The Three Trillion Dollar War

Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have updated their estimate of the costs to the United States (direct and indirect) of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, in an article in yesterday’s Times of London. We reported on an early version of their original findings in our Economy in Numbers column in the July/August 2006 issue of D&S.

Stiglitz and Bilmes’s research on this topic have estimated the costs of the wars in three categories: (1) direct costs to the U.S. government (including Department of Defense spending, spending by the Veterans Administration, demobilization costs, and interest on debt incurred because of the wars); (2) economic costs that are not borne by the government (e.g. the lost economic contributions of reservists while they are deployed, or after they are dead or injured); and (3) larger macroeconomic costs to the U.S. economy as a whole (e.g. those resulting from increases in the price of oil, plausibly due to instability in the Middle East resulting from the war).

According to the initial conclusions of their research (released in February of 2006; they didn’t publish the study until later that year), the first two categories of costs (direct and indirect–not including the larger macroeconomic costs), could be conservatively estimated at between $937 billion and $1.5 trillion. They estimated the macroeconomic costs to the United States as “are potentially very large; possibly even a multiple of the direct costs,” that is, possibly several trillion dollars beyond the costs to the government.

The article in yesterday’s London Times estimates the total costs more definitively at $3 trillion:

From the unhealthy brew of emergency funding, multiple sets of books, and chronic underestimates of the resources required to prosecute the war, we have attempted to identify how much we have been spending – and how much we will, in the end, likely have to spend. The figure we arrive at is more than $3 trillion. Our calculations are based on conservative assumptions. They are conceptually simple, even if occasionally technically complicated. A $3 trillion figure for the total cost strikes us as judicious, and probably errs on the low side. Needless to say, this number represents the cost only to the United States. It does not reflect the enormous cost to the rest of the world, or to Iraq.

The article goes on to estimate the costs to the UK:

[T]he budgetary cost to the UK of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through 2010 will total more than £18 billion. If we include the social costs, the total impact on the UK will exceed £20 billion.

(The added social costs to the UK are proportionately lower than those in the United States because the UK is a net exporter of oil.)

Stiglitz and Bilmes estimate that the current Iraq war will cost ten times the first Gulf war, and one-third more than the Vietnam War.

The Bush administration’s cost estimates in advance of the war were of course drastically lower than the actual costs. Donald Rumsfeld estimated the costs at $50 to $60 billion, and was outraged when Bush’s economic advisor Larry Lindsey said it would cost $200 billion. According to Stiglitz and Bilmes, Lindey downplayed his higher estimate by saying that “The successful prosecution of the war would be good for the economy.”

And shouldn’t defense spending stimulate the economy? Shouldn’t we expect, on Keynesian grounds, that all the money the government is lavishing on the war would stimulate the economy? Yet we are sinking into recession. In the upcoming (March/April) issue of D&S, Arthur MacEwan will answer this question in our “Ask Dr. Dollar” column.

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Chris Sturr

Chris Sturr is co-editor of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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