War costs don't end with the war

James P. Pinkerton Published:

By James P. Pinkerton

When nations go to war, government spending goes up. First for the fighting, then for the social-welfaring.

So all the fond dreams of reducing the size and cost of government in the years ahead are just that -- fond dreams and nothing more. If a country calls its young people to rally to the colors, it had better be prepared to pay for their service, in the short run and also the long run. To do otherwise is to risk disaster, on the home front as well as the war front.

Chiseled on the facade of the Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington are words from Abraham Lincolns second inaugural address in 1865, in which the 16th president declared a key mission of the soon-to-be-reunited America: To care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow, and his orphan.

So, while the federal government shrank back from its engorged wartime maximums, a post-Civil War ratchet effect was evident: Uncle Sam didnt shrink all the way back. Federal spending was $63 million in fiscal year 1861; it ballooned to $1.3 billion four years later. And, after Appomattox, outlays never fell below $242 million -- quadruple the prewar level.

During the next five decades, the vision of the welfare state was enshrined among most industrial countries. The 19th century German statesman Otto von Bismarck stands as the pioneer in arguing that no country could be strong if it didnt have a system of cradle-to-grave protection for its citizenry. The issue, in Bismarcks mind, wasnt handouts; it was assurance that no loyal German would ever be left bereft.

World War I vindicated Bismarcks vision: Countries with weak social safety nets, such as Russia, fought poorly while countries with strong safety nets, such as Germany, fought well. The reason was simple: Men at the front wanted to be assured that the mother country was united behind the war effort -- and willing to put its money where its mouth was.

The definitive slogan of the warfare-welfare state was enunciated by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George on Nov. 23, 1918 -- less than two weeks after the Armistice that ended World War I: What is our task? To make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in. Lloyd George was a grateful patriot. But he was mindful, too, of the need to pre-empt Bolshevism -- and to fortify a new generation for the next war.

Yet, by the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, some observers came to believe that the world had united around a new vision, of a low-tax democratic capitalism. It was a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, who said 10 years ago yesterday, in his 1996 State of the Union address, The era of big government is over. But then came Sept. 11, and big government was back -- and then some. In addition to vastly increased expenditures for defense and homeland security, Washington piled on extra domestic spending. Back in 2003, the new prescription drug program for senior citizens -- who wants to deny the greatest generation its just reward? -- was supposed to cost $400 billion over a decade. Now, cost estimates are north of $1 trillion and still rising.

But in this war-solidarity time, its not just oldsters who are getting government-mandated benefits, directly or indirectly. Maryland has imposed a special tax on Wal-Mart to pay for low-earner health insurance. And New Jersey passed a law ordering health insurers to extend family coverage for children up to age 30.

Where does it end? Maybe it doesnt. This week, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno told the Pentagons news agency, This generation of service members will be in what were calling the Long War. If Odierno is right, and he should know, then eventually millions of American heroes will come home from Iraq, Afghanistan -- and, maybe soon, Iran.

They will want to live in a country that honors their sacrifice. And they will get their wish.

Special to Newsday

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