Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Risks and Costs of War

Imminant Threat

As I have read the news recently, I have had a question running around in my head. It seems to be an obvious question – a question that would pop into the heads of most people. Yet, I do not read of anybody asking this question.

The question comes from news that Iran has announced that it has the capacity to produce enriched uranium – at least, uranium enriched to the point where it is useful for producing nuclear power. To accomplish this, they are centrifuges running. It has a supply of uranium. In spite of having all of this, we are told that Iran is a good 10 years away from making an atomic bomb.

Now, I think back three years. We were told that Iraq may perhaps be trying to acquire uranium. We had weapons inspectors in the country who could find no sign of centrifuges or any of the other infrastructure that could be used in making a bomb. Yet, we were told that we had to invade Iraq right away, because we did not want the ‘smoking gun’ to take the form of a mushroom cloud.

Maybe somebody can explain to me how these two stories fit together. How can a country with a working atomic infrastructure creating enriched uranium be of no immediate concern, while a country with no evidence of an infrastructure and only rumors of an unsuccessful attempt to acquire uranium can be an imminent threat?

Are we, perhaps, seeing sign of an administration that draws whatever conclusions suits its purpose from the available evidence?

Let's simply quit pretending that Iraq ever was an imminent threat. The Bush Administration wanted to attack Iraq for other reasons, and they did not want us to attack them for an immoral and unprincipled act of naked aggression. They filled our lives with fear so that we would cower and say to them, "Oh, protect us from this menace, great leader." Here, have our power, our wealth, and our blood. The Bush Administration used what we gave them, of course, though they did not use our blood, our freedom, and our livelihood to protect us from any real threat.

Let’s quit pretending that, with each new discovery, we have uncovered the "smoking gun" that proves that the Bush Administration deceived and manipulated the American people into war. It will take decades for historians to tag and catalogue all of the smoking guns already found.

The question is hardly even worthy of debate any more. The only debate left is: What are we going to do about it?

Opportunity Costs

Next, we can turn our attention to the cost of this project. When it comes to talking about costs, we have an annoying habit of only looking at the cost in terms of American (taxpayer) money and Americans killed or wounded. I try, at least, to always mention the Iraqi casualties. However, nobody has told us what those numbers are. We are left to guess – as if Iraqi casualties really are not worth counting.

This does not include the people of Iraq who are maimed, and the destruction of property, and the money and blood that other countries have poured into this campaign, both in the form of direct contributions, and in the form of forgiven debts.

Even here, we are counting only the money and lives paid out of pocket and what could have been done with it. We must add the cost of medical care for the wounded, and the lost production that those fighting the war, those who are killed, and those who are wounded would have produced as workers.

When it comes to computing costs, economists tell us that the most accurate way to do this is to look at foregone opportunities. To illustrate the economist’s concept of cost, imagine that you have $1000. You have two options. Option 1 is to donate it to Person A, as a gift. Option 2 is to lend it to Person B for five minutes, who will hand back $1100 when he is done. According to the economist, what is the cost to you of making a $1000 gift to Person A?

The right answer is: $1100.

(Or, more precisely, the net present value of $1100 times the risk. However, we can ignore these complexities. Let us just assume that Person B will pay the money back quickly and with no risk.)

That is the cost of donating $1000 to Person A.

What is the cost of the Iraq War? To determine the cost, we need to look at what else we could have done with that money and with those lives.

For example, I was watching a PBS special called, “Malaria: Fever Wars” the other day. In the show, it was suggested that malaria could be brought under control for $3 billion per year.

Malaria kills 700,000 people per year, and sickens millions of others. Let us attribute all of the deaths in the Iran-Iraq War and the First Persian Gulf war to Saddam Hussein (an accurate account), plus the number of people in his own country that he had executed. Let us be liberal and add a large number simply because we do not want to understate the case. A figure of 2,000,000 should cover everybody. Saddam Hussein was still a far smaller threat to the people of the world than malaria. By devoting our energy to this killer, we let a much more deadly killer go free.

I pulled this number out of a hat, by the way. The Iran-Iraq War claimed 1 million lives. I could not find anybody claiming that Saddam Hussein was responsible for more than a few hundred thousand deaths outside of the war, so this seems like a safe number.

So, for the cost of the Iraq war, we could have prevented half of these deaths and countless millions of people from getting sick (with the loss of productivity and the increased poverty this brings with it), and had hundreds of billions of dollars left over. In fact, we would have even more money than that, according to The World Bank. They estimate that malaria costs Africa $12 billion per year in lost productivity, yielding what most investors would consider to be a highly favorable return on a $3 billion per year investment.

Leaving that issue aside, using the economists’ way of computing costs, we can honestly claim to be suffering 350,000 casualties per year because of the war – because we chose to fight the lesser of two evils.

Plus, we would have had huge amounts of money left over.

When we talk about the cost of this lie – the cost to the world, including the opportunities to have done good deeds elsewhere that would have saved lives, promoted good health, and reduced poverty – we should recognize that lives and cash tell us only part of the answer. Sticking strictly to costs in terms of lives and cash (and only American lives and American cash at that) seriously underestimates how much damage this war is actually doing to the people of this planet.

These are the considerations that rational people use in deciding where to commit resources. Irrational people use other means for making their decision. They pray for guidance or they go with what feels good to them to determine right from wrong. As we see, it is a very unreliable method, resulting in the commitment to hundreds of billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives to campaigns that produce far worse results than a reasonable alternative could have provided.

Let there be no mistake. I have often written in favor of removing Saddam Hussein from power. The costs that I mentioned above are real, and well worth our concern. I was in favor of the war in principle. Iraq is filled with real people who deserve better lives than Saddam Hussein was willing to provide them. My only objection was that our leaders lacked the competence to do the job efficiently.

In Fairness

In fairness, I must say that the expected cost of the war, for those who started it, was to be much less than it turned out to be. Accordingly, the most of controlling malaria is an estimate. Once the project got started, these estimates also might have been found to be too low. These caveats add some measure of uncertainty to the points I raised above. I felt obligated to mention them.

1 comment:

Hume's Ghost said...

When Murray Waas reported that President Bush was given a NIE that concluded Iraq was not an imminent threat, and would not be a threat, UNLESS we invaded, that should have been all the smoking gun the American public needed.