Meanwhile, the War

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published March 19, 2008, issue of March 28, 2008.
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Meanwhile, the war.

Iraq, that is, driven from the front pages by the economy, by the presidential campaign, by Eliot Spitzer, driven from public consciousness by all those plus the lies, the deceptions, most of all the pointlessness of thinking about it since President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney and the rest are plainly not going to change their minds.

But very soon now, a day or two before these words appear in print or a day or two later, the 4,000th American soldier serving in Iraq will be killed and the 30,000th will be wounded, according to Defense Department estimates. (As I write, we are at 3,988 dead.)

So let us pause, now that the war has been going on for five years. Let us pause to reflect not only on the pain and the fear and the trauma. (As to “trauma,” Bush, in a March 13 live teleconference with American personnel in Afghanistan, had this to say: “I must say, I’m a little envious. If I were slightly younger and not employed here, I think it would be a fantastic experience to be on the front lines of helping this young democracy succeed. It must be exciting for you… in some ways romantic, in some ways, you know, confronting danger. You’re really making history, and thanks.”)

Let us pause instead to reflect on money — specifically, on the $522.5 billion the war has cost so far, or, if you have the stomach for it, the $745.7 billion it will likely have cost by the end of fiscal year 2009. (These data are based on the federal budget, as compiled and analyzed by the National Priorities Project).

I’ve never been much given to the trade-off way of thinking about such numbers — as, for example, by being told how many new schools could be built and old schools refurbished for the cost of one battleship — but the president’s proposed budget makes such trade-offs virtually impossible to ignore.

It turns out that for fiscal year 2009, the president has proposed cuts in more than 100 programs of aid to state and local governments, cuts that total $19.2 billion. Of the cuts, these at a time when states and cities are dealing with terrifying deficits — in California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget calls for a $4.4 billion cut in public education— my favorite is the proposed cut of $321.9 million in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance program.

If there were real truth in labeling, that proposed cut would be entitled “The Just When Home-Heating Oil Prices Are Spiking Through Record Levels Deficit Avoidance and Responsibility Evasion Adjustment.” For the record, when the war began, oil was selling for $25 a barrel; now, of course, it is over $100 a barrel.

Some details, all projected through fiscal year 2009: New York State’s costs for the war come to $66.9 billion; the cuts to its programs come to $210.2 million; for Texas, costs are $61.0 billion, cuts are $136.5 million. (Notice anything fishy here? New York’s costs for the war are a bit under 10% higher than those of Texas; its cuts are 64% higher.)

So here’s the question: At what point do Americans recognize that there is a relationship between the costs of the war and the state of the economy?

The answer is: Most likely, never. And one reason for that is that Congress will do what it can to ignore the linkage, since most members of Congress — John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama among them — have voted again and again to fund the war. So maintain the illusion that these are different trains on different tracks, lest people come to realize that the economic hurricane that is now gathering and will soon be a Category Six, more punishing and of course more widespread than Katrina at its worst, is not only the product of the sub-prime lending scandal but also of the war for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way scandal.

As the Nobel-wining economist Joseph Stiglitz, who has studied the costs of the Iraq war more closely than just about anyone, puts it, “we don’t have two issues in this campaign — we have one issue. Or at least, the two are very, very closely linked together.”

In Stiglitz’s view, the war will cost $3 trillion. He includes in that figure the death benefits paid to the families of fallen soldiers and the costs of healthcare of wounded veterans for the next 50 years. He includes as well a trillion dollars in interest payments over just the next 10 years on the money we’ve borrowed to fund the war.

In the meantime, the president continues to insist that his tax cuts, of principal benefit to the wealthiest Americans, should be made permanent. In the meantime, the average income of CEOs at the top 30 military contractors was, in 2006, $9,095,756.

It has often been remarked that one reason the impact of the war has not registered on the electorate as much as it might have is that we’ve not been taxed to pay for it. (Another, obviously, is that we have an all-volunteer military rather than a draft.) But it is a terrible mistake to conclude that the war is somehow cost-free.

No, we are not paying for it, except for cuts in programs. But our children and grandchildren will be paying for it, since it is being funded through borrowed money that they will be called upon to repay.

Bear Stearns was selling at $170 a share just a year ago; now it has sold itself for $2 a share. More and more, that feels like a metaphor for America itself.


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