Posted in Rants on August 16th, 2010 by Ed

(New to FJM? It's defined here.)

I am about to do something mean.

Atlantic Monthly comedienne Megan McArdle labors mightily, and almost always unsuccessfully, to write columns that do not immediately collapse under the weight of mild scrutiny. It counts as a victory when she writes something that seems logically consistent for the length of time required to read it, even if for no longer. In short, at her top-dollar best she attains contemporaneous plausibility. Readers of her work might, provided they are not well versed in economics and tend to believe everything they read in Serious Media Outlets, think "Hey, this makes some sense!" in real time. That what they just read is stupid beyond comprehension hits them like a thunderbolt only in hindsight when she is on her game.

That's McArdle at her best. When everything goes right. It's McArdle as Michael Jordan scoring 63 over Larry Bird in Boston Garden in '86. Given that, it's almost cruel to subject her writing to the withering glare of hindsight. Something that seems ridiculous a day after it is written is not going to look much better a few years down the road.

Or will it?

No. No it won't. And I'll prove it. Because I am a dick, I present you Megan McArdle (back in the pseudonymous "Jane Galt" days) on March 26, 2003 musing on the cost of Dick & George's Iraqi Adventure in "How much is the war going to cost?" Ho ho ho. Hoo boy. Heh. Ho. Hah. Oh man. Let's do this.

I've seen a number of claims like this one from Eric Alterman:

The first $75 billion is just a downpayment. Expect to pay hundreds of billions in the short-term, trillions in the long run. Expect it to come out of your schools, your police forces, your highways, your future and your children's future

Megan introduces her piece with some wild, hysterical predictions from a Liberal Blogger about the cost of the impending Iraq War.

Anyone who's sat through a budget meeting

Which excludes Megan, of course, although she had yet to reveal her identity when this was written. It sure helped make her seem like a person who had sat through a "budget meeting" (technical term) rather than someone who has never had a real job, save a few months at the firm of one of her dad's pals. And this sweet-ass columnist gig.

knows that almost everyone overestimates their successess (sic), underestimates their costs; it's easier to go back for money later, when you can wave a nice hunk of sunk costs around, than say up front that you think whatever it is you're proposing will be expensive as hell.

Wait a second, I think she WAS sitting in on White House budget meetings! That was Dick Perle's argument. Almost verbatim. Wolfowitz chimed in with "Yeah, fuck 'em!" while Robert Kagan tore apart a Muslim doll with his teeth.

But trillions? US GDP is roughly $10 trillion.

"Roughly. Because I have never figured out how to look up a number." I bet no one knows what the GDP really is. It and the fate of Judge Crater are the only real mysteries left in this world. I asked Google "What was the GDP in 2002?" and all I got was lines of code like the Matrix and a horrible, piercing klaxon.

Alterman is saying that over the long run, this war is going to cost us at least 20% of GDP. That's nuts, and it's not the first time I've seen those sorts of numbers around.

Hee hee. Ho ho ho. Hoo boy. Oh.

Reality check: the entire US military budget is in the range of $350b.

Therefore, by definition this sandy misadventure could not cost more. Unless…the administration repeatedly went back to Congress for "emergency" supplemental funding requests? Nah. No one would fall for that.

Saying that this war will cost trillions in any term short enough for us to care about (I mean, he's probably right, if we use a timescale of several hundred years, but that's not very useful)

McEstimate: it will take several hundred years for the war to cost "trillions." Kids, this is why you shouldn't make a lot of predictions in a medium that archives everything.

is saying that this war is going to cost nearly as much as the entire military budget, year in and year out, for decades. For reference, the next six months are estimated to cost $60b on military spending. (I'm excluding the humanitarian and domestic segment of the budget submitted by the President.) Even with a fudge factor of 50%, that's $90b over the next six months, $180b a year. At that rate, assuming you do absolutely no discounting at all, it would take us over 10 years to get to $2t, thus meeting the "trillions" criteria.

