Friday, December 3, 2010

What Can We Afford?

Updated 11:30 AM, Dec. 3

Caption: Soldiers from Company A, 3-187th Infantry watch from an observation post as bombs are dropped on insurgent positions during Operation Iron Blade II in Ghazni Province Nov. 28. Blowing stuff up, then maybe we'll rebuild it later. As they used to say in the Army "Same shit, different day."

Image credit: Lt. Col. David Fivecoat/U.S. Army

Those of you who thought you'd never see the day I wrote this, swallow whatever you're drinking before you read the next paragraph.

Ready? Ed Rendell is right:
"I question the value of us being there at all," Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in an interview. "I have a great deal of faith in President Obama and in (Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton and I want to believe that their strategy is the right one for the country. But I'm not sure 10 years from now and with all that money invested, things are going to be measurably better."

He argues war funding would be better used to build schools, roads and bridges at home.

Obama's Isolation Grows On The Afghanistan War
Image credit: Part of this graphic from USA Today.

Readers may remember that I haven't been kind to Gov. Rendell in the past. But this time he's right, and this accompanying graphic shows his opinion reflects that of quite a few Americans:

This is a legitimate worry, particularly if you take deficit spending seriously. We aren't spending money to employ Americans building what's needed here in America. We're paying, for the most part, foreigners to destroy (and then rebuild) Afghanistan.

Over at Salon, Justin Elliot points out the reason that Rendell is focusing on this issue:
Improving infrastructure has been a signature issue for Rendell, whose tenure as governor is ending in January. (He has said that he plans to continue co-chairing Building America's Future, a pro-infrastructure group he co-founded with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mike Bloomberg.) That partly explains his comment -- the war in Afghanistan is expected to cost some $100 billion this year.

Big-name Dem breaks with Obama on Afghanistan
Still, as Elliot points out, this sort of criticism is unusual among Democrats, whatever their motivations. It shouldn't be. The war will keep going on until Congress makes it stop. I doubt we're going to see a President any time soon who is inclined to end the war. There's too much pride and perceived honor at stake there.

Caption: Private security contractors by nationality in Afghanistan. The green portion of the graph are Afghan nationals. [Click on graph to enlarge.]

Image credit: Congressional Research Service

Of course, we're doing a lot of the destroying using our own soldiers, plus those of our allies, but there is another group of people we employ on that side of the ledger- armed private security contractors (APSCs). As this graphic shows, they are mostly foreigners, at least, "foreigners" in the sense that they're not Americans. Most are actually from Afghanistan.

On the building side of things, the numbers don't look any better. Here's a table from a 2009 CRS report (PDF) on war contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan:

Table 4. DOD Contractor Personnel in Afghanistan (as of September 2009)
Total ContractorsU.S. CitizensThird-Country NationalsLocal Nationals
Percent of Total100%9%16%75%
Source: CENTCOM 4th Quarter Contractor Census Report.
That's right, fewer than 10 percent of the people we're paying to support the war effort and rebuild the country are U.S. citizens. Since the service members and civilian DoD employees are mostly going to keep their jobs even if there is no war, it looks like the net for American employment is about 10,000 jobs for $100 billion spent. That's about $10 million for every American citizen employed. As some may recall, a good rule of thumb for how much money is needed to create one job for one year is about $100,000. It's not going to always be an accurate number, but it's a good round number to use for estimating. It's certainly not true for Afghanistan. Each job for an American citizen in Afghanistan costs about 100 times that much.

In short, we could be employing roughly 100 times as many Americans by spending that money on infrastructure, or other necessary things in the United States.

That's a million jobs, by the way - a million jobs that aren't being produced in this country, because we're spending them on a fruitless war in a place that has little strategic value to us.

This quick analysis doesn't even take into account that we won't receive much direct benefit from any of the spending that's going on in Afghanistan. What we will get out of it, if things go well, is a more secure world. Given how things are going over there, though, my guess is that if anything, we'll end up with a less secure world. Nor am I taking into account the fact that the defense budget has been increasing at least partly due to the necessity of replacing worn out or destroyed equipment. Meanwhile, we're giving up lots of things that would make America a better place to pay for this: infrastructure, space exploration, education, health care, and green energy. That's the sort of thing we could be buying, if our priorities weren't so out of whack.

For all our sakes, a lot more Democrats than Ed Rendell better start speaking up soon, or we may never see the end of this waste.

We can't afford it anymore.

UPDATE (Dec. 3): A logical question to ask after reading that the government is using money that could have created a million jobs here is "Is that what's actually happening?" That's not an easy question to answer, but I think the answer, given how our politicians behave these days, is yes.

If we were to speculate that we were in a useless war but, incredibly, our government was otherwise competent and willing to do what was necessary, then it could be said that this isn't a good number. In that case, the government would be spending on many of the priorities I mentioned anyway, at least that have a positive effect on the economy. It would certainly spend on improvements like infrastructure and education, and borrow the money where necessary. Since this government is competent and has done what is necessary to take care of the economy, we could also surmise that the economy would eventually create many of those jobs anyway. In this world, that million jobs is just an opportunity cost that probably doesn't mean all that much.

Of course, that's not the world we live in. In our world, this crazy-ass America where politicians won't raise taxes no matter what, every dollar for defense or bailing out banks has to come from somewhere. In this world, the government has chosen, in effect, not to create a million jobs, but instead spend that money on a foreign war. Here, in this world, the economy can't create jobs, because there's not anywhere near enough consumer demand.

So yes, in this America of 2009-2011, that means we gave up a million jobs to destroy someone else's country, and maybe build part of it back up again.

UPDATE 2: Just a quick note about something obvious: Yes, I'm neglecting what are no doubt tens of thousands of jobs created or maintained in the U.S. to manage that $100 billion expenditure and deal with the logistical and ordinance production issues stateside. Why? When you can answer the question "What's the difference between tens of thousands and a million?" with something like "At least one order of magnitude, and possibly two", you'll be on your way to understanding.

The "million jobs" number is a very rough one. It might be 500,000 when all is said and done, or it might be 1.5 million. It's a lot relative to the number of jobs created in the economy the second half of this year.

UPDATE 3: Over at FireDogLake, David Swanson explores alternatives to using defense as a jobs program. Worth a read, I think.

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