Newsflash: people dead in Iraq!

Apparently some people have died in Iraq. According to the recently released Lancet study, over 600,000 extra Iraqis have died as a result of the Iraq war.

The report has caused some controversy, with warnicks preferring not to believe it. But as Steve Edwards points out, those who want to dismiss the methodology of the study need to find a reason to also dismiss the generally accurate election polling.

One response I’ve seen a few places is that Saddam also killed lots of people. However the study above measures the net increase in deaths post-invasion.

I find this quite amazing. Even as a peace-monger I had just assumed that life in Iraq must be better now that Saddam is gone, but this study throws that assumption into doubt. Even if we take the lowest figure inside their 95% confidence interval (390,000) and then halve it for fun… that is still nearly 200,000 more deaths than would have happened under Saddam!

Personally, I don’t think this issue is relevant in the debate about whether we should have invaded Iraq. I think Australian, British & American tax-payers should never be forced to pay for an act of international philanthropy. Our defence force should act in our defence, not to increase the life-expectancy of foreigners. I have always found it strange that some pro-war libertarians have hidden behind the foreign aid argument to justify the war, but I guess it was necessary when every other reason fell apart.

Speaking of pro-war arguments falling apart, I was recently looking through some old war debates and found some amuzing discussions. At one stage I did a rough benefit-cost analysis of the war. I assumed that the Iraq war would decrease the costs of terrorism by 90% (against a non-invade baseline) and that the cost of war would only be US$180 billion (a drastic under-estimate) and concluded a 1:2 benefit-cost ratio. For the simple reader, that means the costs were double the benefits.

The warnicks responded that I hadn’t considered the decrease in terrorism (I had assumed a 90% decrease) and one commentator suggested that the decrease would be more than 99%! No warnick complained that my cost estimate was too low.

Later, I did a more detailed estimate of benefits and costs (which won me 2nd prise in the Ross Parish essay contest in 2004) where the war had a benefit-cost ratio of less than 1:10 assuming it went perfectly. I continually challenged the pro-war people to back-up their position was a credible set of assumption and some proper analysis, but it was never done. Instead, they just trusted their government.

34 thoughts on “Newsflash: people dead in Iraq!

  1. I think Australian, British & American tax-payers should never be forced to pay for an act of international philanthropy.

    I agree. However if we are going to wage war abroad I think that we are morally bound to consider the cost (and benefit) to foreigners. Otherwise we could just drop nukes on the place and call it a day.

    Your original cost benefit analysis differs from that of the Bush Adminstration because on the cost side they were looking at the cost of rogue nations acquiring WMD and their being motivated individuals willing to carry one into a US city. In essence 911 changed their assesment of the “potential” costs of terrorism and WMD. Whilst I may not agree with their war I think that you somewhat simplify the case against them. What would be the cost of a nuclear weapon or even a large dirty bomb being detonated in down town New York. If you were the US president what wouldn’t you do to avoid that scenerio.

  2. No Terje — I also looked at the cost of WMDs getting into the wrong hands. I assumed Iraq had WMDs and I assumed that he was cooperating 100% with terrorists, and I assumed that they would definitely attack the west regularly and successfully. Further, in the first BCA I assumed that invading Iraq would remove 90% of the costs of those attacks! I was being more than generous to the war argument. But if you consider those assumptions wrong, then I invite you (and everybody) to suggest a better set of assumptions. Perhaps double or triple the benefits? Hell — quadriple them!

    All modelling requires simplification. But it also forces people to clarify their assumptions and to work through the various benefits and costs and their rough magnitudes. If people had done that more clearly to start with they would have seen that it was impossible to justify the Iraq war. And 600,000 people might still be alive.

  3. Is it possible to quantify any future costs of not supporting the US, our main ally and protector? Maybe tense diplomatic/trade relations, less collaborative military exercises, etc?

