The $5 trillion wars

Roundup
tags: Iraq, Afghanistan, war



Linda J. Bilmes is a senior lecturer in public policy at Harvard University and coauthor, with Joseph E. Stiglitz, of “The Three Trillion Dollar War.”

This October marks 15 years since American troops entered Afghanistan. It was a precursor to the occupation of Iraq and is the longest military conflict in US history. Yet the trillions of dollars and thousands of lives expended in these wars have rated barely a mention in the presidential campaign. 

The most recent estimates suggest that war costs will run to nearly $5 trillion — a staggering sum that exceeds even the $3 trillion that Joseph Stiglitz and I predicted back in 2008.

Yet the cost seems invisible to politicians and the public alike. The reason is that almost all of the spending has been financed through borrowing — selling US Treasury Bonds around the world — leaving our children to pick up the tab. Consequently, the wars have had little impact on our pocketbooks. 

In earlier wars, the government routinely raised taxes, slashed nonmilitary spending, and sold war bonds. Taxes were raised to pay for the Spanish-American War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War I and World War II. Top rates of federal income taxes climbed to 70 percent during Vietnam and to over 90 percent during the Korean War. These policies were all part of an explicit strategy of engaging the American public in the war efforts. In sharp contrast, the George W. Bush administration cut taxes after the invasion of Afghanistan, in 2001 and again, in 2003, when we invaded Iraq. Most Americans pay lower taxes now than they did 15 years ago.

Congress has also managed to avoid painful budgetary choices. Since 2001, Congress has employed a series of so-called “temporary special appropriations” to authorize hundreds of billions of dollars for war spending, bypassing the regular spending process. Despite President Obama’s pledge to end such “gimmicks,” they have continued throughout his presidency. Thus the money appropriated for the post-9/11 wars did not have to be traded off against other spending priorities. The war appropriation also gets far less scrutiny than the regular defense budget. Consequently, the war budget has become a magnet for pet nonwar spending projects that senators and congressmen want to slip in under the radar. As a consequence, the reported war cost per troop deployed has ballooned from $1 million per year at the peak of the fighting in 2008 to $4.9 million today. ...




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