Review: The Three Trillion Dollar War

As Arianna Huffington writes, “the thing about $3,000,000,000,000 is that, at a certain point, it becomes hard to ignore.” Pundits are saying we’re already in a recession. The connection between the war and the economy is increasingly clear and starting to affect everyone, from those worrying about retirement to John McCain’s Joe the Plumber.

The Bush administration and the mainstream media seldom mention the economic costs of Iraq and Afghanistan. But Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, a 2001 Nobel laureate, and Linda Bilmes of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government rectify this oversight in their new book, The Three Trillion Dollar War. Their gargantuan estimate for the Iraq War’s bill considers various factors, including budget expenditures, the veteran care, unbudgeted macroeconomic costs (such as soldiers having to buy their own body armor), and the opportunity costs of everything we forego because of war expenditures. The authors often had to file for access under the Freedom of Information Act for these estimates, as figures that should have been in the public domain were kept hidden. Even then, their $3 trillion price tag is conservative, as even immediate withdrawal from Iraq comes with a hefty cost.

Stiglitz and Bilmes point out that the U.S. government financed the war mainly through deficit spending. After 9/11, Bush told the American people to “go out and spend,” implying that the United States could fight the war without making any sacrifices U.S. citizens could continue their high-spending lifestyles.

But, they say, there is “little doubt that had we spent one to two trillion dollars differently, we would actually be more secure…had we spent the money in investments in education, technology, and research, growth would have been higher, and we would have been in a far stronger position to meet future challenges. If some of the money spent on research were devoted to alternative energy technologies, or to providing further incentives for conservation, we would be less dependent on oil…[w]hat is clear is that there were a myriad of ways in which we could have spent the money better — leaving the country more secure, and more prosperous, and so better prepared to face future threats.”

After all the presidential promises, economics is having its revenge. Stiglitz and Bilmes book is a must-read.

Kyi May Kaung holds a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania and has two degrees in economics from Rangoon University. She is a Washington, DC-based writer and analyst and a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus