Better late than never. The New York Times, which was a cheerleader for going to war (from its editorial pages, its news pages and, of course, from the most idiotic of all columnists, his lordship Tom Friedman), finally has a piece today on the economic costs of the war. The issue may have been mentioned in passing here and there but I don't recall this kind of detailed article in its news pages (feel free to correct me). Paul Krugman, I'm sure, has raised this.
Anyway, in today's paper, David Leonhardt has a piece entitled "What $1.2 Trillion Can Buy." That amount is what he estimates, based on other calculations, the war will ultimately cost.
The human mind isn’t very well equipped to make sense of a figure like $1.2 trillion. We don’t deal with a trillion of anything in our daily lives, and so when we come across such a big number, it is hard to distinguish it from any other big number. Millions, billions, a trillion — they all start to sound the same.
The way to come to grips with $1.2 trillion is to forget about the number itself and think instead about what you could buy with the money. When you do that, a trillion stops sounding anything like millions or billions.
For starters, $1.2 trillion would pay for an unprecedented public health campaign — a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every American whose diabetes or heart disease is now going unmanaged and a global immunization campaign to save millions of children’s lives.
Combined, the cost of running those programs for a decade wouldn’t use up even half our money pot. So we could then turn to poverty and education, starting with universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child across the country. The city of New Orleans could also receive a huge increase in reconstruction funds.
The final big chunk of the money could go to national security. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that have not been put in place — better baggage and cargo screening, stronger measures against nuclear proliferation — could be enacted. Financing for the war in Afghanistan could be increased to beat back the Taliban’s recent gains, and a peacekeeping force could put a stop to the genocide in Darfur.
All that would be one way to spend $1.2 trillion. Here would be another:
The war in Iraq.
Yes, indeed. That's where we drained a huge amount of money that no one wants to think about. The madman in the White House has no desire to be honest--certainly not about the cost of the war that will ultimately be paid by the people of the country in the form of higher taxes.
But the deteriorating situation in Iraq has caused the initial predictions to be off the mark by a scale that is difficult to fathom. The operation itself — the helicopters, the tanks, the fuel needed to run them, the combat pay for enlisted troops, the salaries of reservists and contractors, the rebuilding of Iraq — is costing more than $300 million a day, estimates Scott Wallsten, an economist in Washington.
That translates into a couple of billion dollars a week and, over the full course of the war, an eventual total of $700 billion in direct spending.
The piece gives some specifics beyond the direct costs of war fighting, drawing on the work of Linda Bilmes, at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former Clinton administration adviser, which set the price of the war at more than $2 trillion.:
They include a number of indirect costs, like the economic stimulus that the war funds would have provided if they had been spent in this country.
Besides the direct military spending, I’m including the gas tax that the war has effectively imposed on American families (to the benefit of oil-producing countries like Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia). At the start of 2003, a barrel of oil was selling for $30. Since then, the average price has been about $50. Attributing even $5 of this difference to the conflict adds another $150 billion to the war’s price tag, Ms. Bilmes and Mr. Stiglitz say.
The war has also guaranteed some big future expenses. Replacing the hardware used in Iraq and otherwise getting the United States military back into its prewar fighting shape could cost $100 billion. And if this war’s veterans receive disability payments and medical care at the same rate as veterans of the first gulf war, their health costs will add up to $250 billion. If the disability rate matches Vietnam’s, the number climbs higher. Either way, Ms. Bilmes says, “It’s like a miniature Medicare.”
In economic terms, you can think of these medical costs as the difference between how productive the soldiers would have been as, say, computer programmers or firefighters and how productive they will be as wounded veterans. In human terms, you can think of soldiers like Jason Poole, a young corporal profiled in The New York Times last year. Before the war, he had planned to be a teacher. After being hit by a roadside bomb in 2004, he spent hundreds of hours learning to walk and talk again, and he now splits his time between a community college and a hospital in Northern California.
Whatever number you use for the war’s total cost, it will tower over costs that normally seem prohibitive. Right now, including everything, the war is costing about $200 billion a year.
Treating heart disease and diabetes, by contrast, would probably cost about $50 billion a year. The remaining 9/11 Commission recommendations — held up in Congress partly because of their cost — might cost somewhat less. Universal preschool would be $35 billion. In Afghanistan, $10 billion could make a real difference. At the National Cancer Institute, annual budget is about $6 billion.
All this is so infuriating when you read it--not the first time I've looked at this issue. Of course, the economic costs will not hit the president and his gang. They will leave in 2009 ready to start raking in millions of dollars from speaking fees, book contracts, service of corporate boards and lobbying, while the rest of us pick up the tab.