Economists' Challenge: Is the Surge "Efficient"?

03/28/2007 10:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So the Republican supporters of the Administration - and in this group, of course, I include Mr. Lieberman - are saying, why would Congress set a deadline when the surge is working, why would you undermine the President's policy when it is working.

Of course this is a nonsense argument, because the logic of the surge is supposed to be temporary, so it doesn't make sense to say a deadline would undermine the surge, unless - and I challenge the Republicans to say this - the surge is supposed to last more than a year.

Or unless you think that somehow the success of the surge depends on untrue Iraqi beliefs about the future. Like, maybe the Iraqis are supposed to think that the surge is indefinite, while we are supposed to know that's it's temporary. Just as the Iranians are supposed to think that the U.S. might attack, while we're supposed to know - wink, wink - that we're not really going to attack. How these double messages are supposed to work, when people in the Middle East have the same access to our news media that we do, is never explained. But if there is a double message, we have just as much reason to believe that it's the Iraqis and the Iranians that are getting the true message and we're the ones getting the lie.

The President's supporters say, if there's a deadline, then "the enemy" will just lie low and wait till we're gone.

But that's just what some of the militias are already doing relative to the surge, apparently, lying low until the surge is over. We can't surge forever, just as we can't stay there forever. Eventually we have to draw down, and eventually we have to leave, so we might as well plan and start preparing for the eventuality now.

Juan Cole today challenges the McCain/Lieberman assertion that the surge is working, reprising a comment from March 1:

An Iraqi official leaked government figures on Iraqi civilians killed in January and February, and tried to spin the US press by saying that there had been a significant drop in such casualties.

But this official reported deaths for 1-31 January and compared them for the toll 1-27 February. Uh, the per day total isn't that different, it is just that February is a short month and the figures were given through the day before it ended!

1990 divided by 31 is 64 per day.

1646 divided by 27 is 61 per day.

While human life is precious and a drop of 3 a day is welcome, I wouldn't call that drop significant.

Cole also challenges the numbers.

But let's suppose we take the above numbers at face value.

Then 87 Iraqis were alive on February 27 who would have been killed had the January death rate remained constant. (Based on the unrounded daily averages, not the rounded figures above.)

Which raises the question, given the human, political, and financial costs associated with the surge, and supposing the goal were to save Iraqi civilian lives, was this the most efficient way to save those 87 lives? Could we not have done it more efficiently through aggressive diplomacy in search of political agreements in Iraq and the region?

Or, put another way: if we used all the resources of the surge for such diplomacy, could we not have saved more than 87 Iraqi civilians, of the 1646 who were killed in February?

And here is yet another way of looking at it. If we used the same logic that mainstream economists use in evaluating whether government safety programs are efficient, what would we conclude?

Back of the envelope calculation:

The CBO estimated in February that it would cost $13 billion for a four-month surge.

So that's $3.5 billion a month.

Divide by 87, get $40 million per Iraqi life saved.

I would like to see one of our mainstream American professional economists defend that figure as efficient. That's just the financial cost; it doesn't count the non-financial cost to American soldiers and their families, nor any uncompensated financial cost of being deployed. Nor the non-financial costs to the rest of U.S. society, nor the financial and non-financial costs to the rest of the world.

According to the logic that mainstream economists are fond of using to argue that some government safety regulations are terribly inefficient, if the above numbers are even roughly correct, we are spending far more money to save Iraqi lives than we would spend to save our own lives. The economist Orley Ashenfelter reports that the US Department of Transportation counted the "value of a statistical life" at $3 million in January 2004 in evaluating highway safety projects. So presuming we value our own lives as much as we value Iraqi lives, we are paying way too much, or if you want to turn it around, the economists are wrong and Public Citizen is right and we are getting much less highway safety than we really want.

Back in December, economists Dean Baker and John Schmitt of the Center for Economic and Policy Research argued that it would be more economically efficient to pay the Iraqis not to kill each other than to continue the war. Maybe we should give this proposal another look.

Of course, all of the above discussion is based on the assumption that the goal of U.S. policy is to save Iraqi lives. So another conclusion you could draw is that this must be a lie, and the real goal of U.S. policy must be something else entirely, something our government doesn't want to acknowledge, so it claims that the goal is saving Iraqi lives instead. And if that's true, then we need no other reason to get out.


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