The Opportunity Cost of the Iraq War Should Stagger You

On the frequently daunting blog How to Save the World, Dave Pollard confesses how he sometimes nurtures plausible deniability and helplessness in order to avoid doing what he knows needs to be done:

That’s the ultimate bad news we don’t want to hear: That if we were willing to give up everything, risk everything, drop everything we’re doing, radically and immediately change our life style, agree not to do some things we really want to do (have another child, or buy that house we’ve been saving for) it would have an impact. We could, if we all acted fast, collectively, now, change the world, end poverty and suffering and global warming and crime and restore biodiversity and create a sustainable and harmonious world. But we don’t want to hear that news either. Like the Ten Years After lyrics say: “I’d love to change the world but I don’t know what to do, so I’ll leave it up to you.” So we find solace in the belief that it’s all bigger than us, that it would be impossible to coordinate such an effort, that most people don’t know and don’t care and so wouldn’t participate so it wouldn’t work, that the powers that be wouldn’t allow it, and mostly that it’s really not that bad, is it?

I’m sorry, dear reader. You didn’t want to hear that. Who the fuck am I sitting here in my easy chair doing nothing more than anyone else and telling people that they should be doing something drastic? What kind of hypocrite am I to be trying to deprive you of your plausible deniability that your inaction and your unawareness of how bad it really is, is complicit in all the horrors going on in this world, and the much worse horrors that our inaction will doom our children and our children’s children to? This idiot Chicken Little Pollard is running around telling us the sky is falling, but we’ve read the fable, and everything turns out just fine. Somebody shut that guy up.

I’m no leader. I learned that long ago. I haven’t the charisma, or the articulateness for that job. I’m a coward, with insufficient courage to go with my convictions. GI Gurdjieff said that civilized man lives in a dream, and needs to learn, through a very difficult process, how to awaken and live in the real world. You know that state when you first wake up in the morning, especially if it’s really cold outside, and you know you have to get up but you don’t want to, you kind of go into denial, pretending it must be Saturday, or that you’re still dreaming and when you really wake up everything will be warm and beautiful and peaceful? Well I think that’s where I am. I’m just awake enough to know I have to get up and do something, something important, but not yet awake enough to know what that is, or who I need to do it with, and I’m still kinda hoping someone else will call and say “Don’t worry, it’s done, go back to sleep.” But now I’m a little more awake than I was, enough to be aware of the fact that something must be done, and I can’t depend on others to do it for me. And, for the first time, my denials of that imperative, that need for action, have become implausible. And those of us who care enough to have to do something are calling each other up, in our half-awake state, making their denials implausible too.

But wait. It’s really not that bad, is it? Just let me lie here another five minutes, OK?

One of Pollard’s examples of denial and deniability concerns the work of Bjørn Lomborg, who is best known for his book The Skeptical Environmentalist (“Using statistical information from internationally recognized research institutes, Lomborg systematically examines a range of major environmental issues that feature prominently in headline news around the world, including pollution, biodiversity, fear of chemicals, and the greenhouse effect, and documents that the world has actually improved.”)

I haven’t read the book, and have only superficially followed the controversy surrounding it, but I did pay attention when Lomborg embarked on his next project, “The Copenhagen Consensus.”

The idea was that a group of eminent economists would look at priorities for assisting poor countries and try to rank them in terms of costs and benefits. The planned procedure was that an advocate would present a case for each of a number of possible global projects. Two “opponents” would then provide a critique. The panel of eminent economists would then distil the arguments and rank the possible projects.

Why economists? Lomborg believes that much of the public debate about what to do about pressing global issues suffers from being economically uninformed. Every choice made to address an issue in a particular way is one that has costs and trade-offs; attempting to solve one problem one way may necessarily mean not having the resources to attempt to solve another problem another way, for instance. He thinks we would all benefit from trying to rigorously quantify the costs and benefits of various approaches.

That, anyway, is the charitable point of view. Lomborg’s critics frequently complain that all of this is a smokescreen designed to hide his real purpose, which is to discredit environmentalist concerns like global climate change by using questionable data and prejudicial techniques.

Be that as it may, this group of eminent economists (including four Nobel Prize winners) did meet, and heard the arguments for 32 different proposals on how to attack some global problem — everything from adopting the Kyoto Protocol to reducing trade barriers to launching new initiatives for combatting malaria. Their favorite?

Combating HIV/AIDS should be at the top of the world’s priority list… About 28 million cases could be prevented . The cost would be $27 billion, with benefits almost forty times as high.

I told you that so I could tell you this: The population of Iraq is roughly 25 million people. This week, president Bush asked Congress for another $80 billion in war funding.

Perhaps Lomborg and his crew can compare the costs and benefits of bringing Diemocracy to the long-suffering Iraqi people with those of some of the other proposals on their list.

(And yes, you caught me, I’m recycling this idea from my Picket Line entry of . It’s still pretty fresh, isn’t it?)

The House Joint Committee on Taxation has noticed the tax gap (the difference between what the IRS thinks people owe and what people actually give ’em) and the upcoming tax “simplification” initiative, and wants to kill two birds with one stone — “simplifying” the tax code in such a way as that people end up paying more. Oh, it’s not a tax hike, heavens no, it’s Options to Improve Tax Compliance and Reform Tax Expenditures.

Almost 70 options, I think, although I lost count somewhere after “Eliminate Private Payment Test for Stadium Bonds.” All of them, I believe, are revenue enhancing options, meaning that they pull more money from us to give to them (without actually having to “raise taxes” in a “my opponent voted to raise taxes” sort of way).

People trying to stay below the tax line legally take note! Some of the proposals involve tweaks to things like the tuition deduction, the earned income tax credit, and the refundable child tax credit. And if you’re evading taxes by working as a contractor rather than earning wages subject to withholding, note that one option would require governments to withhold federal income taxes from payments to contractors just like they do for employees. The next time a tax bill comes out of Congress, you may want to have this list nearby to cross-reference.

(Here’s the Washington Post’s take on these proposals.)