Some time in 2005, Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, who also served as an economic adviser under Clinton, noted that the official Congressional Budget Office estimate for the cost of the war so far was of the order of $500bn. The figure was so low, they didn’t believe it, and decided to investigate. The paper they wrote together, and published in January 2006, revised the figure sharply upwards, to between $1 and $2 trillion. Even that, Stiglitz says now, was deliberately conservative: “We didn’t want to sound outlandish.”
So what did the Republicans say? “They had two reactions,” Stiglitz says wearily. “One was Bush saying, ‘We don’t go to war on the calculations of green eye-shaded accountants or economists.’ And our response was, ‘No, you don’t decide to fight a response to Pearl Harbour on the basis of that, but when there’s a war of choice, you at least use it to make sure your timing is right, that you’ve done the preparation. And you really ought to do the calculations to see if there are alternative ways that are more effective at getting your objectives. The second criticism – which we admit – was that we only look at the costs, not the benefits. Now, we couldn’t see any benefits. From our point of view we weren’t sure what those were.”
I didn’t plan on including such large excerpts of a news story in this blog, but this story felt too important and well-composed to chop out just a tiny excerpt. More on how Stiglitz did it after the cut.
Appetites whetted, Stiglitz and Bilmes dug deeper, and what they have discovered, after months of chasing often deliberately obscured accounts, is that in fact Bush’s Iraqi adventure will cost America – just America – a conservatively estimated $3 trillion. The rest of the world, including Britain, will probably account for about the same amount again. And in doing so they have achieved something much greater than arriving at an unimaginable figure: by describing the process, by detailing individual costs, by soberly listing the consequences of short-sighted budget decisions, they have produced a picture of comprehensive obfuscation and bad faith whose power comes from its roots in bald fact. Some of their discoveries we have heard before, others we may have had a hunch about, but others are completely new – and together, placed in context, their impact is staggering. There will be few who do not think that whatever the reasons for going to war, its progression has been morally disquieting; following the money turns out to be a brilliant way of getting at exactly why that is.
By way of context, Stiglitz and Bilmes list what even one of these trillions could have paid for: 8 million housing units, or 15 million public school teachers, or healthcare for 530 million children for a year, or scholarships to university for 43 million students. Three trillion could have fixed America’s social security problem for half a century. America, says Stiglitz, is currently spending $5bn a year in Africa, and worrying about being outflanked by China there: “Five billion is roughly 10 days’ fighting, so you get a new metric of thinking about everything.”
Thus, any idea that war is good for the economy, Stiglitz and Bilmes argue, is a myth. A persuasive myth, of course, and in specific cases, such as world war two, one that has seemed to be true – but in 1939, America and Europe were in a depression; there was all sorts of possible supply in the market, but people didn’t have the cash to buy anything. Making armaments meant jobs, more people with more disposable income, and so on – but peacetime western economies these days operate near full employment. As Stiglitz and Bilmes put it, “Money spent on armaments is money poured down the drain”; far better to invest in education, infrastructure, research, health, and reap the rewards in the long term. But any idea that war can be divorced from the economy is also naive. “A lot of people didn’t expect the economy to take over the war as the major issue [in the American election],” says Stiglitz, “because people did not expect the economy to be as weak as it is. I sort of did. So one of the points of this book is that we don’t have two issues in this campaign – we have one issue. Or at least, the two are very, very closely linked together.”
Also, it looks like Obama picked up another (pseudo-)endorsement:
I suggest, as devil’s advocate, that to count costs in the way he has, and to advise retrenchment, might be seen as encouraging America to return to isolationism. “No. I think that’s fundamentally wrong. The problem with Iraq was that it was the wrong war, and the wrong set of issues. Obama was very good about this. He said, ‘I’m not against war – I’m just against stupid wars.’ And I feel very much the same way. While we were worried about WMD that did not exist in Iraq, WMD did occur in North Korea. To use an American expression, we took our eye off the ball. And while we were fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan got worse, Pakistan got worse. So because we were fighting battles that we couldn’t win, we lost battles that we could have.” To discover that those lost battles included better healthcare for millions of Americans, a robust world economy, a healthier and more independent Africa, and a more stable Middle East, seems worth a bit of green-eye-shaded number crunching.
So some thoughts for discussion: What benefits, if any, are there to the Iraq war? How could some of the money being spent abroad be refocused to improve America’s image in the world (and actually improve the world along the way, perhaps)? For example, could the U.S. do something with its money to help stabilize Iraq that might be more effective than spending it all on troops and bombs?