Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Cost of the Iraq War in Lost Opportunity

Tyler Cowen, who writes at Marginal Revolution, has a superb op-ed piece up at the Washington Post about the true cost of the war in Iraq:

We often think of cost simply in terms of dollars spent, but the real cost of a choice -- what economists call its "opportunity cost" -- consists of the forgone alternatives, of the things we could have had instead. For instance, the cost of seeing a movie is not just the dollars you plunked down for the ticket, but also the subtler cost of missing a dinner at home or a cocktail party at work. This idea sounds simple, but if applied consistently, it requires us to rethink and, yes, raise the costs of the Iraq war.
... Let's look at some of the opportunity costs the United States has incurred so far:

1. We still haven't secured our ports against nuclear terrorism. The $1 trillion we've probably spent on the war could have funded the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security 28 times over.

2. The human toll of the war is dreadful: more than 3,800 U.S. soldiers dead and more than 28,000 wounded, plus more than 1,000 private contractors killed and many more injured. It's harder to know how many Iraqis have died; some estimates claim that the war has caused a million or more Iraqi deaths, and even if that's an overstatement, the toll is still very high. But it's not just the lives that are gone; we've also lost the contributions that these people would have made to their families and to humanity at large.

3. Another major hidden cost: Many of the wounded have severe brain injuries or other traumas and will never return to "normal" life. Furthermore, Washington will find it far harder to recruit and retain quality troops and National Guardsmen in the future.

4. Don't forget the small statistics, which are often the most striking. According to John Pike, the head of the research group, an estimated 250,000 bullets have been fired for every insurgent killed in Iraq. That's not just a waste of ammunition; it's also a reflection of how badly the country has been damaged and how indiscriminate some of the fighting has been. Or take another straw in the wind: The cost of a coffin in Baghdad has risen to $50-75, up from just $5-10 before the war, according to the Nation magazine.
Following your lead, Iraq hawks argued that, in a post-9/11 world, we needed to take out rogue regimes lest they give nuclear or biological weapons to al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups. But each time the United States tries to do so and fails to restore order, it incurs a high -- albeit unseen -- opportunity cost in the future. Falling short makes it harder to take out, threaten or pressure a dangerous regime next time around.

Foreign governments, of course, drew the obvious lesson from our debacle -- and from our choice of target. The United States invaded hapless Iraq, not nuclear-armed North Korea. To the real rogues, the fall of Baghdad was proof positive that it's more important than ever to acquire nuclear weapons -- and if the last superpower is bogged down in Iraq while its foes slink toward getting the bomb, so much the better. Iran, among others, has taken this lesson to heart. The ironic legacy of the war to end all proliferation will be more proliferation.

Cowen has gotten a large response to this piece. Comments are at Marginal Revolution.

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