Small price

John Boehner’s right; there are things worth spending $1 trillion on. Any chance he’ll notice that not all of those worthwhile expenditures involve killing people?

Not that I mind having John Boehner get a partially undeserved black eye after missing out on so many black eyes he deserved, but I think his friends are right to insist that his comment that the cost of the War in Iraq would be a “small price” for stabilizing the Middle East referred to the money, not the lives. (The question asked first about money and then about bloodshed, and the response referred to an “investment” which would be a much less usual word than “sacrifice” if the focus were on lives rather than money.)

And as far as the money goes, Boehner might even be right that a lasting peace in the Middle East would be well worth spending something less a year’s GDP on.

But if he and his friends are capable of figuring out that some public expenditures produce benefits in excess of their costs, why do they remain incapable of figuring out that some non-lethal public expenditures also produce benefits in excess of their costs?

If we get out of Iraq having spent less than $1 trillion (the total so far is roughly $600 billion) we ought to count ourselves lucky. Invested in long-term Treasuries, that would yield $50 billion a year. For a modest fraction of one year’s interest on that endowment, we could end malaria worldwide. For another very modest fraction, we could implement the Nunn-Lugar bill to tighten up on loose nukes. A national ID system with secure documents tied to biometrics probably wouldn’t cost more than few billion a year to operate. $5 billion a year &#8212 a tenth of that endowment income &#8212 would fund 100,000 Peace Corps volunteers, or just about a doubling of the National Science Foundation budget or of the budget for monitoring the nation’s 4 million probationers, or the proposed expansion the S-CHIP insurance program for not-quite-poor-enough children.

But if President Obama proposes to do any of those things, John Boehner and his buddies will scream at the top of their lungs that the poor oppressed taxpayer can’t afford it. And none of those programs would cost 3000 Americans dead and 30,000 maimed. Ron Paul is at least consistent; he’s noticed that the Defense Department is part of the government. How anyone can denounce “big government” as “part of the problem, not part of the solution” and still support discretionary warfare passes understanding.

Footnote Don’t even think about counting the toll in Iraqi blood; many members of the Red Team seem to think that’s a feature, not a bug.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: