Lots of Zeroes

by wjw on March 3, 2008

So— the Iraq War has cost three trillion dollars so far.

That’s $3,000,000,000,000.00, if I have counted all the zeroes correctly.

That’s the conclusion reached by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and Linda Bilmes, in their new book. Some interesting factoids:

. . . they have produced a picture of comprehensive obfuscation and bad faith whose power comes from its roots in bald fact. Some of their discoveries we have heard before, others we may have had a hunch about, but others are completely new – and together, placed in context, their impact is staggering. There will be few who do not think that whatever the reasons for going to war, its progression has been morally disquieting; following the money turns out to be a brilliant way of getting at exactly why that is.

Next month America will have been in Iraq for five years – longer than it spent in either world war. Daily military operations (not counting, for example, future care of wounded) have already cost more than 12 years in Vietnam, and twice as much as the Korean war. America is spending $16bn a month on running costs alone (ie on top of the regular expenses of the Department of Defence) in Iraq and Afghanistan; that is the entire annual budget of the UN. Large amounts of cash go missing – the well-publicised $8.8bn Development Fund for Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority, for example; and the less-publicised millions that fall between the cracks at the Department of Defence, which has failed every official audit of the past 10 years. The defence department’s finances, based on an accounting system inaccurate for anything larger than a grocery store, are so inadequate, in fact, that often it is impossible to know exactly how much is being spent, or on what . . .

“There were actually so many things – some of it we suspected, but there were a few things I couldn’t believe.” The fact that a contractor working as a security guard gets about $400,000 a year, for example, as opposed to a soldier, who might get about $40,000. That there is a discrepancy we might have guessed – but not its sheer scale, or the fact that, because it is so hard to get insurance for working in Iraq, the government pays the premiums; or the fact that, if these contractors are injured or killed, the government pays both death and injury benefits on top. Understandably, this has forced a rise in sign-up bonuses (as has the fact that the army is so desperate for recruits that it is signing up convicted felons). “So we create a competition for ourselves. Nobody in their right mind would have done that. The Bush administration did that … that I couldn’t believe. And that’s not included in the cost the government talks about.”

Then there was the discovery that sign-up bonuses come with conditions: a soldier injured in the first month, for example, has to pay it back. Or the fact that “the troops, for understandable reasons, are made responsible for their equipment. You lose your helmet, you have to pay. If you get blown up and you lose your helmet, they still bill you.” One soldier was sued for $12,000 even though he had suffered massive brain damage . . .

Yet on another level, Stiglitz is unsurprised, because such decisions are of a piece with the thoroughgoing intellectual inconsistency of the Bush administration. The general approach, he says, has been a “pastiche of corporate bail-outs, corporate welfare, and free-market economics that is not based on any consistent set of ideas. And this particular kind of pastiche actually contributed to the failures in Iraq.”

. . . By way of context, Stiglitz and Bilmes list what even one of these trillions could have paid for: 8 million housing units, or 15 million public school teachers, or healthcare for 530 million children for a year, or scholarships to university for 43 million students. Three trillion could have fixed America’s social security problem for half a century. America, says Stiglitz, is currently spending $5bn a year in Africa, and worrying about being outflanked by China there: “Five billion is roughly 10 days’ fighting, so you get a new metric of thinking about everything.”

And it is the world economy that is at stake, not just America’s. The trillions the rest of the world has shouldered include, of course, the smashed Iraqi economy, the tens of thousands of Iraqi dead, the price, to neighbouring countries, of absorbing thousands of refugees, the coalition dead and wounded (before the war Gordon Brown set aside £1bn; as of late 2007, direct operating costs in Iraq and Afghanistan were £7bn and rising). But the rising price of oil has also meant, accoring to Stiglitz and Bilmes, that the cost to oil-importing industrial countries in Europe and the Far East is now about $1.1 trillion. And to developing countries it has been devastating: they note a study by the International Energy Agency that looked at a sample of 13 African countries and found that rising oil prices have “had the effect of lowering the average income by 3% – more than offsetting all of the increase in foreign aid that they had received in recent years, and setting the stage for another crisis in these countries”. Stiglitz made his name by, among other things, criticising America’s use of globalisation as a bully pulpit; now he says flatly, “Yes, that’s part of being in a global economy. You make a mistake of this order, and it affects people all over the world.”

