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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

September 23, 2014 at 10:18 AM

Opportunity costs of endless war

According to one defense analyst’s estimate, the United States spent about $100 million in three weeks of limited airstrikes against the Islamic State. Another tally says taxpayers are shelling out $312,500 every hour for action against the group.

Now that our Nobel Peace Prize laureate president has decided on a much longer campaign over Syria, the price tag will climb.

The geopolitics are shaky. Writing on Project Syndicate, Brahma Chellaney made the point that, “America’s war on terror now risks becoming a permanent war against an expanding list of enemies – often inadvertently created by its own policies.” Social critic Jim Kunstler was more blunt: “In my lifetime, the USA has not blundered into a more incoherent, feckless, and unfavorable foreign policy quandary than we see today…

Does any tattoo-free American adult outside the Kardashian-NFL mass hypnosis matrix feel confident about the trajectory of US policy regarding the so-called Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL)? First, there is the astonishing humiliation that this ragtag band of psychopaths managed to undo ten years, 4,500 US battle deaths, and $1+ trillion worth of nation-building effort in Iraq in a matter of a few weeks this summer. The US public does not seem to have groked the damage to our honor, self-confidence, and international standing in this debacle.

And our economy. Brown University scholars estimate that $4.4 trillion has been spent or obligated in American military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2001. While this has been a windfall for a limited number of defense contractors, imagine what it could have bought at home?

Better pay for teachers. Shoring up the safety net. Infrastructure investments such as high-speed rail, conventional rail and transit, as well as fixing existing roads and bridges (The American Society of Civil Engineers gives U.S. infrastructure a D+, with $3.6 trillion needed by 2020). Reversing the decline of federal support for science and research. Seeding new industries to address climate change. Environmental protection. Cleaning up the public lands. It’s a potentially very long list. War spending doesn’t create many jobs by comparison.

The opportunity costs don’t stop there. The armed forces are worn down by these adventures that only make things worse. Meanwhile, the Navy is struggling to pay for replacing its Ohio-class ballistic missile subs (some are based at Bangor) while still affording a survivable surface fleet. That leaves us in a bad position when a real war with a peer adversary comes.

Our leaders fail to heed the rule of holes: When in a hole, stop digging.

Tuesday Reading: Germany’s green energy is an expensive success | Bloomberg

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Let’s stop inversions

Customers can make their choice

And force a reverse


Comments | More in Defense | Topics: Iraq, ISIS, war


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