Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Benjamin Friedman: The Politics of Chicken Littleism

In the Post.

Amazing that so few people are pointing out these fairly obvious facts.

We can't continue to spend like drunken sailors when it comes to defense without making ourselves less safe and less well-off in the long run. By over-stating the extent of current threats and spending accordingly, we waste money that could have been spent improving our lives, helping others and/or making us safer in the long run. The mind-boggling sums spent on the misguided war in Iraq--which has, in effect, made us less safe, the world less stable, and the Iraqi people possibly less well-off--could have been spent to promote the long-term security of the U.S. by, say, investing it in R&D aimed at achieving energy independence. (If only we'd have listened to Carter regarding energy independence, 9/11 and the subsequent Iraq debacle are far less likely to have happened.) Think about how much better off the U.S. would have been in the long run if funds for the trillion-dollar Iraq war had been spent on, say, early-childhood education in the U.S. Or, if we'd have actually had humanitarian goals, think of what that money could have done if it had been used more efficiently, to combat aids in Africa, or to intervene militarily in Darfur or the Congo.

Say it with me now: opportunity costs matter.

19 Comments:

Blogger lovable liberal said...

With a trillion dollars, you could permanently endow 40 Harvards. You wouldn't want to do that, but you could.

Instead, you'd want to spread your endowments over the third world, not even on Oprah's elite scale, much less Harvard's. You could endow a million elementary, secondary, and trade schools to the tune of $1,000,000 each, which would build them and pay their operating costs in perpetuity.

Imagine the opportunity that would have afforded to display true American values:
- freedom to learn
- opportunity
- generosity
- universality of the tools of self-government
- universal education, especially for girls who haven't had it
- tolerance
- subversion of despots by culture

Instead, we'll have permanent bases in Iraq and the enmity or at least wariness of the world.

Of course, we would still have needed to invade Afghanistan, and doing that right would have cost more. We also would have wanted to save some of the trillion dollar price tag, but even a tenth of that price would have endowed 100,000 schools!

10:53 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Unbelievable!!!!!

I detested that SOB Saddam, but no reasonable person can think that deposing him did more good for the world than a couple hundred thousand new schools would have done.

And talk about improving American security! We'd be heroes forever!

11:45 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

All from our allegedly Christian president and the vast majority of his followers.

If only Christians were Christians, we'd have those schools right now, I guarantee.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Can't beancount our way to peace and prosperity. Back to the knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Saddam's butchery, the hundreds of thousands in mass graves, is over. Expensive as all hell, but priceless.

The Iraqi people will find their way to create their own peace and prosperity. That's how it works, and will always work. The west shoved 3 trillion dollars down a sinkhole in aid and charity all around the world in the past 50years. But there are some things you just can't buy for other people.

3:31 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

"Saddam's butchery, the hundreds of thousands in mass graves, is over. Expensive as all hell, but priceless."

No, the butchery is not over. Hundreds of thousands have died that likely would not have died had we not invaded (as determined by Johns Hopkins).

"The Iraqi people will find their way to create their own peace and prosperity. That's how it works, and will always work."

So that's an acceptable stance now, but it wouldn't have been acceptable had we maintained it while using our money to fund education and healthcare acros the third world?

In other words, now that the invasion already took place, you say that the Iraqi people will find their way to create their own peace and prosperity, and you continue by saying that, allegedly, that's the way it's always worked. However, if that were your stance on the issue, why would you back the invasion? Wouldn't you have said the same thing pre-invasion as a reason not to go to war?

5:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And since we're going all ends/means and cost/benefit here, perhaps we could speculate on a counterfactual involving an autonomous Iraqi attempt at the overthrow of Saddam.

Lots and lots would have died, for sure. But would it have been more than have died so far in Bush's folly? There would also be the added benefits of a trillion more in our treasury for other purposes, less anti-Americanism, a more intact Iraqi infrastructure, a better chance at US/allied success in Afghanistan, 4000+ more US troops alive, an army that's not broken etc, etc.

And of course it would have the added virtue of increased legitimacy from being a homegrown insurrection.

6:06 PM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

The west shoved 3 trillion dollars down a sinkhole in aid and charity all around the world in the past 50years.

Citation, please.