And the borrowed trillions have to come from somewhere. Because “the saving rate [in America] is zero,” says Stiglitz, “that means that you have to finance [the war] by borrowing abroad. So China is financing America’s war.” The US is now operating at such a deficit, in fact, that it doesn’t have the money to bail out its own banks. “When Merrill Lynch and Citibank had a problem, it was sovereign funds from abroad that bailed them out. And we had to give up a lot of shares of our ownership. So the largest shareowners in Citibank now are in the Middle East. It should be called the MidEast bank, not the Citibank.”

And so on.

It’s not so much whether the Iraq War was/is justified— you can argue about that till the cows come home— but whether the money could/should have been spent in some other way that would have better protected America’s interests.

This administration— the worst ever. More corrupt than Harding, more obtuse than Buchanan, more profligate than Reagan, more bellicose than Polk (and with fewer results).

It’s the numbers, stupid.

Anonymous March 4, 2008 at 2:04 am

Bleaghh. So much for the concept of reading a blog to follow an author’s writing.

Maybe some day I’ll check back.

dubjay March 4, 2008 at 2:42 am

If you’d gone down exactly one post, you’d have found information about my writing. In fact, there are three posts about writing visible on the front of this blog.

I write about writing a lot. Checking through the archives would confirm that.

But I’m not an ivory-tower sort of writer. I don’t just sit on a velvet cushion dreaming fantasies about wandering swordsmen and talking cats.

I have a complex, busy, and fulfilling life. I travel, I read, I engage with the world and with other human beings. I have ideas and opinions.

You don’t like that, fine. You don’t like my opinions, fine. If you prefer the sort of blog where a writer engages in self-promotion 24/7, fine.

That’s not what I do here.

Laurie Mann March 4, 2008 at 2:43 am

I heard NPR today and am in violent agreement with you, Walter. It’s an important book to tell people about.

halojones-fan March 4, 2008 at 4:30 am

Y’know, you talk as though 3500 people weren’t incinerated on September 11th 2001. You talk as though if we ignore the world then it will ignore us in turn.

Hey, y’know, I spend about $250 a month on diabetes-treatment supplies, and I have since I was fourteen. Clearly my war against diabetes can never be won, and I should just stop fighting it. Of course, I’ll die, but hey–I’ll have an extra $250 every month until I do.

halojones-fan March 4, 2008 at 4:39 am

Oh hey, here’s another fun bit to keep you up at night. The situation you wrote up in “City On Fire” is surprisingly analogous to modern Iraq…foreign adventurer invades, foreign troops keep order, original political parties are banned, new elections, overt meddling by neighboring countries, terrorism…it’s all there.

Let’s just hope that we don’t make the congruence complete by pulling out, watching everything turn to shit, and then re-invading.

dubjay March 4, 2008 at 4:42 am

HJF, it wasn’t Iraq that attacked us on September 11.

As Stiglitz said in a part of the article I didn’t get around to quoting, ‘No, you don’t decide to fight a response to Pearl Harbour on the basis of [economic issues], but when there’s a war of choice, you at least use it to make sure your timing is right, that you’ve done the preparation. And you really ought to do the calculations to see if there are alternative ways that are more effective at getting your objectives.’

Gotta agree with that, dude.

dubjay March 4, 2008 at 4:52 am

Roger your comment on City on Fire, HJF.

Let’s all hope we won’t have to do this again.

RJS March 4, 2008 at 1:28 pm

Well, I at least appreciate the info. Depressing, but not surprising, any of it, except perhaps as they say the sheer scale of it. I hope my children get to look back on these years from a brighter future.

I like the fact that by reading this blog I generally learn something about a variety of subjects in addition to the author.

And speaking of City on Fire, are we ever going to find out what happens next…?

Ethan Reed March 5, 2008 at 1:51 am

JustForeignPolicy.org estimates Iraqi deaths due to the U.S. invasion at over 1,000,000 (one million). IraqBodyCount.org lists documented civilian deaths from violence in Iraq between 81,632 and 89,103. These days, the number I seem to hear most in the media (that is, hardly at all) is around 100,000. There is no commonly accepted “official” count of Iraqi dead, however.

The statistic I see for 9/11 fatalities is either 2,973 or 2,974. No idea what the discrepancy is.

