It's one thing to put a price tag on something. It's another to figure out its cost.
Consider education. Every year, taxpayers invest $14,400 per student in
the District of Columbia school system. That's a lot, considering that
fourth- and eighth-graders there scored dead last in the nation on the
2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Those raw numbers don't include the hidden costs, especially the
lives damaged or ruined when children get a subpar education or drop
out altogether. Yet few attempt to quantify the total cost of our
nation's failing education program. Most politicians and education
activists are content simply to call for more spending, even if it's
throwing good money after bad.
Oddly, though, many are eager to lay out the cost of our supposedly failing military operation in Iraq.
The latest attempt is by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from Columbia University, and Linda Bilmes
of Harvard University. Their new book says the war will cost at least
$3 trillion. Including the cost of the war in Afghanistan, they write,
the total could approach $5 trillion.
Now, it's usually pointless to argue dollar figures with an
economist. As the old joke says, if an economist were trapped in a
well, to get out he'd "assume he had a ladder." So we should focus on
the assumptions an economist is making.
To reach their figures, Mr. Stiglitz and Ms. Bilmes assume that
"expenditures on the Iraq war have no benefits [for America]." That's
simply not true.
For one thing, the war has allowed thousands of terrorists to meet
their Maker. Last year the Pentagon estimated 19,000 enemy militants
had been killed since 2003. That number has certainly risen since.
Another 25,000 militants are in military custody. That's quite a few
dangerous individuals no longer around to attack Americans.
Our military intervention also has allowed Iraqis to experience
freedom, something they were systematically denied during the decades
Saddam Hussein ruled their country.
Iraq is the first Middle Eastern country with a constitution written
by its citizens. Iraq's government may be imperfect, but at least it
has democratic legitimacy - unlike neighboring Iran, Saudi Arabia or
In addition, the wars have given millions of women basic human
rights they were denied by their oppressors. Under the Taliban, for
example, Afghan women weren't allowed to go to school, let alone work
or vote. Today women serve in Afghanistan's elected legislature.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi government is expanding its authority.
Recently, Iraqi troops - without help from Americans - pushed into
Baghdad's troubled Sadr City. They took control of the area without
facing any significant resistance. That follows a similarly successful
mission in Basra.
Mr. Stiglitz and Miss Bilmes have based their analysis on a patently
false assumption. Why? Because they are making a political argument,
not a serious economic study. They seem to want a complete pullout as
quickly as possible. As Ms. Bilmes put it in an interview, even the
withdrawal plans being discussed on the presidential campaign trail are
"not as rapid as one might hope."
A precipitous pull-out would pretty much guarantee failure on the
Iraqi front in the war on terrorism. It makes sense only if you assume,
as do Mr. Stiglitz and Ms. Bilmes, that the war in Iraq is lost. But
that's another false assumption.
The United States
hasn't lost. Not by a long shot. The "surge" strategy has made major
gains, opening the path to victory. And that's helping us make gains
Researchers from Simon Fraser University in Canada find global
terrorism is declining. Their Human Security Report Project found
fatalities from terrorist attacks have decreased 40 percent since 2001.
That's a very tangible benefit - for America and the world.
Yes, winning a war is expensive. But losing would be even costlier. And you can't put a price tag on true victory.