  4. My analysis above is regarding the sensibility of the west-as-a-whole invading Iraq. The debate about whether a minor ally should send along a few troops to an inevitable war has a different set of benefits (happy ally) and costs (billions of taxpayers dollars).

    But if you want my opinion, I would estimate the benefit of a happy ally as close to zero.
    The US government will always do what is in their strategic interest. With 2 term limits, even the worst grudge can only last 8 years max. There is no way in hell that Bush wouldn’t defend Canada or New Zealand now anyway. The wonderful benefit (sic) of the Aus-US FTA is hardly worth the hassle of the negotiations. The US is now building bridges with even their most vocal critics within the west. I can’t see how Australia would be any worse off now if we hadn’t contributed troops.

  5. Don’t know if this type of analysis is useful for military conflict. On a cost-benefit basis what would you have said to Chamberlain in 1939?

  6. What is the alternative Sinclair? Just do a benefit analysis? Undertaking government programs that make people worse off? Ignore the consequences of government action? I find your suggestion more than a little odd… and conveniently helpful for somebody who supports a net cost government program. If the sums don’t add up, refuse to do the maths!

    How would you react if somebody suggested the same thing with climate change policy?

    Implicitly, everybody has done a benefit-cost analysis. Presumably, pro-war people thought the benefits of invasion would be larger than the cost. The problem is that by keeping their analysis implicit people are able to spectacularly delude themselves.

    The same should apply to every war, and every piece of government coercion.

  7. Doing a cost-benefit analysis in most situations is the correct thing to do. I have no problem there. Warfare, to my mind, does not lend itself to cost-benefit analysis. If you don’t think you will win, you should never fight. If fighting already, and don’t think you will win, you should sue for peace, or surrender immediately.

    Winston Churchill said, “we will defend our island, whatever the cost”. In that situation the benefits of winning were similar to the status quo, the costs of losing were infinite.

  8. Sinclair, I can’t understand why you would oppose the idea that the government shouldn’t do something that makes peolpe worse off.

    If you’re going to lose the war, of course the costs exceed the benefits — so you don’t start or sue for peace. That’s obvious.

    But if you’re going to win the war (like Iraq) or the result is uncertain, then you need to carefully balance the benefits with the costs to see if you should fight or not. If you don’t assess benefits & costs… how do you make decisions about discretionary wars? Roll a dice? Go with a vibe? Trust the government?

    Why else would people sacrifice their lives (and money), unless their actions were going to give a benefit? Why on earth did you support the invasion if you didn’t think there was a benefit in it?

    You assessment of WW2 benefits and costs is confused. The benefit of the UK fighting was avoiding the costs the Germans taking over and having a German/Nazi dominated world * the probability of success. The costs were the usual (deaths, money etc).

    Terje — my analysis discounted a nuke because we already knew that Iraq didn’t have nukes. With regards to Chem, Bio & Dirty weapons (the real possibilities)… while they’re not nice, they aren’t that much more deadly than conventional weapons.

    As an additional point, I should note that invading Iraq did nothing to prevent Iran or Syria or Nth Korea providing weapons to terrorist groups. The marginal impact of invading Iraq on the accessability to dangeros weaopns hasn’t even been considered. I just assumed that Iraq was the only source, which is patently untrue and another hugely pro-war assumption.

  9. What’s worrying me, I think, is the notion that cost/benefit analysis can be applied the way you think. In some mechanical sense of course it can be, but I’m not sure that your cost-benefit is meaningful. Sure, before the war you said ‘this is a bad idea’ and now you’re saying “I told you so”. How do you know the war was a bad idea? Saddam has been opposed and Iraq does not have WMD. The objectives of the war have been achieved. Yet, a full account of the war cannot be known until after the conflict ends.

    We all agree the governemnt should do less. Now I would argue that it should do national security and law and order. Now I’m happy to agree that cost-benefit should be applied to other things AND that the government shouldn’t do those things. Waging war is a legitimate function of government. Afterall we are not anarchists – who believe there should be no government.

