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Trump’s Iran war will blow a much bigger hole in the Federal budget — and your grandchildren will pay the price: David Cay Johnston

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David Cay Johnston
David Cay Johnston

How much is Trump’s unnecessary new war with Iran going to cost us?

Hardly anyone ever asks that about wars, unlike the costs of social programs. So let’s look at how much money our government needs to fight an unnecessary and likely counterproductive, war with Iran.

Let’s look into first the likely costs and then where Trump and the Republicans think they can get the masses of money needed to prosecute another gratuitous Middle East war.

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The government’s purse is short of tax dollars these days after the Trump/Radical Republican tax cuts and spending rose. A new House Budget Committee report documents 50% growth in the budget deficit since Trump took office.

When today’s newborns are in their 80s they will still be paying the costs of Trump’s folly.

Spending is growing so much faster than tax revenue that Trump & Co. has forced us into trillion-dollar annual deficits far into the future.

I’m old enough to remember, before Ronald Reagan, when Republicans called themselves the party of fiscal responsibility. As they did back in the Regan years, Republicans today cut taxes on the wealthy and stick the rest of us with the bill, either through stealth tax increases like Trump’s tariffs or by simply putting government operations on the federal credit card for you and your great-great-grandchildren to pay off.

No Tax Cut for You

Wait. You thought you got a tax cut from Trump? Silly you.

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You gave Steve Mnuchin, Betsy DeVos. Wilbur Ross and the other cabinet officer billionaires, as well as fake billionaire Trump, fat tax hikes. You may have gotten a small reduction in your income tax bill since 2018, but it is a mess of pottage next to the trillions in added debt Uncle Sam will incur under the borrow-and-spend Radical Republican/Trump tax cut.

In a few years, just the interest on the new debt will exceed what you may have thought was your income tax savings.

Keep in mind that wars incur both immediate costs as well as future obligations. When today’s newborns are in their 80s they will still be paying the costs of Trump’s folly.

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This assumes, of course, that we go to war with Iran and that Trump does so without what our Constitution requires: a declaration of war by Congress, which has the sole power to declare war.

One cost we can’t estimate is how many of your sons and daughters or grandchildren will die for Trump’s vanity. Maybe we should pray that the fiercely “pro-life” Mike Pence will speak up about slaughtering our young to serve Trump’s vanity. No, not going to happen. Pence and his crowd only speak up for the unborn. Pence has already made clear he is all-in for Trump’s war.

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Candidate Trump said he would get us out of the Middle East. Instead, he has about the same number of troops there now as Obama did three years into his first term. Trump just ordered about 3,500 more Marines there.

$1 Million Per Soldier

More than a decade ago the Obama White House began using $1 million per soldier as its rule of thumb measure for Middle East war costs. That’s 15 times the inflation-adjusted annual cost of $67,000 to maintaining a battlefield soldier in World War II.

Costs are higher now not just because of inflation, but also continued advances in expensive weaponry, reliance on contractors and medical care for battlefield wounds.

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The new Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier cost more than $13 billion–before counting its armada of support surface shups and submarines. That whole flotilla can be taken out with a single nuclear missile.

Figure the cost of those newly deployed Marines at about $1.5 million each over the next 12 months, a total of $5.2 billion.

That’s enough money to fund the National Endowment for the Arts for the next three decades; or increase aid to public schools by 30%; or increase the EPA budget by 60%; or more than double federal spending on renewable energy and energy efficiency; or provide Medicaid for 1.4 million poor Americans.

But the real cost of a war with Iran is likely to be way more than $5.2 billion.

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Lowballing the Costs

The George W. Bush administration estimated the cost of the Iraq war at no more than $60 billion, while actual costs will be 50 times that much, according to a 2008 study by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and economist Linda Bilmes.

The ultimate cost of America’s Middle East wars will be around $4.6 trillion, Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimated two years ago. That’s before tacking on the costs of a war against Iran.

Just medical care for Iraq and Afghanistan veterans approaches $1 trillion, one study estimated from official government data. The study understated the real costs because it excludes caring for veterans who live past age 67 when they can go onto Medicare.

High medical costs are a result of a huge shift in the share of battlefield casualties that are fatal.

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Modern medicine keeps alive many soldiers who would have died in World War II or Vietnam, but often with a need for intensive medical care for life. In addition, survivors collect disability income checks, which frankly are much too modest for the pain and lost opportunities that surviving soldiers endured. (Disclosure: My dad was a disabled WWII vet.)

Not Easy

Invading Iraq was a piece of cake compared to taking on Iran, which has a much larger, better trained and better-motivated military. Occupying Iran would make our 17-year occupation of Iraq seem easy because the Iranian people are not eager to oust their leaders, however much we dislike them. Many Iranians still harbor resentment from our imposing the Shah on them in 1954. Our FBI helped the Shah create his murderous secret police, the Savak, in 1957.

Iraq, by the way, may throw us out because we assassinated General Qassim Suleimani of the elite Iranian Quds Force.

And to think that not that long ago Iraq and Iran were engaged in a long war that killed millions on both sides. Oh, how America has changed the Middle East—and and not to the better from an American perspective.

Expect that if the Trump administration ever speaks of costs that it will lowball the numbers. Expect that the cult-like Republican response will be that whatever Supreme Leader and Chosen One Donald Trump wants is not only good, but beyond questioning.

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And where will Team Trump get the money to prosecute a war that Congress surely will not declare? From the Forgotten Man.

Ordinary Americans, who Trump courted and at his inauguration called the Forgotten Man will pay the price. Sacrifice will be necessary, and you can be sure it won’t be sacrifice by those enjoying the increased federal subsidies for personal jets that Trump and the Republicans voted in as part of their tax “cuts.”

What to Expect

How will the Forgotten Man (and Woman) be forced to sacrifice? Here are a few predictable examples:

  • Recipients of food stamps, now called SNAP benefits, will be targeted. New cuts will ensure that children, the disabled and the elderly go hungry so Trump can wage war on Tehran.
  • People who breathe the air and drink the water downwind and downstream from electric power plants, petrochemical plants and other polluting companies as more cuts are made in enforcing environmental laws.
  • Students who will get less aid, resulting in a less well-educated America in the decades ahead, which in turn will mean slower economic growth than the lackluster performance under Trump so far.
  • Soldiers and sailors will have to fight for medical care that the Trump administration will do all it can to argue is not needed. In this, at least, Trump is only worse than the similar antagonism of previous administrations of both parties in keeping promises to the war wounded.
  • Fees will go up, freeing up tax dollars. Team Trump may even revive the Reagan era practice of calling adjustments that raises taxes and shift costs onto feepayers as “revenue enhancements” rather than tax increases.
  • The unborn will pay too. Because absent a major change in policy the interest on the national debt, now at $23.2 trillion, will just keep rising. When today’s toddlers are wrinkled and grey they will pay the price for Trump’s folly.

And all this assumes Trump can contain the dogs of war after he unleashes them and that we won’t end up in World War III.

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