Since we're on the sources of numbers, I should acknowledge that mine are estimates only. I'd like to retreat a little from my claim of perpetuity. The economic effects of schooling would in time make the societies prosperous enough that the earnings provided by a mere million bucks would no longer pay all expenses. Maybe by then the alumni would be able to supplement the freedom schools' endowments.

Please note also that these would be small schools using local community resources.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Mystic, Anonymous, LL...

...now...what mistake are you making?

7:20 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

*bangs head against wall repeatedly*

7:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK Winston, I'm feelin ya.

11:20 PM  
Blogger Sid Schwab said...

Among the things that are so depressing and infuriating about the war and the adminstrators thereof is the fact that NO ONE is demanding an accounting of the true costs, nor laying out a plan to pay for them. It's been essentially "off the books," and added to the two trillion "borrowed" from social security, the deficits left by bush are so huge that they might actually be insurmountable. Yet the republican candidates -- including those you list as sort of acceptable -- continue to pledge not to raise taxes. So when will someone ask them how they will deal with the deficits going forward? I'm not holding my breath (although I AM holding my nose.)

11:29 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I know this is just prodding a bear with a stick but..

Is silence Tom's way of admitting that he's wrong? This sort of silence in the face of critique is unprecedented.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I actually typed a reply, but my internet went down.

But it eschewed cost/benefit analysis, which is what I meant by not beancounting and invoking the word "priceless."

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

That would be John F. Kennedy, and since liberals, leftists and Democrats are no longer interested in that sort of idealism, the neo-cons hated to see such noble sentiments go to waste.

[And the Johns Hopkins figures are way off, Mystic. Poke around.]

5:32 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I don't really know how that answers anything. My original question:

"The Iraqi people will find their way to create their own peace and prosperity. That's how it works, and will always work."

So that's an acceptable stance now, but it wouldn't have been acceptable had we maintained it while using our money to fund education and healthcare acros the third world?

In other words, now that the invasion already took place, you say that the Iraqi people will find their way to create their own peace and prosperity, and you continue by saying that, allegedly, that's the way it's always worked. However, if that were your stance on the issue, why would you back the invasion? Wouldn't you have said the same thing pre-invasion as a reason not to go to war?


And what can I say? I trust Johns-Hopkins for some weird reason.

6:05 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

You have a point in there, but not my point. The overthrow of tyrannies has been known to result in peace and prosperity.

As for the Johns Hopkins, we will never be able to agree. One of those epistemological things.

But add in the 500,000 that Madeleine Albright admitted killing with the sanctions to the 300,000 found in mass graves, and the ledger is still to the good.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Once again:
Bush did not undertake the war for humanitarian reasons, and the majority of conservatives did not support it for such reasons. The humanitarian rationalization was not commonly employed until after it turned out that there were no WMD.

Furthermore, conservatives don't go to war for human rights. The mantra of conservatism for my entire lifetime has been "we can't be the world's policeman." And "realists" who hold that we should never go to war for moral reasons find their home in the GOP, not the Democratic party. Conservatives usually only employ human rights arguments as stalking horses for their other projects--which is exactly what happened in Iraq.

Finally, pointing out that one's blood and treasure could have been used more effectively elsewhere is not "bean counting," and to so characterize it is rhetorical chicanery. Nobody is saying that we should have bought wide-screen t.v.s instead of invading Iraq, but that IF humanitarian goals had been our real goals, there was much lower-hanging fruit. We could have helped many more people if we'd have used our human and financial resources elsewhere.

It's appalling to see conservatives repeatedly and illicitly pretend to have the moral high ground here. They can only do that by distorting the positions of people like me.

12:12 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, please. If what you're saying were true, we'd invade France, which doesn't seem that bad an idea.

Of course Saddam's destruction of human rights was a factor. It was a necessary condition.

Moral high ground? Yes, you have Kosovo, I suppose, which Clinton lied us into. Otherwise, "moral high ground" consists of doing nothing for anybody except going tut-tut.

1:29 PM  
Blogger lovable liberal said...

Shorter TVD: "No, it's not." (With a Pythonesque accent.)

10:46 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Invade France?

At this point, it's fairly clear that reason isn't going to be efficacious here.

5:35 PM  

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