attacking the bookshelf

this is what happens when you do what the japanese call ‘tsundoku’, i.e. buy a ton of books, stack them up, and fail to read them – you end up reading non-fiction that is slightly out of date.  in this case the offending paperback is professors stiglitz and bilmes’ ‘the three trillion dollar war’, current as of 2008.  some of the projections have proved less than accurate (not due to any fault of the authors; rather, because conservative estimates have rendered even the moderate-realistic scenario hypothesized in the book quite horrifyingly rosy), and i don’t agree with the inclusion of some costs (all costs are equal, but some are more equal than others).  nonetheless the admonitions remain timely.  this is from the preface (annotations, footnotes and references not included – read the book for those):

‘the issue is not whether america can afford three trillion dollars.  we can.  with a typical american household income in 2006 just short of $70,000, we have far more than we need to get by.  even if we threw 10 percent of that away, we would still be no worse off than we were in 1995 – when we were a prosperous and well-off country.  there is no risk that a trillion dollars or two or three will bankrupt the country.  the relevant question is a rather different one: what could we have done with a trillion dollars or two or three?  what have we had to sacrifice?  what is, to use the economist’s jargon, the opportunity cost?’

‘… for sums less than the direct expenditures on the war, we could have fulfilled our commitment to provide 0.7 percent of our gross domestic product to help developing countries – money that could have made an enormous difference to the well-being of billions today living in poverty.  the united states gives some $5 billion a year to africa, the poorest continent in the world: that amounts to less than ten days’ fighting.  two trillion dollars would enable us to meet our commitments to the poorest countries for the next third of a century.’

‘we could have had a marshall plan for the middle east, or the developing countries, that might actually have succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of the people there.  even more modest ambitions could have been achieved for a fraction of what has already been spent on iraq.  the world has committed itself to eradicating illiteracy by 2015.  fully funding that campaign would cost some $8 billion a year – roughly two weeks of fighting the war.  we have even bungled our efforts to help iraqis with reconstruction.  in 2003, congress approved $18.4 billion in reconstruction aid for the country – a sum that is three times per iraqi what we spent for each european during the marshall plan.  but instead of spending the money immediately to help fix the electricity, oil refineries, and schools of iraq, the united states tied up most of the funds in endless bureaucratic squabbling between the pentagon procurement office and congress.  a full year later, the security situation in iraq had deteriorated and we had lost the hearts and minds of the people.  much of the money was refunneled into military activities or not spent at all.’

it goes on – the possibility of a tax cut for middle-income families, funding healthcare reform and its execution, etc., and also addresses among other things the deplorable state of veteran healthcare.  i might instinctively disagree with some things, but 1) i am no authority on this issue, and 2) all in all, it was a very compelling read.  we as humans will never foresee (nor, sadly, acknowledge) all consequences of war, and we need books like this to constantly remind ourselves of our folly.  the last paragraph of this book sums it up all too well:

‘going to war is not to be undertaken lightly.  it is an act that should be undertaken with greater sobriety, greater solemnity, greater care, and greater reserve than any other.  stripped of the relentless media and government fanfare, the nationalist flag-waving, the reckless bravado, war is about men and women brutally killing and maiming other men and women.  the costs live on long after the last shot has been fired.’

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