This lengthy interview and article in today's Guardian by Aida Edemariam is worth reading in full to get the whole story. Here we can only give a few taster quotes.
Stiglitz and Bilmes dug deeper, and what they have discovered, after months of chasing often deliberately obscured accounts, is that in fact Bush's Iraqi adventure will cost America - just America - a conservatively estimated $3 trillion. The rest of the world, including Britain, will probably account for about the same amount again. And in doing so they have achieved something much greater than arriving at an unimaginable figure: by describing the process, by detailing individual costs, by soberly listing the consequences of short-sighted budget decisions, they have produced a picture of comprehensive obfuscation and bad faith whose power comes from its roots in bald fact. Some of their discoveries we have heard before, others we may have had a hunch about, but others are completely new - and together, placed in context, their impact is staggering. There will be few who do not think that whatever the reasons for going to war, its progression has been morally disquieting; following the money turns out to be a brilliant way of getting at exactly why that is.
Thus, any idea that war is good for the economy, Stiglitz and Bilmes argue, is a myth. A persuasive myth, of course, and in specific cases, such as world war two, one that has seemed to be true - but in 1939, America and Europe were in a depression; there was all sorts of possible supply in the market, but people didn't have the cash to buy anything. Making armaments meant jobs, more people with more disposable income, and so on - but peacetime western economies these days operate near full employment. As Stiglitz and Bilmes put it, "Money spent on armaments is money poured down the drain"; far better to invest in education, infrastructure, research, health, and reap the rewards in the long term. But any idea that war can be divorced from the economy is also naive. "A lot of people didn't expect the economy to take over the war as the major issue [in the American election]," says Stiglitz, "because people did not expect the economy to be as weak as it is. I sort of did. So one of the points of this book is that we don't have two issues in this campaign - we have one issue. Or at least, the two are very, very closely linked together."
So quite apart from the war, does he think a particular kind of unfettered market has had its day? "Yes. I think that anybody who believes that the banks know what they're doing has to have their head examined. Clearly, unfettered markets have led us to this economic downturn, and to enormous social problems." Combined with the war, whoever inherits the White House faces a crisis of epic proportions. Where do they go from here? "The way that shapes the debate," says Stiglitz, "is that Americans have to say, 'Even if we stay for another two years, just two years, and we're spending $12bn a month up front in Iraq, and it's costing us another 50% in healthcare, disability, bringing it up to $18bn a month in Iraq, and you look at that in another 24 months, we're talking about half a trillion dollars more for two years - forgetting about the economic cost, the ancillary costs, the social costs - just looking at the budgetary cost - not including the interest - you have to say, is this the way we want to spend a half a trillion dollars? Will it make America stronger? Will it make the Middle East safer? Is this the way we want to spend it?"
The Three Trillion Dollar War, by Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, is published by Allen Lane, price £20.