War's price tag

The war in iraq, which will enter its sixth year this week, is turning out to be the most expensive conflict since World War II, and the cost will fall especially hard on Californians.

By the end of 2008, the federal government will have spent more than $800 billion on combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan (government accounts make it hard to separate the two). On top of that comes a mountain of future costs: caring for war veterans (to date, more than 1.6 million troops have been deployed), replacing the military hardware that is being used and worn out in Iraq and paying interest on the enormous sums of money we've borrowed to finance the war.

All told, we estimate that the cost of the war will easily reach $3 trillion in today's money. This number assumes that the U.S. begins a pullback from Iraq after the election in November but retains a small presence there for the next decade.

Californians are going to face a disproportionate share of the bill for three reasons. First, California's population is among the youngest in the U.S., with 26% under 18 (compared with 24% nationwide). Because of irresponsible fiscal policy (cutting taxes for the rich while a war is in progress and borrowing the money to pay for the conflict), the burden of paying for this costly adventure has been shifted to these younger Americans. The Iraq war is the first time since the Revolutionary War that we have borrowed from overseas to finance war spending (the colonists borrowed from France). The next generation will be paying all the interest on the money we have borrowed, including the 40% of it that comes from Middle Eastern countries, China and other foreign lenders. It will also be forced to confront the $9-trillion national debt, which has risen by 12% as a result of the war.

On top of servicing huge war debts, America's children will also have to pick up the tab for the rising cost of veterans' care. The intensity of the combat over the last five years and the high injury rates mean that close to half the current service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan are likely to qualify for long-term disability compensation. The cost generally peaks many years after combat has ended -- claims from World War II veterans, for instance, peaked in 1993.

We will also need to provide a lifetime of medical care for many of the 70,000 men and women in the armed services who have been wounded in combat, injured in accidents or airlifted out of the region for emergency medical care, plus temporary care for an additional 250,000 returning troops who are seeking treatment for hearing loss, joint pain, post-traumatic stress disorder or other conditions at veterans medical facilities.

The 1991 Persian Gulf War lasted only a month, but the federal government pays out $4.3 billion a year in disability compensation to Gulf War veterans. If the Iraq war follows the same pattern, we can expect that the next generation of Americans will eventually spend $600 billion to look after the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

The second reason California will pay a disproportionate share for the war is because its residents are so rich. California already contributes a disproportionate share of federal taxes -- more than 14% of the total last year from a state that makes up only 12% of the nation's population. The tax burden is especially high in the Bay Area, greater Los Angeles and San Diego, places where individual taxpayers pay some of the highest total federal taxes, according to a recent study of 3,000 counties across the country. The average household in San Francisco is already paying $36,409 annually in federal taxes (combining income tax, payroll tax, excise tax, estate tax and corporate tax) -- the second-highest federal tax burden in the United States.

This means that Californians are already paying more to support the war effort than most Americans. Expect that burden to get considerably larger no matter what happens to incomes in the years ahead.

Third, the standard of living of car-dependent Californians is being hit especially hard by a steep increase in oil prices that are the result, at least in part, of the war in Iraq. It is easy to forget that oil prices were at $25 a barrel when the war began in March 2003. True, a lot of the increase has been driven by sharply higher demand from Asia and by a chronic shortage of refining capacity. But futures markets had predicted that oil prices would remain stable despite rising demand. Most experts blame at least some portion of the skyrocketing price of oil on the drop in supply caused by the instability in the Middle East.

In our book, we attribute just $5 to $10 of the increase in the cost of a barrel of oil directly to Iraq. But even this modest price increase accounts for a transfer of $300 billion to $800 billion from the pocketbooks of U.S. consumers to the oil-producing countries.

A few Californians may benefit from the war if they work for defense contractors, which have been among the major beneficiaries of the conflict. But overall, the war has not stimulated the economy because so much of our spending on Iraq has been devoted to employing subcontractors from countries such as the Philippines and Nepal, and paying for food, laundry, local transportation and cleaning services for troops in the field. This kind of expenditure benefits the U.S. economy very little.

Meanwhile, the war has taken a heavy toll on our military. Sixty percent of military officers above the rank of major now say that our forces are weaker than they were five years ago, according to a recent survey of 3,000 active and retired military officers commissioned by the Center for a New American Security. And 42% went further -- agreeing that the war in Iraq "has broken the U.S. military." The war has forced the Army, in order to meet basic recruiting targets, to lower standards for physical fitness, health and education and to turn a blind eye to criminal records. It may take decades for the military to recover to its prewar state of readiness, and once again, the next generation of Californians will be paying a big share of this effort.

Beyond that, the ongoing cost of the war has made it more difficult for the federal government to pay for roads, schools, medical research and aid to local communities. And then there is the opportunity cost: The money spent on the war could have fixed Social Security for the next 75 years or provided health insurance to all U.S. children.

In California, with its fast-growing and diverse population, the opportunity costs are especially painful. Over the next two decades, greater Los Angeles needs to invest $20 billion in bus and rail and $150 billion for transportation generally, according to the draft Los Angeles County MTA plan for 2008. The bustling Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach require an infusion of $3 billion for vital environmental and security improvements, according to a recent statement from the Long Beach and Los Angeles boards of harbor commissioners. They are proposing to increase cargo fees yet again to raise revenue.

But as we enter the sixth year of combat, the "burn rate" for each month we continue in Iraq is $12 billion -- with the full cost (including paying for veterans and replenishing equipment) easily double that.

We're already committed to a tremendous amount of spending in the decades ahead to pay for this war. There's little or nothing we can do to avoid those costs. All we can do at this point to keep them from rising further is to withdraw our troops from Iraq as soon as is reasonably possible.

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