[OPE-L] A short critique of "one-eyed" accounting for war costs (or what I would say about it, if I was Paul Krugman)

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Tue Nov 13 2007 - 15:57:05 EST

The Democrats just released a report which confirms Joseph Stiglitz's findings on the costs of the illegal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (in a range of $1 to 2$ trillion):

"The economic costs to the United States of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so far total approximately $1.5 trillion, according to a new study by congressional Democrats that estimates the conflicts' "hidden costs"-- including higher oil prices, the expense of treating wounded veterans and interest payments on the money borrowed to pay for the wars. (...) The report argues that war funding is diverting billions of dollars away from "productive investment" by American businesses in the United States. It also says that the conflicts are pulling reservists and National Guardsmen away from their jobs, resulting in economic disruptions for U.S. employers that the report estimates at $1 billion to $2 billion." http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/11/12/AR2007111202008.html?nav%3Dhcmodule&sub=ARnd 
The value of this report is, that it highlights once more that US taxpayers foot the bill  (the bulk of tax is payroll tax), and that if, in addition, Iran was attacked, they would pay even more, not in the least because of skyrocketing oil prices. However I think it is "one-eyed" to present things in the way the report does, for three main reasons.

(1) The first reason is that, for every cost incurred in the balance sheet, there is also a corresponding INCOME for someone. The report does not delve into the beneficiaries of the war, with an account which shows who really got the money, or how much is lost or unaccounted for. After all, companies and individuals make money from the war, there are war profits. An unknown amount of cash (at least hundreds of millions of dollars) also simply "disappeared". The approach taken by the Democrats to war costs might be considered logical, because in America's pseudo-democratic plutocracy, the Democrats themselves depend on the financial and political support of big business, including arms dealers who are now plumping en masse for Hilary Clinton with financial support. 

(2) A second oversight is that the growth of "productive investment" has been rather lacklustre anyway in the US, a large mass of capital now being tied up in speculative investments, non-productive properties or rent-seeking operations (financial assets, luxuries and real estate owned by a relatively small group of people). The end result of all the "financial intermediation", "international intervention" and "globalisation" is that the value of actual output of tangible goods and services meeting real human needs isn't growing very much anymore in aggregate within the US, and that more consumables are being imported, instead of produced at home. The Boston Globe, usually a flagship of educated employer opinion, raised the question: "What can $611 billion buy?" and provides a slide show for your pleasure here: http://www.boston.com/news/nation/gallery/251007war_costs/

(3) The final problem with the Democrats' report is of course that it does not account for the costs - financial and human costs - inflicted on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan in the first instance, and additionally the costs imposed on other nations who are party to the war, notably Britain but also e.g. where I live, Holland. We are talking trillions of dollars in total, and millions of people either killed before their time, maimed, sick, deformed, hungry, unemployed, put out of house and home, or exiled. 

So really this report is a strictly American view of the problem, which touts the "national interest" in what has in truth been an international operation all along, affecting many countries. Globalisation is a funny thing you know, because if it suits them, the politicians talk about "the interests of the international community", and if it suits them, they talk about "the national interest", which is to say that what the true interests are, is obscured, and maybe even uncertain. They necessarily talk this gobbledygook, because what is in the interest of one social class is not at all in the interest of another.

Historians of the British empire, ridiculing Marxist interpretations of "capitalist imperialism", have often pointed out that, in reality, this empire cost more money than the British got out of it. In that case, what has imperialism got to do with "capitalist profits" and the "accumulation of capital"? 

Analogously, you might argue that the imperial sacrifices in Iraq and Afghanistan achieved very little tangible benefit for Americans, other than giving the military business extra budgets and some more target practice (as the elites well know, the quality of an army is only as good as its combat experience). The wars did not even improve America's political standing in the Middle East, to the contrary, many surveys indicate America lost most of what popularity it had. Instead of making America stronger, it bled America. 

But that sort of interpretation obviously depends very much on how you do your accounting. The money obtained from taxpayers and spent by the British Government to maintain its empire did enrich a lot of people, who received that money as income from imperial business, and therefore had a vested interest in it. Similarly, the recent American military adventures generated a gigantic revenue stream, which many entrepreneurs were only too glad to take advantage of, "riding the gravy train" as it were. It is just that the people fronting up the money, and the people pocketing it, happen to be - for the most part - different sets of people. Since the Democratic plutocrats are busy trying to unite "all of America" under a different banner, you can of course hardly expect them to focus on this partisan reality.

On the whole, I have to say that I find the mentioned report exudes a one-eyed, disconcertingly cynical view of human life on earth, a sort of pomo metaphor gone mad. What are we really saying, if we say that the wars cost the average American family of four $20,000? What is the moral message here? That "wars are expensive", these days? 

When the American polity opted to embark on these wars, they knew very well that if they did this, they committed themselves to a longterm, problem-fraught occupation. And they said so explicitly, with references to a "permanent war" without an end in sight, to be fought "whatever it takes". A permanent war is of course unwinnable, precisely because it is permanent, it's always there, just as in George Orwell's 1984. They never had any intention of pulling back the troops just because the war, for the moment, did not happen to evolve in their favour. Hence the disputes have only ever been about how many troops should stay, and how many should leave, or what level of war effort is sustainable.

Those whom John Pilger styled "the new rulers of the world" in one of his books try to remake the world after their own image. They want more people to be like themselves, and by golly they can clone themselves too, all over the globe. It's like, they are the imperial Gods, and because they are the Gods, their ways may be "mysterious", transcending ordinary human understandings. The more mystery there is, the more they start talking religion, and vice versa. But if you open both your eyes, the mystery disappears. They just show you only one side of the ledger. 

The last word on this belongs to the Iraqi blogger "Riverbend", now exiled in Syria. She recently commented wrily:

"Foreign occupation and being a part of a puppet government - those things are ok. Football, however, will be the end of civilization as we know it, according to [Shiite resistance leader] Muqtada. It's amusing - they look nothing alike - yet he reminds me so much of Bush. He can barely string two sentences together properly and yet, millions of people consider his word law. So when Bush raves about the new 'fledgling Iraqi government' 'freely elected' into power, you can take a look at Muqtada and see one of the fledglings. He is currently one of the most powerful men in the country for his followers. So this is democracy. This is one of the great minds of Bush's democratic Iraq. Sadr's militia control parts of Iraq now. Just a couple of days ago, his militia, with the help of Badr, were keeping women from visiting the market in the southern city of Karbala. Women weren't allowed in the marketplace and shop owners were complaining that their businesses were suffering. Welcome to the new Iraq. It's darkly funny to see what we've turned into, and it is also anguishing. Muqtada Al-Sadr is a measure of how much we've regressed these last three years. Even during the Iran-Iraq war and the sanctions, people turned to sports to keep their mind off of day-to-day living. After the occupation, we won a football match against someone or another and we'd console ourselves with "Well we lose wars - but we win football!" From a country that once celebrated sports - football (soccer) especially - to a country that worries if the male football players are wearing long enough shorts or whether all sports fans will face eternal damnation. That's what we've become."  http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com/


This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Fri Nov 30 2007 - 00:00:03 EST