On why the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are incredibly cheap

OK, this isn\’t an all inclusive thing but it certainly can be argued that from hte point of view of the US the current wars in Iraq ind Afghanistan are incredibly cheap.

Nicholas Kristoff tells us that:

The U.S. will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.

Well, no, not really. The full paper is here. If you use only cash terms and upgrade for inflation, then yes. But you might rather want to upgrade for GDP (which makes the current wars decidedly cheap), or wages (less so).

But since we are talking about war we might actually want to measure by the value of a life.

A reasonable estimate of an American life these days is $8 million. That\’s what we actually observe people valuing their own lives at by the wage premium they demand for risker jobs (actually, that\’s at the high end of estimates but still….).

WWII deaths for the US, military only, were 416,000. That\’s $3.3 trillions worth of lives.

Afghanistan and Iraq have so far led to (over a slightly longer time period) 5,800 US military deaths. $464 billion.

As ever, whether something is expensive or cheap (which, please note, is absolutely nothing at all to do with sensible, moral or desirable) depends upon what you decide to measure.

18 thoughts on “On why the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are incredibly cheap”

  1. Standard B/CA analysis assumptions put a British life at about GBP1.5m, = $2.2m. But yes, good call overall, and the deflation measure still works. I’m a bit drunk so I’m not gonna run the figures for Vietnam (= as pointless as Iraq/Afghanistan), but it’s reasonable to make the point that WWII was a fight for the survival of all that was worthy and good in the word, whereas the others were pointless bullshit.

  2. John B, spot on. I’m a bit drunk myself and reluctant to get the calculator out but worthlessness is pretty easy to total up and we can see it in abundance in the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles.

  3. I can’t believe most 20 year olds would take 2.3m over death, even 8m seems unlikely, so need to be aware of limitations of such analysis. But if we do accept it why would a life now not be worth more than in 1940?

    Tim adds: But we’re not saying that if you asked people “if we give you $8 million can we kill you” they would say yes. We’re asking” what, by their actions, do people value their lives at given the amount they ask for risks they take?”.

    Secondly, sure, a life now probably is worth more than a life then. We’re all richer after all. But then that comes in that first disclaimer, about which inflation rate we should use? Wages? GDP? Straight price inflation?

  4. Has anyone of you acquaintance ever insured his life for 8 million dollars? Nobody with whom I’ve ever discussed life insurance had admitted to a figure anywhere near that.

  5. “Has anyone of you acquaintance ever insured his life for 8 million dollars? Nobody with whom I’ve ever discussed life insurance had admitted to a figure anywhere near that.”

    So what? The life insurance taken out is not a good measure of the monetary value of your life, but a measure of what you can afford to ameliorate the loss of an earner.

  6. “So what?”
    Because when you’re dealing with something so nebulous as putting a value on a life only a moron would fail to try all sorts of calculations to see what results.

  7. I think you would get a laugh if you told any soldier of WW2 that they were worth such large sums.
    Their equipment frequently reflected a much much lower value.

  8. (Except, of course, one rather suspects that if Stalin was offered those lives back or a cool soda he’d reply, “Hmm…Well…My throat is a little tickly…”)

  9. Why is the question not simply ‘what value of money would you be indifferent between living and dying?’? That’s how we value other things.

    Derriere – life assurance is about compensating another, and for loss of earnings, not your own valuation or for other purposes

  10. Sorry dearieme! Spell checker, new phone. Also can’t work out cut and paste so didn’t get tim’s quote right but put simply, if on average lives valued at 8m, why doesn’t that mean people willing to accept 8m in return for death? Surely it must do?

  11. So Much For Subtlety

    john malpas – “I think you would get a laugh if you told any soldier of WW2 that they were worth such large sums.”

    The American government gave their families $100,000 if they were killed.

  12. So Much For Subtlety

    john b – “but it’s reasonable to make the point that WWII was a fight for the survival of all that was worthy and good in the word, whereas the others were pointless bullshit.”

    WW2 was a fight for the survival of all that was worthy and good in the world only for some of the people involved. It depended on where you stood. For the people of the Baltic states who were not Jewish, that was not an option open to them. They had a choice of Germany or the USSR. Many of them opted for the lesser evil of Germany. It is hard to argue that for them that was the wrong choice. For the Poles, the Soviets probably were the lesser evil.

    Even for Britain we were only saved by the invention of the nuclear bomb. Western Europe, with or without an American Army presence, could never have kept the Soviet Army out without destroying liberal democratic society at home (by maintaining a large permanently mobilised economy to match the Soviet effort)

    As for Vietnam that too depends on where you stand. If, as you seem to do, you value Khmer lives at zero it is probably pointless. But for the Khmer, the Vietnamese, the Hmong, the Chams, that was a fight for all that was decent and worth fighting for. They lost when America lost but that does not mean the war was wrong.

  13. “Because when you’re dealing with something so nebulous as putting a value on a life only a moron would fail to try all sorts of calculations to see what results.”

    Life insurance taken out is very much a lower bound. So low as to be almost useless.

  14. You’re off by an order of magnitude, Tim: 5,800 @ $8 million per is $46.4 billion, not 464 (464 is too little different from 3300 for it to stack up when the numbers are as different as 5800 and 416000.)

    If we take WW2 as a whole then we’re looking at half a quadrillion bucks (assuming 70 million died.)

  15. because they USA Paid for One Got one Free… and the next few generations of suicide bombers ( mainly kids made orphans by the wars, quickly adopted into the ‘loving caves’ of the Taliban…and all the countries that will contribute, in one way or another to the Muslim cause.
    Well done USA

  16. The value of a human life or any life is not for Shit-head bankers, insurance agents, brookers, etc, to discuss it like if they were discussing the price of condoms in the markets.
    If it was their own kids to get killed, what price would it be worse?…tell all of you who have the bottle to put a price on life.
    the price is the life of the killers … how there you all put a price on life, not even your life but of others… assholes…

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