So here’s the thing: Our war has exceeded the 9/11 casualties on all counts–foreigners and US citizens (3,973 deaths confirmed by the DoD as of today, with one more pending) killed–for a world that is friendlier to terrorism now than ever before. Hardly seems like a good deal to me.

But I’m just another pinko commie anarcho-pacifist nut, so what do I know.


halojones-fan March 5, 2008 at 6:58 am

Ah Christ, the “million dead” figure again.

Do you know how they got that? They went to Baghdad and asked a thousand people if they knew anyone who’d died since 2003. They took that number and multiplied it by whatever ratio takes “1000” to the population of Iraq. And even then, they got 700,000 plus-or-minus 300,000; “one million” is actually the top end of the error bar. This is akin to determining average health by going to a hospital and counting the sick people, then assuming that the same proportion applies to the general population.

Incidentally, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported in December 1995, that “more than one million Iraqis have died-567,000 of them children-as a direct consequence of economic sanctions.” So, in other words, our worst possible death toll, with our bombs and guns and mines, is not as many as the UN managed to kill with economic sanctions alone in the same time period. Damn. Those niggers at the UN be some scary motherfuckers, eh?

Ethan Reed March 6, 2008 at 5:12 am

I realized that the JustForeignPolicy.org number is suspect, being based on a survey of Baghdad (though if you bothered to look into the information a little more, you’d see that the original estimate of the study was between 600,000 and 700,000, and that the 1 million mark was JustForeignPolicy.org’s wild-assed guess), which is why I included Iraq Body Count’s tally, which is based entirely upon statistics reported in the international media. Even with IBC’s minimum of 81,632, that’s still approximately 27 times as many fatalities as 9/11, in a country that had nothing to do with the original attack.

As to the UN’s economic sanctions of Iraq, I cannot deny that they were devastating to the country and its people. On the other hand, despite the economic sanctions, Iraq at the time still had a functional government (albeit under a monster like Saddam Hussein), maintained some level of public utilities (certainly more than there are now) and was hardly the spawning pool for religious extremist terrorism as it is today. It’s also important not to forget that those sanctions, which starved so many children and proved so ineffective at disarming Saddam, were spearheaded by the US government.

S.M. Stirling March 7, 2008 at 3:19 am

Than 3 trillion figure is so completely bogus that words cannot express its bogosity — it includes double-counting, irrelevant non-related data and everything else. It’s off by a factor of about 6, minimum.

Purest spin.

S.M. Stirling March 7, 2008 at 3:23 am

Ethan: As to the UN’s economic sanctions of Iraq, I cannot deny that they were devastating to the country and its people.

— no, they weren’t. In Iraqi Kurdistan, which was subject to exactly the same sanctions _but not ruled by Saddam Hussein_, there was _no excess mortality at all_.

In other words, the sanctions caused no casualties. None. Zip. Nada.

Saddam taking the oil-for-food money and spending it on palaces and weapons instead of food and medicine caused the casualities.

Unless, of course, you think it culpable not to provide him with enough money for palaces and weapons (and bribes to French and Soviet politicians) _and_ food.

S.M. Stirling March 7, 2008 at 3:36 am

Ethan: Even with IBC’s minimum of 81,632, that’s still approximately 27 times as many fatalities as 9/11

— so? This has significance… how, exactly?

We killed about 60,000 Taliban and Al Quaeda fighters in Afghanistan in 2001-2 (not to mention about 10-20,000 bystanders) and guess what?

We didn’t stop there either when we passed the 2,900 mark.

War is not a game of tit-for-tat.

It’s an exercise in political coercion through organized mass violence and the threat thereof.

You kill the other side until they give up and do what you want; and they attempt to do the same to you.

Sort of a “they stared it, now we’ll finish it”, thing.

Note also that while policemen are supposed to try to arrest wrongdoers, soldiers are supposed to kill and destroy to enforce obedience to the State for whom they work.

As the signs say at a lot of US bases: “Our mission: to kill people and blow up their stuff.”

You don’t kill people in war because they, as individuals, have done anything wrong — you kill them because they’re _on the other side_.

(Or you kill people who are standing too close to someone on the other side when the area-effect weapon goes off; or you starve them to death by blockade, or whatever. Military force is a blunt instrument.)

If they don’t want to die, they can roll on their backs and wave their paws in the air and scream: I’M WHIPPED! I’M WHIPPED!

Boiled down to essentials, that’s what war is all about — all wars, in all circumstances.

