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Our view: Taxpayers have the right to an accurate accounting

A couple of economists weren’t convinced that the total cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was accurate. So they decided to do the math. What they found was a figure six times higher than the latest government estimate of $500 billion.

It’s more like $3 trillion. That’s $3,000,000,000,000, which is enough to patch the looming Social Security shortfall for 50 years. And if you add the costs of care for the veterans of those wars, it’s $5 trillion to $7 trillion.

This exercise in mathematics by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes was forcefully denounced by the Bush administration. Said White House spokesman Tony Fratto:

“People like Joe Stiglitz lack the courage to consider the cost of doing nothing and the cost of failure. One can’t even begin to put a price tag on the cost to this nation of the attacks of 9/11.”

Though overly aggressive, he has a point. Such a calculation doesn’t factor in the benefits of the wars, but that will be for historians and future generations to judge. In the meantime, it makes perfect sense to get an accurate accounting of how much the nation is spending.

The administration itself put out an estimate before the invasion of Iraq, though it was wildly off the mark. In 2002, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsay told the Wall Street Journal the war would cost $100 billion to $200 billion. But that number was quickly retracted and replaced with an estimate of $50 billion, along with the prospect that oil revenues from Iraq would underwrite the majority of reconstruction costs.

Those figures are an embarrassment to the administration today, but that’s no reason to conceal the truth. Apart from the actual total, what’s also disconcerting is how difficult it was for Stiglitz and Bilmes to collect the data. They faced roadblock after roadblock.

For instance, the Defense Department makes public the number of fatalities, whether in combat or not. But for injuries, it lists only the combat-related figure. To unearth the number of troops hurt because of accidents, training, illness, etc., the duo had to file a formal public records request.

This is significant because the injury-to-fatality ratio for these wars is 7 to 1, which is much higher than the 3 to 1 or 2 to 1 ratios of previous wars. That’s great news, but all of those wounded troops require health care, which is expensive. It’s important to know these facts as leaders hammer out future budgets. Without an honest accounting, it’s easy to see how veterans would get shortchanged as the wars fade from the nation’s memory.

So it’s not the people who tote up these expenses who need courage. It’s the leaders who are afraid to look at the numbers and deal with the ramifications.


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