UNLESS…nah. We already went over that. But here we see McTardle Tactic #1A: including lots of numbers parsed with high school algebra skills to create the appearance of precision and the reassuring veneer of facts. Everyone knows that half of $180b is $90b, and half of a year is 6 months. This is the kind of thing you learn at University of Chicago's MBA program.

Which is madness.

It sure is, cubby!

By that logic, we were spending as much on WWII in 1953 as we were in 1943.

WWII was over in 1953. But I see the point because the Iraq War will be over in, like, 6 weeks! And with no casualties. In fact, I think the pre-Iraq War plan was to send over one Marine to wipe out the Hussein regime by himself. It was totally plausible because it's a really big Marine and he's armed with Mjolnir. And once the Iraqi Army is defeated, the war is over, DUMBASS. What don't liberals get about that?

If you don't know, military spending during WWII was over 50% of GDP

Ixnay on the condescension, Chet.

it was in the 10% range during Korea, and dropped sharply thereafter. This while we were still occupying Japan, still garrisoning Germany, had a mandatory draft, and were building up for the Cold War. Even if you attribute the entire cost of the Cold War to WWII, and none of it to Stalinist imperialism, you still don't get the kind of numbers required to make the occupation cost as much as the battle. The difference is even more stark now, for you must remember that we have an all-volunteer army, which gets paid whether or not they're in Iraq.

OK, just to review, apparently her argument is that since our military is all-volunteer and we are paying their salaries anyway, the Iraq War really isn't going to cost much of anything at all. Everyone get that? Good. "For you must remember" it.

The extra, non-labor cost of the war is heavy on things like ordnance

Well I guess she's allowing that it will cost a few bucks. But remember: 6 weeks!

which we won't be expending once we control the country.

(requires sound)

"Which we won't be expending once we control the country." I could not make this shit up if I tried, people. And I have. Lord how I've tried to make up something as funny as McTardle. I subjected a number of baboons to severe head injuries in an effort to replicate her style. It didn't work, and the Animal Liberation Front has burned down my house three times.

Where do they get these numbers?

Certainly not from the ironclad reserves of logic and basic math that lustily fornicate to produce McTardle's numbers!!!!111!!!!one!

With gems like this from James Galbraith, son of the amiably paranoiac pop-economist John Kenneth Galbraith.

That's not a sentence, but OK. Here I have redacted a lengthy quote from Mr. Galbraith, which you can read here and in which he makes some outlandish predictions like that the war might take 5 years or 200,000 troops. Put down the crack pipe, dude!

He offers vague possibilities, making no attempt to quantify them, much less calculate their probability

Yeah, Megan's a real stickler for sources, attribution, and precision.

He conflates all sorts of costs into one big amorphous bundle. He only looks at costs on one side; for example, discussing the cost in lives of the war, without discussing the cost in lives of Saddaam's regime and the sanctions that are the likely alternative to the war.

What we need is a close look at the specifics, not just a bunch of hypothetical bullshit.

If we kill 300 Iraqi civilians and 300 American troops ousting Saddaam (sic), and Saddaam's (sic) secret police are murdering 1,000 people a year, and 5,000 people a year are dying from the humanitarian crisis brought on by sanctions, it is not a net "cost" in human lives.

There is nothing I could write that would be funnier or sadder than this. 4,000 U.S. dead later…but how about those 300 civilian deaths!


Likewise, he examines only the negative consequences the current uncertainty might have on the economy, without mentioning that, for example, a successful war might boost the consumer confidence dampened by fears of terrorism,

Yeah, it boosted the shit out of the economy. Especially because…

or that lowered security risk in the Middle East might result in both lower oil prices, and higher investment in highly oil-dependent industries.

…post-2003 oil prices fell like a stone. God, it's like she was staring into a crystal ball.

He offers unsourced references for large numbers — "One estimate for the cost of rebuilding Iraq runs to $2 trillion" — in order to give his claims a false patina of precision.

If anyone can find an example of a Megan McArdle piece in which A) numbers are sourced or B) the sourced numbers outnumber the hypothetical made up numbers, you will win Megan McArdle's home address, a one-way bus ticket to said address, and a flaming suitcase full of dog shit. Do with those what you please.

