(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014: Iraq Redux", please click here.
And click here to read the entire “The (Opportunity) Costs of Security” series.)
Last week, I asked, “Did we consider the opportunity costs of the first Iraq War?” The answer was, “No.”
But I limited myself to only considering the opportunity costs of spending our “war capital”, the vague combination of American morale/enthusiasm for war. When we go to war we also spend real financial capital. War costs money. And that money has opportunity costs of its own.
The worst part of over-hyping of the ISIS threat is that it will lead America into another war without questioning the costs or considering these opportunity costs. According to some estimates, a new Iraq war could cost billions (with a B). (It’s already cost at least a billion dollars.)
How did it get so high? Well, every aircraft carrier costs millions to operate in a war posture. Every deployed soldier costs tens of thousands of dollars. Every contractor costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. Every cruise missile costs tens of thousands of dollars. Every plane in the sky requires extra maintenance. This totals out to nearly $300,000 for every hour were at war with ISIS.
And America might spend billions more to defeat ISIS. As I referenced last week, fiscally conservative Republicans suddenly become drunken soldiers at the strip club when it comes to fighting wars. So we need to have a conversation about opportunity costs. Here are my biggest candidates for how America could have spent a billion dollars instead of fighting ISIS.
Finally, a caveat: I only wanted to think about foreign policy spending, because frankly, we’d be here all day if we wrote about ways military spending could be converted into domestic spending. (Vaccinations, infrastructure, and so on.)
Paying Down the Debt
Somehow, when it comes to federal spending, wars and military spending don’t seem to count. Famously, the first war in Iraq was the first time America went to war and lowered taxes instead of raising them. As Eric C wrote in his comment on last Monday’s post, in 2008, whenever Republicans accused Democrats of raising the debt with proposed stimulus programs, all he could think about was constantly increasing defense spending, intelligence spending increases after 9/11, and the ginormous cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, without a dime raised in taxes to cover these costs.
An opportunity cost of the first Iraq war, in monetary terms, was not saving money for stimulus in case the economy crashed. Which happened five years after the first war started.
How much have the post 9/11 wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries cost so far? At least $1.5 trillion, according to James Fallows. According to Linda J. Bilmes, the price tag could reach up to $4 to 6 trillion, factoring in associated military costs and veteran's benefits.
But we shouldn’t live in the past. Let’s look to the future. And the very simple calculation every politician should make is whether it is more important for America to pay down its debt (now and in the future) or to fight another war in the Middle East. Maybe the current billion dollar price tag won’t break the bank, but it would help.
Leading the World in the Sustainable Development Goals
Later this year, the U.N. will replace the Millenium Development Goals--that were moderately successful--with the Sustainable Development Goals. The U.S. could really cement its leadership of the world by vowing to spend 1.0% of its GDP on foreign aid and development. (The current global target is 0.7% of GDP.) The U.S. currently spends 0.19% of its GDP on foreign aid. (Despite the perception that the US spends 25 to 30% of the federal budget on foreign aid, it spends about 2%.) We could even do it with business friendly tactics like direct aid, small business loans, and venture capital support. But the U.S. would rather spend a billion dollars on war funding than getting people out of poverty.
Or Leading the World on Climate Change
If you’ve been reading/following any of the Economist’s year ahead coverage, you know that later this year the world’s leaders are meeting in Paris for a summit on climate change. While the U.S. and China have taken a step on the path to confronting climate change by agreeing to terms, the U.S. could do even more by helping developing countries confront climate change. Financially, developing countries face a tougher burden developing green energy; strategically, this is the best way to stop carbon pollution.
Again, this would require hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, and it would require the Senate to ratify a treaty (more on that next week), but it is a real option. And it is possibly much more dangerous than ISIS.
Finally, let’s close with a way we could have really helped people last year. What if I told you that Ebola could have been stopped before it became an epidemic. You would probably say, “Well, yeah, I read about that in the The New York Times, how poor communication led to an epidemic.”
And you’d be right.
Frankly, America has some of the best health care professionals in the world. If we had an extra billion dollars to spend on helping people abroad, I wish we’d spent much more, much sooner in Africa. Perhaps we could have tracked the spread of the disease more effectively, preventing the tragic lack of communication that led to the deaths of tens of thousands. We would have actually saved lives, built up good will, and come across as a nation interested in helping people.
Now that sounds like a smart way to spend money.