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The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict Hardcover – February 17, 2008
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Readers may be surprised to learn just how difficult it was for Nobel Prize-winning economist Stiglitz and Kennedy School of Government professor Bilmes to dig up the actual and projected costs of the Iraq War for this thorough piece of accounting. Using "emergency" funds to pay for most of the war, the authors show that the White House has kept even Congress and the Comptroller General from getting a clear idea on the war's true costs. Other expenses are simply overlooked, one of the largest of which is the $600 billion going toward current and future health care for veterans. These numbers reveal stark truths: improvements in battlefield medicine have prevented many deaths, but seven soldiers are injured for every one that dies (in WWII, this ratio was 1.6 to one). Figuring in macroeconomic costs and interest-the war has been funded with much borrowed money-the cost rises to $4.5 trillion; add Afghanistan, and the bill tops $7 trillion. This shocking expose, capped with 18 proposals for reform, is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how the war was financed, as well as what it means for troops on the ground and the nation's future.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Linda J. Bilmes, of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, is an expert in government finance. She is a former assistant secretary and chief financial officer of the U.S. Department of Commerce.
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The authors make their bias known at the start of the book. They believe that going to war in Iraq was wrong. They give reasons for their position with each chapter of the book outlining the costs of the war in many ways the reader might not even thought of. In order to neutralize their bias, they also present the figures and conclusions in two ways: a best-case scenario, and a rational-realistic one. The former is to err on the side of a conservative supporting view of the war, and the latter is to project what they believe are the true costs of war.
Those costs are measured on the nation's budget, the cost of caring for our veterans, and the costs of war that the government doesn't pay. These topics alone don't sound like political or economic thrillers. While there was a great deal of interesting observations in these chapters, the authors' frequent analyses and charts gave the book a sobering, academic tone.
The last three chapters had me with my highlighter at the ready: the macroeconomic effect of the conflicts, the global consequences, exiting Iraq, and learning from our mistakes got my heart pounding as if it was a Stephen King novel. One question kept coming to mind as I turned each page: why didn't the Bush administration anticipate any of these problems? From my almost daily obsession with the war, it was clear that the issues raised here were never a consideration.
Authors, Stiglitz and Bilmes make the case that war has a multiplier effect. The true costs are not just what it costs to maintain war. It will cost us in the trillions (hence the title) to care for our veterans for years to come, and the cost of their value to society that we will never realize because they are buried. The military will have a multiplier effect, because they will not only have to sustain their budget, but replace it to prewar levels, not to mention rebuilding reserve and guard units. What the government will not provide for will be the burden of the wife, husband, father, mother, brother or sister who require around the clock care that government will not pay for, or will take way too long in processing the claim, and offer way too little if it approves. This is more productivity lost.
What is equally stunning is the trust and popularity that nations once had for the United States has plummeted, even in nations that are our traditional allies, or nations whose cooperation we paid for to join the Coalition of the Willing. Some of these nations rank the U.S. as a greater threat than they do North Korea. This is especially true of Iraqis who saw our troops immediately protect the oil ministry while 6,000 years of antiquities were looted. Faced with the choice of fighting for an occupier or an insurgency, the choice is easy. The U.S. failed to provide law and order, or revive the economy, or end unemployment. We tortured innocent Iraqis as well as insurgents. Why not fight for an insurgency that will torture you only if you fight the occupier?
Stiglitz and Bilmes show us clearly how the cost of this war will continue for decades. 1993 marked the highest expenditure of medical treatment for World War II veterans. We are currently paying 52 billion a year in compensation for those disabled or injured from the first Gulf War where the deaths were approximately 147 troops. With seven injuries for every combat death, a survival rate far higher than Korea or even Vietnam, think of how much and how long we will be paying for a war in which we have almost 5,000 dead and thousands more with severe injuries such as brain damage and loss of limbs.
