Thursday, February 28, 2008

The cost of war

Joseph Stiglitz has a new book out suggesting that we grossly under-estimate the true costs of war by just focusing on operational costs. When you factor in things like medical care and disability benefits for combat veterans, who may live another six or seven decades, you get up into the trillions of dollars. Interestingly, he claims that our peak expenditures on veterans of World War II was in 1993. His analysis suggests that the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost the U.S. around $3 trillion.

This is a sobering reminder of the costs of war, which are often hidden from us. I wonder how the Bush administration will greet this information?

“People like Joe Stiglitz lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure. One can’t even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9/11,” said White House spokesman Tony Fratto, conceding that the costs of the war on terrorism are high while questioning the premise of Stiglitz’s research.

“It is also an investment in the future safety and security of Americans and our vital national interests. Three trillion dollars? What price does Joe Stiglitz put on attacks on the homeland that have already been prevented? Or doesn’t his slide rule work that way?”

You'd think that after seven years, I'd be used to the Bush administration's arrogance, belligerence, and anti-intellectualism. Yet somehow, they always manage to surprise me. Let's break Fratto's statement down:
  1. Stiglitz is a coward. I'd guess that's par for the course. After all, the Nobel prize winning economist did offer a critique of the administration's policies, which is tantamount to an attack on the homeland.
  2. "The cost of failure." Tony, you guys might have considered the cost of failure when you botched this war. Losing a war has got to be costlier than not having started it.
  3. We can't put a price tag on 9/11. Let's for a moment set aside the conflation of the Iraq War with 9/11. As it turns out, several people have attempted to put a price tag on 9/11. It's difficult to know where to draw the line, though. Do you include the costs of the economic slowdown after the attacks? The costs of increased airline security? Do you put a price on the loss of human lives? It's fuzzy and unpleasant. But here's one study by the Center for Contemporary Conflict that puts the immediate, short-term economic impact of 9/11 at $27.2 billion. That's not chump change. The report talks about the difficulty of gaging the longer term, less direct costs of the attacks. Let's just throw the number $100 billion out there. If that's the cost, then we'll have spent 30 times that figure on this war. So our economy could have sustained 30 9/11 attacks before it will have spent this kind of money. Okay, this sort of math is morbid. How about spending a few hundred billion implementing the security reforms recommended by the 9/11 commission? You know, safer ports and airports, that kind of stuff. It would have been a bargain.
  4. "What price does Joe Stiglitz put on attacks on the homeland that have already been prevented?" Hard to say, Tony. What attacks have been prevented? Can you show us evidence of any attacks that have been prevented by the war in Iraq? That would certainly help your case.
  5. "Or doesn’t his slide rule work that way?” Man, do these guys hate scientists.

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