He cites any number of highly speculative, unquantitative "costs" in terms of US prestige and other such intangibles that have nothing to do with economic costs. He posits "opportunity costs" of not doing things that many of us don't want to spend federal money on in the first place. An opportunity cost is a precise economic term: it means the next-best alternative use for your money.

Thanks for the econ lesson, professor! Boy, anonymity was McTardle's friend, wasn't it? She sounded more authoritative before she revealed that she has no economic training or experience of any kind, and in fact is just a talentless rich kid with an absurdly high opinion of herself and the good fortune that twentysomething glibertarian tools find her attractive.

You can't claim that our failure to institute national health care is an opportunity cost of the war when such a thing would cost far more than the money being spent on the war

Well, it cost way more than the One Marine Swinging Mjolnir version of the War, but not so much the Reality Based one.

Thus, Eric Alterman is enabled to claim that the cost to the US taxpayer will be over $2t, even though most of the larger costs cited by Galbraith aren't going to be borne by Americans either directly or indirectly, but by Iraqi oil.6

Ah, yes. Remember, the war that really isn't going to cost anything to begin with (because we're already paying the Army, stupid) was going to be self-financed by Iraqi oil. Note that this sentence is followed by a footnote, which reads in its comedic entirety: "Am I suggesting that the Iraqis should pay for occupation expenses? Nope. We can afford it, and there's something repellent about making impoverished Iraqis pay for a war foisted on them by an evil dictator. But most of that $2t, if it is any sort of a real number, will be stuff for Iraqis: roads, schools, hospitals, government buildings, power plants and sewers and all the good stuff that lets us live like citizens of the 21st century. That stuff should come out of Iraqi oil revenues."

Again, there isn't much I can add to this. I tried. I got nothin'.

The war will certainly cost more than the $60b and change that the President is asking for. But it is not going to run us several trillion dollars (though even if it did, that would work out to less than 0.1% of GDP over the next 20 years.)

To recap: "The war isn't going to cost us anything much of anything, although it will surely cost more than the amount Bush requested, and even if it does cost a lot it's not so bad so long as we look at the GDP over this arbitrary 20 year timeframe I just pulled clean out of my puckered butthole."

I don't know how much more, and neither does anyone else, although I'm sure the military has better guesses than I could make.

"This is unknowable. The military knows."

Megan, they can tell us with some precision what various scenarios will cost. The fundamental problem here was that the scenario posed to them – a six week war costing only a few grand for Private Smith's salary and a couple of weeks of Mjolnir rental at standard rates – was retarded.

It's important to think about the economic cost of the war — the pro-war side has mostly dropped the ball on this, and it's an important calculation when we consider whether or not to go. But making up ridiculous numbers in order to support your predisposition isn't helpful — and when the war doesn't cost us $2t, people are going to remember that the next time you talk about the costs of a program you don't like.

The first draft had a footnote here: "And when it does, I will look like the biggest (idiot/tool/brain-dead sycophant) this side of an audience at a county fair tractor pull."

This…this article almost FJMed itself. I think the best way to enjoy this is simply to click through and read her original post. Read it again and again. Marvel at it. It's like a time warp back to 2003. Remember 2003? Remember how awful it was? How 70% of the country thought this was a good argument? Six week war! Oil riches to pay the tab! 100 casualties, max! Well, I want you all to do something for me. Think of one person who you really, really wanted to punch in 2003 because this torrent of shit spewed so readily from their mouths. Send them this column. Fire off a quick email and let them know that no matter how hard the McArdles of the world pray that we will forget, we remember.

Ideally this would make him or her feel embarrassed – Megan, if you ever read this (and I sure hope you do!) I have no idea how you can look back at what you've written and do anything other than either die of shame on the spot (something roughly akin to Obi-Wan becoming a Force Ghost on the Death Star) or come to grips with the fact that maybe writing isn't for you – but we know we are dealing with a kind of person so intellectually languid that he or she is incapable of feeling shame. Shame requires being intelligent enough to realize that you were wrong and, more importantly, that it matters that you were so incredibly wrong.