Monday, March 28, 2011

The price of Libyan intervention

I've heard a lot of people saying a serious problem with the Libyan intervention is the cost, which could balloon to well over a billion dollars if the mission lasts for many more months. There's a consistent effort among those who are ambivalent about or opposed to the war to make the cost a major topic of conversation. And I've seen a number of people who are outraged that Obama made little attempt to reckon with the fiscal cost of intervention in his speech tonight. In particular, there's a real sense of confusion about why, in the middle of an acrimonious debate over whether and how to cut the budget, the administration is freely engaging in a war that will undoubtedly cost taxpayers millions.

Now, there's no doubt that president and others should account for the cost of the war when weighing the pros and cons of military action. But it's unreasonable to expect any good to come out of some sort of national conversation about fiscal priorities, particularly in this context.

You have to keep in mind that the president and the Democrats -- correctly, in my view -- believe that small adjustments to the discretionary budget have a negligible impact on the nation's long-term finances, which are basically threatened by the growth of entitlement spending and little else. But that's not a point that many Americans intuitively grasp. Indeed, the reason the GOP's cut-cut-cut politics have taken hold is that Americans generally don't understand the dynamics of long-term budgeting. They most certainly don't understand the scale of America's finances; a billion dollars sounds like a lot of money to most people, but it is, of course, an absolutely minuscule fraction of what the national government spends every year. With that in mind, it would be completely irrational and utterly self-sabotaging for the president to somehow explicitly prorate the cost of intervention in his speech or elsewhere, because A. that's a dramatic oversimplification of spending issues that unduly emphasizes inaction, and B. there's no chance that anyone else in the political universe would dream of similarly explaining the consequences of the initiatives they support, making it impossible for Americans to choose between, say, a $50 billion tax cut for the wealthy and the lives of tens of thousand of Libyan rebels. Why should the president endorse exactly the sort of penny-wise, pound-foolish thinking that he believes motivates his opposition?

It goes beyond that. In all honesty, I'm pretty furious at the amount of attention being paid on Capitol Hill to the fiscal cost of Libyan intervention. In the scheme of things, the amount of money being spent on Libya is minute. Virtually every political actor involved has farmed tens of billions of dollars into vastly less-deserving causes, be they tax cuts or agricultural subsidies or any number of other interest-group driven payouts. It's laughable for these same people to decide NOW is the time to start fussing over a billion here and a billion there. There's a thousand places they could find the money if they were so disposed; as such, it's very telling that none of these fiscal hawks seems to be reckoning with the value of, say, corporate tax breaks vis-à-vis the lives of Libyans. It'd be one thing if they were saying that our current spending priorities trump the value of intervention in Libya, but that's not a determination anyone seems to be making.

And that's because none of them actually care about the national finances in this context at all, they just know that the specter of US bankruptcy scares Americans, and therefore makes a useful political bludgeon against the president. It's concern trolling, through and through. Cost is always a consideration, but it's safe to say that anyone who treats cost as dispositive in the Libya debate is either seriously innumerate or seriously dishonest.

So yeah, frankly, I think the president is making the right decision to not publicly engage on the topic. The result would invariably be distorting and play directly into the hands of the self-serving political interests of his Congressional opposition.

EDIT: I was challenged on this point by someone who said that you can't gloss over the price of intervention because nonetheless, "all the little bits [of the deficit] add up to the whole." To which I would respond that, yes, this is true. But no one wants to talk about the other, much larger bits. That puts the relatively cheap Libyan intervention at a major political disadvantage compared to them.

(Full disclosure: this is an edited version of a comment I made on another blog.)

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