most, 500,000 American troops are at risk of being deployed to these war theaters at some time. Assume that for each of them some 20 members of the wider family sweat with fear when they hear that a helicopter crashed in Afghanistan or that X number of soldiers or Marines were killed or seriously wounded in Iraq. It implies that no more than 10 million Americans have any real emotional connection to these wars.

The administration and Congress have gone to extraordinary lengths to insulate voters from the money cost of the wars — to the point even of excluding outlays for them from the regular budget process. Furthermore, they have financed the wars not with taxes but by borrowing abroad.

The strategic shielding of most voters from any emotional or financial sacrifice for these wars cannot but trigger the analogue of what is called “moral hazard” in the context of health insurance, a field in which I’ve done a lot of scholarly work. There, moral hazard refers to the tendency of well-insured patients to use health care with complete indifference to the cost they visit on others…

A policymaking elite whose families and purses are shielded from the sacrifices war entails may rush into it hastily and ill prepared, as surely was the case of the Iraq war. Moral hazard in this context can explain why a nation that once built a Liberty Ship every two weeks and thousands of newly designed airplanes in the span of a few years now takes years merely to properly arm and armor its troops with conventional equipment…

…To be sure, we paste cheap magnetic ribbons on our cars to proclaim our support for the troops. But at the same time, we allow families of reservists and National Guard members to slide into deep financial distress as their loved ones stand tall for us on lethal battlefields and the family is deprived of these troops’ typically higher civilian salaries. We offer a pittance in disability pay to seriously wounded soldiers who have not served the full 20 years that entitles them to a regular pension. And our legislative representatives make a disgraceful spectacle of themselves bickering over a mere $1 billion or so in added health care spending by the Department of Veterans Affairs — in a nation with a $13 trillion economy!
Unlike the editors of the nation’s newspapers, I am not at all impressed by people who resolve to have others stay the course in Iraq and in Afghanistan. At zero sacrifice, who would not have that resolve?

I’m not one to shout “chickenhawk,” but the Bush administration’s failure to ask for any sacrifice from those who can most afford it– along with the failure to decently equip US forces and help their families and them cope with financial hardship while serving in the field or recovering from injuries– is a national disgrace.

This is precisely the sort of from-the-Left critique Democrats should be raising when it comes to Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead we have the disspiriting spectacle of self-indulgent antiwar Democrats gathering for dramatic readings of the Downing Street Memo– as if this is somehow the key to political victory over Bush and the Republicans. (Via Marc Cooper.)

Hint: It’s not.