"War costs and costs and costs"

Joseph Stiglitz gives the high point of the findings of his new book, The Three Trillion Dollar War, in a comment today in the Guardian.

I wish Stiglitz has gone on at more length about the horrific corruption and featherbedding in the Iraq contracting process. All the traditional rules were thrown out the window. This Vanity Fair article details some of the pilferage:

In (attorney Alan] Grayson’s view, a nightmare combination of jacked-up bids, waste, kickbacks, and inflated subcontracts means that as much as half the value of every contract he has seen “ends up being fraudulent in one way or another.” He adds, “Cumulatively, the amount that’s been spent on contractors in the four-plus years of the war is now over $100 billion. Pick any number between 10 percent and 50 percent—I don’t think you can seriously argue that the scale of the fraud is less than 10 percent. Either way, you’re talking cumulatively about something between $10 and $50 billion.”

Indeed, in February, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform got the news from Pentagon auditors that contractors in Iraq had claimed at least $10 billion—three times more than previous official estimates—in expenditures that were either unreasonably high or unsupported by proper documentation. Of this amount, $2.7 billion had been billed to the government by KBR.

While this number pales when compared to Stiglitz’s $3 trillion, the money that the government permitted to be purloined could have instead gone to assuring the safety of the troops, who often were lacking in the basics, such as adequate body armor. That sort of stinginess produces huge human and financial costs down the road, in terms of costly disabilities.

From the Guardian:

With March 20 marking the fifth anniversary of the United States-led invasion of Iraq, it’s time to take stock of what has happened. In our new book The Three Trillion Dollar War, Harvard’s Linda Bilmes and I conservatively estimate the economic cost of the war to the US to be $3 trillion, and the costs to the rest of the world to be another $3tn – far higher than the Bush administration’s estimates before the war. The Bush team not only misled the world about the war’s possible costs, but has also sought to obscure the costs as the war has gone on.

This is not surprising. After all, the Bush administration lied about everything else, from Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction to his supposed link with al-Qaida. Indeed, only after the US-led invasion did Iraq become a breeding ground for terrorists.

The Bush administration said the war would cost $50bn. The US now spends that amount in Iraq every three months. To put that number in context: for one-sixth of the cost of the war, the US could put its social security system on a sound footing for more than a half-century, without cutting benefits or raising contributions.

Moreover, the Bush administration cut taxes for the rich as it went to war, despite running a budget deficit. As a result, it has had to use deficit spending – much of it financed from abroad – to pay for the war. This is the first war in American history that has not demanded some sacrifice from citizens through higher taxes; instead, the entire cost is being passed onto future generations. Unless things change, the US national debt – which was $5.7tn when Bush became president – will be $2tn higher because of the war (in addition to the $800bn increase under Bush before the war).

Was this incompetence or dishonesty? Almost surely both. Cash accounting meant that the Bush administration focused on today’s costs, not future costs, including disability and health care for returning veterans. Only years after the war began did the administration order the specially armoured vehicles that would have saved the lives of many killed by roadside bombs. Not wanting to reintroduce a draft, and finding it difficult to recruit for an unpopular war, troops have been forced into two, three, or four stress-filled deployments.

The administration has tried to keep the war’s costs from the American public. Veterans groups have used the freedom of information act to discover the total number of injured – 15 times the number of fatalities. Already, 52,000 returning veterans have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. America will need to provide disability compensation to an estimated 40% of the 1.65 million troops that have already been deployed. And, of course, the bleeding will continue as long as the war continues, with the healthcare and disability bill amounting to more than $600bn (in present-value terms).

Ideology and profiteering have also played a role in driving up the war’s costs. America has relied on private contractors, which have not come cheap. A Blackwater security guard can cost more than $1,000 per day, not including disability and life insurance, which is paid for by the government. When unemployment rates in Iraq soared to 60%, hiring Iraqis would have made sense; but the contractors preferred to import cheap labour from Nepal, Philippines, and other countries.

The war has had only two winners: oil companies and defence contractors. The stock price of Halliburton, vice-president Dick Cheney’s old company, has soared. But even as the government turned increasingly to contractors, it reduced its oversight.

The largest cost of this mismanaged war has been borne by Iraq. Half of Iraq’s doctors have been killed or have left the country, unemployment stands at 25%, and, five years after the war’s start, Baghdad still has less than eight hours of electricity a day. Out of Iraq’s total population of around 28 million, 4 million are displaced and 2 million have fled the country.

The thousands of violent deaths have inured most westerners to what is going on: a bomb blast that kills 25 hardly seems newsworthy anymore. But statistical studies of death rates before and after the invasion tell some of the grim reality. They suggest additional deaths from a low of around 450,000 in the first 40 months of the war (150,000 of them violent deaths) to 600,000.

With so many people in Iraq suffering so much in so many ways, it may seem callous to discuss the economic costs. And it may seem particularly self-absorbed to focus on the economic costs to America, which embarked on this war in violation of international law. But the economic costs are enormous, and they go well beyond budgetary outlays.
Americans like to say that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Nor is there such a thing as a free war. The US – and the world – will be paying the price for decades to come.

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  1. Anonymous

    It’s difficult to decide how the Bush Admin will be viewed in history 20+ years from now, but I imagine we will have two easy choices which are the same choices we have today:

    Mythomania is a condition involving compulsive lying by a person with no obvious motivation. The affected person might believe their lies to be truth, and may have to create elaborate myths to reconcile them with other facts.
    A pathological liar is someone who often embellishes his or her stories in a way that he or she believes will impress people. It may be that a pathological liar is different from a normal liar in that a pathological liar believes the lie he or she is telling to be true—at least in public—and is “playing” the role. He or she sometimes is seen to have a serious mental problem that needs to be rectified. It could also be that pathological liars know precisely what they are doing. “Pathological liar” is a synonym for symptoms.

  2. Anonymous

    The Bush administration does not need a presidential library; it needs a department of psychiatry.

  3. Francois

    And let’s not mention the incredibly low number of Iraqi refugees allowed in the US, even among those who HELPED the troops, putting themselves AND THEIR FAMILY at risk of kidnapping, torture and violent death. Great way to express gratitude to your allies; and great way to make sure no one will want to be our allies anytime soon.

    As for the treatment of veterans described by Linda Bilmes, don’t get me started! It is beyond contempt to see the WH whining that whomever disagree with them refuses “to support the troops” while the VA, the mili brass and the Secretary of Defense actively make things more difficult for those who come back to get what they need.

    On the political front, the truly amazing thing about this whole Iraq mess is the utter lack of kahunas displayed by Congress.

    Truth be told, the republicans in Congress are STILL going along with Bush (despite his looow approval ratings and stupid policies) on so many nonsensical matters, such as retroactive immunity for the telcos, double veto of SCHIPS, allowing the CIA to use interrogation techniques not permitted in the military etc etc etc etc.

    Churchill once quipped: “Usually, the rats leave the proverbial sinking ship. And here, I see my colleagues climbing aboard a sinking ship.”

    As a country, we are sinking to new lows of indifference, extreme partisanship (a.k.a. dishonesty) and moral cowardice.

    It ain’t gonna be pretty and we’re all going to pay a dear price for that.

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