Opinion: COVID War Bonds: Why not 'crowd source' World War C?

Gerald Rosen

People are understandably scared. As we shelter in place in our home bunkers and the government attempts to quell the widespread fear and address the as-yet-unknowable health, economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic with multi-trillion dollar programming, people all seem to be looking to federal, state and local governments for the answers.

Yet beneath this, there is a sense that people want to help, in whatever way they can. And, people want to find a way to unite in the effort — most people are tired of the daily divisive, partisan bickering that has polarized our nation.

Winston Churchill said, "A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." An opportunity in our present difficulty can be found right at hand in our own history. Everyone from the president to leading governors have characterized this pandemic as a war. In both World War I and World War II, the government issued war bonds to let the people help directly finance the war efforts. Here are a few quick facts:

Gerald Rosen

►In 1917, with a population of just over 100 million, the American people bought $21.5 billion in "Liberty Bonds" in a short time to help fight World War I. In World War II, 85 million people from a population of 135 million bought $185 billion in war bonds. Our allies soon followed suit.

Liberty Loan (bonds) Victory Way Woodward, 1918. Statues of representing World War I soldiers line each side of the street.

►Everyone pitched in to sell and buy the bonds. In World War I, celebrities like Al Jolson, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks did many public appearances to promote the bonds; Charlie Chaplin made a short film called "The Bond." In World War II, celebs like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Barbara Stanwyck and Humphrey Bogart pitched in. Norman Rockwell toured the country with his "Four Freedoms" paintings, raising $132 million. 

I do not have detailed answers as to how the bonds should be structured and paid out. But this much is clear: the war bonds were a way for the American people to enlist in the war effort by directly investing in financing the wars, and in doing so, express their united patriotism and belief in our country’s future. Maybe this is an old-fashioned notion, but I believe the American people still today have this unifying patriotism and want to express it. 

And, there is a direct tie to Detroit here. We in Detroit were on the front lines of this effort by converting our auto and other manufacturing facilities into military production, financed in part by the revenues from war bonds. That's how Detroit became the allies’ “Arsenal of Democracy.” 

More:Automakers' global 'Arsenal of Health' fights common COVID enemy

Interior fittings, plumbing and wiring were added to Liberator B24 bombers at a twin assembly line at the Ford Motor Company's Willow Run plant on Feb. 24, 1943. Detroit's role in the war, when the auto factories turned out tanks and warplanes, earned it a place in history as the Arsenal of Democracy.

I do have a few broad, simple ideas for the basics of a COVID war bond effort: 1) The revenues raised should be directly dedicated to combat the public health and economic devastation of the virus pandemic. 2) The bonds should be affordable to most people and should pay at market rates of interest. 3) The interest earned on the bonds should be tax-free. 4) Just as in the wars, a broad-based public relations campaign should be initiated — maybe led by virus victims Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson and other celebrities — which should involve and unite as many people as possible. 5) To the extent possible, the bonds should be marketed directly to the people by the government to avoid profit-taking by the investment industry. 

And states could also get in the game with bonds of their own.  

President John Kennedy in his inaugural address said, “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” Americans today want to unite and do something to fight back. The virus itself will end, but the economic and health effects will continue for a very long time.

COVID war bonds are a way Americans can come to the aid of their country.

Gerald Rosen is a retired chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. He was the chief judicial mediator in the Detroit bankruptcy and architect of the so-called “grand bargain,” which helped resolve the bankruptcy in just 16 months.