Friday, January 27, 2006

It Matters

Y'all (or y'few, as the case probably is) have probably noticed that my last few posts have been even nerdier than usual--more details, more numbers.

That's partly just me. I'm a dork. But it's mostly my fumbling efforts to find concrete ways to drive home--to really make clear--that this country's enormous resources and talents are often poured down the pisser to most of our harm. I keep trying to find specific, visualizable ways to make that case.

I'm aware that I talk about the Iraq war a lot. Probably too much. (And after this I'll try to stop. Honest.) It is, of course, a huge temptation as a subject, in large part because the Bush administration and its media fellators say so many untrue things about the war's causes and consequences. I don't like spin, I don't like unaccountability, and I don't like people who intensify the public's borderline hysterical fears about terrorism. But I guess most of you don't either, so I'm probably preaching to the choir. Or to the place where the choir was standing before they got bored and went to the rec room for donuts.

But the thing that I find really offensive about the Iraq war is how much it cost this country. That's why I have trouble letting it go. There is a cost in lives, a cost in credibility, a cost in our nation's moral standing. That's reason enough to be angry and sad. But those are difficult things to talk about concretely and are way more open for debate than the kind of cost I want to talk about here: the economic cost.

Joseph Stiglitz (the 2001 Nobel laureate in economics) and Harvard professor Linda Bilmes just put out a thorough study called "The Economic Costs of the Iraq War" (available via Stiglitz's website). Their study is an infinitely more sophisticated version of what I've been, in part, trying to point out recently, i.e. that this war has cost us and will cost us money, a lot of it. Their estimate of the war's DIRECT (non-macroeconomic) costs is a breathtaking $750 billion to $1.2 trillion.

That estimate includes a lot of things that most people (myself included) haven't been including in the cost of the war. Most estimates include only direct combat funding--i.e., what it costs to fund combat and support operations in Iraq. But the war carries with it additional built-in costs (e.g., health benefits for wounded soldiers, death benefits for their families, increased recruiting budgets to keep people interested in volunteering for military service, demobilization costs, interest on debt that we could otherwise have paid off).

Their analysis also makes clear to me that we have to factor in opportunity costs--i.e., what we're losing not simply by having started this wild goose chase for WMD--but what we lose by not having spent that money on something else.

What if, instead of inventing a threat in Iraq, we acknowledged a threat at home. With so many Americans uninsured or just poor, how many Americans will starve to death, freeze to death, or die because they don't have the money each year? How many people will die in gang-related homicides (American murder rates are way higher than all countries with comparable per capita GDPs)? In short, how many people will die this year in America who didn't have to?

And why is it acceptable to spend hundreds of billions of dollars abroad in the name (though not in the service) of "saving American lives" but not to spend that same money at home saving American lives? Is it because most of the people who died in the 9/11 attacks were rich or middle class and most of the people who die of poverty-related violence, curable and preventable illnesses, or exposure are poor? Is that why the families of 9/11 victims got multimillion dollar payouts to compensate for their loved ones' future earning potential while the families of the New Orleans dead got to watch TV pictures of their relatives floating facedown in contaminated water? I think it is. And I think that's wrong.


At 12:04 AM , Blogger Mike M. said...

See, the mistake you're making is that you're drawing connections between disparate events! Sure, in a society or any closed system, seemingly unconnected events can be related to one another and, if you really think about it, you can really see narratives when billions of dollars spent on overseas wars either aren't available to deal with a local crisis when it happens or weren't available to prevent that crisis before it did, but...


We don't DO that in America any more. Every issue is separate. Social Security is running out of money while we're going into debt to fund a foreign invasion? You can't talk about Social Security and War at the same time!

See, for six years, we've had a NEW way of discussing the issues and that way is, "every issue for itself!" Every issues exists in its own bubble. You can't cut one expenditure to fund another. You can't drop one policy in favor of another. You can't prioritize at all.

Well, one exception... you CAN cut liberal programs in order to find money to fund conservative goals.

But that's it! Everything else is an isolated issue.

Please adhere to this new way of thinking in the future.


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