Nov. 11 marks Veterans Day — a holiday established in 1919, after World War I, and later expanded to honor all US veterans. Unfortunately, it has devolved into a retail frenzy rivaling Black Friday.
We ought to spend money on Veterans Day. But the way to spend it is by creating a Veterans Trust Fund that would make good on the promises we have already made to veterans — but not yet paid for.
Nearly 7,000 American troops have died in the post-9/11 wars. After 16 years of conflict, thousands more are still bogged down in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other hot spots, from Niger, Yemen, and Syria to Somalia and Kuwait.
For those who are now safely home, the question is how to sustain the long-term benefits that they have been “guaranteed” on paper — including medical care, disability compensation, housing loans, and education grants. These commitments will cost trillions of dollars over the next 40 years, but so far we do not have a plan to pay for them.
The long-term “tail” of war costs persists for decades after combat. The peak year for World War I veterans spending was 1969. World War II costs peaked in the 1980s, and spending for Vietnam and Gulf War veterans is still climbing. The post-9/11 wars will follow the same pattern but total costs will be higher — as much as $1.5 trillion according to my research. Veterans benefits today are more expensive than in the past, due to high rates of injury, high survival rates, and better outreach by the VA. More than half the young men and women who have deployed to the Iraq/Afghanistan region are applying for assistance for some degree of disability acquired in the wars.
Unlike earlier generations, today’s citizens have not paid higher taxes for the post-9/11 wars. Taxes were raised in every previous extended conflict, from the War of 1812 to Vietnam. By contrast, Congress cut taxes in 2001 and 2003. Most Americans pay lower taxes today than we did before 9/11. Congress is contemplating even more tax cuts. The entire Iraq-Afghanistan debacle has been paid for by piling debt onto the national credit card. This fails to account for the true cost of war and fails to ensure the necessary resources are available to care for veterans.
Unless we take steps now, we may default on our commitments. Less than 1 percent of the US population has fought in the post-9/11 conflicts — the lowest percentage in US history. With such limited engagement in the fighting itself, Congress may be tempted to water down some of those veterans benefits when we are faced with future budgetary pressures.
The way to honor our pledge to veterans is to establish a Veterans Trust Fund. The federal government uses trust funds to account for the fact that we have accrued liabilities; the best known fund is Social Security. The concept is not perfect — trust fund money is not fire-walled from the remainder of the federal budget. But the “trust fund” designation requires the United States to acknowledge and keep track of long-term promises and to pay claims as they come due.
There is already a Military Retirement Trust Fund for career military. However, some 88 percent of post-9/11 veterans are not eligible for it because they served in the armed forces for less than 20 years. We should do the right thing today by establishing a similar fund for all veterans. We could start to gradually amortize the existing promises by imposing a small surcharge ($25 to $500 depending on income) on taxpayers who are not serving in the military or have an immediate family member doing so. Going forward, we should require that when Congress appropriates new money for war, it must also set aside funds for the Veterans Trust Fund. A bipartisan group of congressman — Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), Don Young (R-Alaska), and Walter Jones (R-N.C.) — has recently introduced a bill to do this.
A Veterans Trust Fund cannot solve all the problems of today’s veterans. But it will enable everyone in this country to participate in taking care of those who serve. This is a much better way to honor veterans than by going shopping.
Linda J. Bilmes, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, is coauthor, with Joseph Stiglitz, of “The Three Trillion Dollar War.”