Note that we didn’t stop killing Japanese when we’d matched the several thousand they killed at Pearl Harbour.

We went on and slaughtered their soldiers by the tens and hundres of thousands and starved them to death on bypassed islands and fried whole city-fulls of their civilians alive a hundred thousand in a single night’s raid, topping it off with a couple of nuclear weapons.

Then they gave up, and we stopped. We still have garrisons in Japan 63 years later.

S.M. Stirling March 7, 2008 at 3:54 am

Leaving aside the advisability of the Iraq war, its costs in money and blood have been quite modest, in relation to the size of the US population, armed forces, and economy.

We have a GDP of about $14 trillion and a Federal budget of about $3 trillion and a bit; we spend in the $500+ billion range on ordinary military costs annually — around $552 billion in 2007, working from memory.

The real money cost of the current conflicts is probably somewhere in the 100-200 billion range annually, at most, counting all added expenses but not the peacetime ones (like pay and depreciation on equipment).

The US is not a heavily taxed country; our central government spends about 25% of the GDP all up, as compared to about twice that in most EU nations. Nor is our national debt large by global standards, as a percentage of GDP.

So the money cost is quite trivial.

In terms of military casualties, our net losses to date have been lower than we’ve suffered from natural causes over the same time period, assuming that the 1.5 million troops we maintain in our standing armed forces have the same mortality rate as the same age-groups in the general population.

In other words, someone who joined up in 2001 would have been more likely to die of a heart attack, cancer, stroke or traffic accident than enemy action in the interim. Even in Iraq, non-combatant losses in theater have been a substantial proportion of the total.

dubjay March 7, 2008 at 4:05 am

Steve, you can’t say that the three trillion figure is bogus, and then say that the amount is trivial given the size of our economy.

Even the White House accepted the three trillion figure. This from their spokesman:

“One can’t even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9/11. It is also an investment in the future safety and security of Americans and our vital national interests. $3 trillion? What price does Joe Stiglitz put on attacks on the homeland that have already been prevented? Or doesn’t his slide rule work that way?”

Ethan Reed March 8, 2008 at 1:24 am

Mr. Stirling,

I was unaware of the differences between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baathist Iraq during the economic sanctions. It certainly outlines what a monstrous dictator Saddam Hussein was. On the other hand, a strange paradox still persists: if it was clear that Saddam was still able to pour funds into his military, and that all the economic sanctions were achieving was the corrupt diversion of funds from food to military purposes and thus mass starvation of the poor and children, then why were the sanctions continued and even heightened, at the United States’ insistence?

I’m inclined to blame incompetence for much of it, to be honest, along with apathy, but those are explanations, not excuses. We cannot control the actions of others, only of ourselves. We may attempt to influence those actions, but ultimately, the actual doing is not in our hands. The same analogy can be extended to government, especially in a democracy like the United States.

I agree ninety-nine percent with your description of war. However, I do not see what in it justifies the unwarranted brutality unleashed by America, or the fact that Iraq has been destroyed despite having nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks that started this whole merry-go-round. One does not simply kill one’s enemies; the goals should be more precise. One doesn’t wish to kill so many that it entrenches them and convinces them to dig in completely, unless one is willing to commit to killing so many that their society crumbles. Are we truly so eager to slaughter that many Iraqis?

In any case, my point is that this war is wrong, and we ought to be able to see that, and try to stop it.

As to the casualties in Iraq–did you take the natural-cause losses to the entire 1.5 million military population in account in addition to the Iraq War casualties? Because we only have 140,000-some troops in Iraq at any given moment–and I know military people who have never been and likely never will be to either Iraq or Afghanistan, unless their job descriptions change severely.

(Now, this is all assuming one believes the world ought be governed by morality. If one does not, and I certainly understand that viewpoint more than I want to, then pretty much all of what I’ve said is irrelevant.

I’m still waiting for someone to explain why, when Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, and none of the WMDs we were so convinced they had, the brutal war we’ve brought there was justified.

Incidentally, Mr. Williams, this ain’t my blog, so if you’d rather folk not carry on a political debate in your comments section, I’ll happily shut the hell up and restrict myself to [sad attempts at] on-topic witty comments to your other posts.

I feel I’ve left something out… oh, well, lots of eagle eyes to point it out to me… thank god there are writers here…:)

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