The Common Good
April 2005

The Shame Deficit

by Chuck Collins | April 2005

No tax cuts during wartime.

A year ago Sen.

A year ago Sen. John McCain, an ardent supporter of the war in Iraq, took the Senate floor and chastised his fellow senators. "Throughout our history," McCain thundered, "war has been a time of sacrifice.... But about the only sacrifice taking place is that by the brave men and women fighting to defend and protect the liberties we hold so dear, and that of their families." McCain said he felt sickened by the tax cuts and pork barrel projects that Congress was passing. "This is a far cry from sacrifice."

Charlie Richardson, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out, is opposed to the war and advocates bringing home the troops. "It’s disgusting that they are asking families like mine to make enormous sacrifices while they give tax cuts to billionaires," said Richardson. "We’re having bake sales to buy Kevlar bulletproof vests to keep our kids alive in a war that never should have begun. Whatever happened to shared sacrifice?"

People on opposite sides of the Iraq war are shocked by the stunning inequality of sacrifice during this military engagement. Never in the history of U.S. warfare has Congress pushed tax cuts, let alone permanent tax cuts for the very wealthy. Historically, the opposite has been true: Wealth has been "conscripted," in the form of progressive income and estate taxes, to at least symbolize that everyone is contributing in some way.

THE U.S. HISTORY of progressive taxation is wound together with mobilizations for war. The first federal tax on wealth was levied in 1797, as our country was faced with the escalating costs of responding to French attacks on American shipping.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood that national domestic unity against Hitler depended on a sense of shared sacrifice by both Rockefeller and Rosie the Riveter. Top income rates were boosted, and the estate tax was increased so that fortunes exceeding $50 million would be taxed at the 70-percent rate. FDR spoke out boldly against war profiteering, saying, "I don’t want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster."

Today, opponents of the Iraq war point out the cynicism of congressional "chickenhawks" that vote both for tax cuts and to send other people’s children into what many consider an immoral war. "During WWII, every town had tire drives and rationing," said Richardson. "Right now it’s the opposite. They are trying to isolate as many people as possible from the impact of the war. During the Civil War, rich people could buy their way out of the draft. Now the wealthy don’t have to pay anything to avoid the draft - and they get tax cuts on top."

Supporters of the war, like Sen. McCain, worry that such a glaring inequality of sacrifice will "undermine national unity" during an already divisive war. People on both sides agree that there should be no tax cuts during war.

Congress is now debating a budget that masks the costs of the war, continues massive tax cuts for the rich, and attempts to reduce the deficit with massive budget cuts. "The cuts in veterans’ services are bad enough," observed Richardson. "But they are also cutting higher education spending, which forces poor and middle income kids graduating from high school to look to the military as one of the few options for an affordable education or job with health insurance."

The current tolerance for this inequality of sacrifice is a moral indictment of America’s ruling and wealthy elites. How can families in the richest 1 percent accept millions of dollars in tax cuts at a time when other families are doing fundraisers to buy bulletproof vests for their children in the line of fire? How can wealthy families advocate for the abolition of the inheritance tax when other people’s children, in Iraq and the United States, are wounded and maimed for life?

With all this talk of budget gaps, the biggest deficit among our nation’s political leaders appears to be in shame.

Chuck Collins is co-founder of United for a Fair Economy, senior fellow at Class Action, and author, with Bill Gates Sr., of Wealth and Our Commonwealth. For information on Military Families Speak Out, see www.mfso.org.

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