It is clear that the Congress failed to provide the proper checks and balances on a president determined to go to war. The president also bypassed the budgetary process and hid the true cost of war by getting more money through supplemental budgets that are not scrutinized. Our Defense Department keeps its books on a "cash accounting" basis rather than an accrual one which only covers current costs, not the cost of replacements that will be necessary.
This book easily makes one of my all-time best books for political or economic thoroughness. Why? Because it makes you realize that the true cost of war is not a cost in just the present. It is a morass that continues to strap the strength and energy of a nation. This book makes me realize what I learned a long time ago about Vietnam, a lesson learned and a lesson forgotten in just a little over three decades.
This book provides a lesson that is too important to be ignored--again.
The Arrogance of Power
THE IRAQ STUDY GROUP REPORT BY JAMES A. BAKER, III, AND LEE H. HAMILTON, CO-CHAIRS
The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity--and What We Can Do About It
Ten Trillion and Counting
Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and StickYou with the Bill)
The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (American Empire Project)
Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War (American Empire Project)
The authors note that four factors have pushed increased direct spending in Iraq and Afghanistan and, overall, the GWOT (Global War on Terrorism): costs of increased number of troops; rising cost of personnel (military forces plus contractors); increasing cost of fuel; keeping equipment in working condition and replacing deteriorated equipment. However, the authors also note that these direct costs of the conflict understate what the actual cost is (and will be). The costs not showing up in official budget numbers: cost of over 4,000 dead troops; the large number of casualties and the care that will be needed to address their injuries; interest payments on the borrowing for the war. They also note that it is difficult to calculate actual costs because the national government accounting system is phony, and would not be tolerated in the private sector. The "cash accounting" system actually hides future costs. They conclude their estimate that the real costs of the war will be around $3 trillion.
As they estimate costs in area after area, they note that (Page 55) "There is a simple message in this book, one that needs to be repeated over and over again: there is no free lunch, and there are no free wars." Pages 57-59 lay out their estimated budgetary costs of the war, category by category.
Following chapters examine issues such as the cost of caring for veterans, costs of war that the government doesn't pay (e.g., lost productive capacity of those Americans killed or seriously wounded or suffering mental health problems, and so on), macroeconomic effects of the war (e.g., rising price of oil, opportunity costs of funds not being available for other socially useful projects, borrowing for the war crowds out money available for domestic investment [the tally of such costs shows up on page 130]), other costs imposed on the global community (e.g., costs to Great Britain).
They conclude with a series of lessons that they believe should lead to reforms, to reduce the odds of such an "adventure" in the future. Some of the suggestions are budgetary, others are structural (making sure that Congress has accurate and relevant information so that it can serve its original role on checks and balances with the President).
This is a good book in that it provides what seem to be some reasonable estimates of the actual cost of the war. There are some problems, though, too. For one, there is at some places political naiveté. For instance, among opportunity costs, they cite the less money is available for important policies such as education, roads, and research. Question: Would such funding be provided, given the political currents in the United States? The fact that funds might be freed up does not mean that they will be spent on such projects as those noted by the authors. Also, their critical orientation toward the President and war almost automatically mean that some readers will turn off in terms of considering the many useful aspects of their work. Finally, while I am not overly optimistic about the end result of our Iraqi involvement, to say that it and must be a failure is a bit too cocky a statement to me. I am pessimistic, but none of us can foresee the future. . . .
Anyhow, this is an important work, rather dry in its style but readable enough.
The authors have not only quantified the cost of the conflict but also provided with reforms to make war costs more accountable and to prevent the government from being able to hide the great amount of the cost and deferring it to the next generations.
The authors estimates of costs are meticulous, well supported and extremely unsettling. They point out no serious economist still thinks wars are good for the economy and the facts point to this war being even less so because it's being fought on a credit card. The authors even get into the taxpayer fleecing condoned by the administrations active support of no bid contracts extended to a favored few.
A sobering read.