Tyler Cowen Changes His Mind And Tallies up Some Costs of the War in Iraq

Tyler Cowen has an op ed in the Washington Post. As he notes in the piece, he was originally a supporter of the war in Iraq. Now, he tries to tally up the cost…

We often think of cost simply in terms of dollars spent, but the real cost of a choice — what economists call its “opportunity cost” — consists of the forgone alternatives, of the things we could have had instead. For instance, the cost of seeing a movie is not just the dollars you plunked down for the ticket, but also the subtler cost of missing a dinner at home or a cocktail party at work. This idea sounds simple, but if applied consistently, it requires us to rethink and, yes, raise the costs of the Iraq war.

Set aside the question of what we could have accomplished at home with the energy and resources we’ve devoted to Iraq and concentrate just on national security. Here, the hidden cost of the war, above all, is that the United States has lost much of its ability to halt nuclear proliferation.

$1 trillion we’ve probably spent on the war could have funded the annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security 28 times over.

According to John Pike, the head of the research group GlobalSecurity.org, an estimated 250,000 bullets have been fired for every insurgent killed in Iraq. That’s not just a waste of ammunition; it’s also a reflection of how badly the country has been damaged and how indiscriminate some of the fighting has been.

According to 2006 figures, U.S. war spending came out to $3,749 per Iraqi — almost as much as the per capita income of Egypt. That staggering sum hasn’t bought a lot of leadership from Iraq, or much of a democratic model for its Arab neighbors.

And then something I’ve noted a few times before:

Foreign governments, of course, drew the obvious lesson from our debacle — and from our choice of target. The United States invaded hapless Iraq, not nuclear-armed North Korea. To the real rogues, the fall of Baghdad was proof positive that it’s more important than ever to acquire nuclear weapons — and if the last superpower is bogged down in Iraq while its foes slink toward getting the bomb, so much the better. Iran, among others, has taken this lesson to heart. The ironic legacy of the war to end all proliferation will be more proliferation.