    ‘The marginal impact of invading Iraq on the accessability to dangeros weaopns hasn’t even been considered.’

    Actually, it has. Libya is behaving itself.

  10. Sinclair — what would it take to convince you that a government program produced a net negative? For example, if a spending proposal cost over $1 trillion, did nothing to decrease WMDs, didn’t decrease terrorism, cost thousands of allied lives, increased foreign deaths by half a million and made nobody safer, would you consider that a good government program? If that passess your criteria, then no government program will ever fail!!

    I know the war was a bad idea the same way I know most govenrment programs are bad ideas. I look at the benefits and I look at the costs. It’s blindingly obvious for those who choose to look. The benefit-cost ratio is so one-sided that you could quadriple any reasonable estimate of anything and it still fails! This is a super-easy example of public policy 101.

    You say that waging war is a legitimate function of government… but that doesn’t justify all and any wars, so is a totally meaningless comment. It only justifies wars that give a net benefit! Likewise, while law & order is a legitimate role of government you shouldn’t spend infinite money on decreasing crime — you should only spend money when the benefits are bigger than the costs. These points are faily obvious and I’m amazed that I should have to say them to an economist.

    To be clear, there is an efficient amount of everything that is non-infinite and non-zero. That is true of crime and terrorism just as it is true of apples and computers. All government activity (even legitimate activity) has costs. All government activity (even legitimate activity) is based on violence and/or coercion and can only be justified if it provides a net benefit. These points are faily obvious and I’m amazed that I should have to say them to a libertarian.

    Your Libya point is irrelevant. I aleady assumed that Iraq was the only source of WMDs for terrorists, so I already assumed that Libya, Iran, Syria & Nth Korea behave themselves forever and no other country (Belarus, Myanmar, Afghanistan etc) ever cause trouble — all because we invade Iraq! Do you really believe that?


    As an aside, while anarchists (such as US libertarian David Friedman) don’t believe in government, that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in a defence force or law & order. Just because you don’t believe in public education doesn’t mean you oppose education. It can be provided voluntarily. Likewise… the anarchist position is simply that everything important can be provided voluntarily.

  11. John – Are we arguing about the same thing? I agree all government action is a negative NPV. What I don’t agree is that cost-benefit analysis like you have done constitutes a meaningful analysis. I would be surprised if that technique ever indicated that any war was worth pursuing. Most are not. But some are.

  12. ‘all because we invade Iraq! Do you really believe that?’

    Libya – yes. North Korea – apparently no.

    What would be the opportunity cost of exiting Iraq now?

  13. I don’t think that all government action is necessarily negative. I think most government actions have a negative NPV, but you should judge each action on it’s merits.

    Your position on war is undefendable and inconsistent.

    You say that some wars are worth fighting. Which ones? How do you judge? Obviously, you assess the likely consequences from fighting v not-fighting and judge the fighting to be better. That’s a BCA.

    What is the alternative? If you’re not going to judge government programs (including war) on a rational analysis of their consequences, then how will you make decisions? Tarot? Ask Allah?

    There is no reason to support BCAs for government programs and reject them for war. War is a government program. War, like all government, can only be justified if the benefits exceed the costs. There is no other justification for war. The only other internally consistent philosophical position is deontelogical (judge the action by the action, not the consequence) which leads you to pacifism.

    If rational analysis and the policy you want collide — I suggest picking rational analysis. If you reject rational analysis of the consequences of war (which you seem to be doing), then how do we debate? It becomes religion.

  14. Regarding your last question — I think you mean to ask “what would the costs of existing Iraq be”. The “opportunity cost” would be zero.

    As to the actual costs (and benefits) — I don’t know.

  15. Sigh. Big Sigh. John. “How do you judge?” That is what I’m trying to get out of you!! Do you think a BCA would ever indicate we should go to war? I’m not sure the answer would ever be yes. Clearly you do. So when would this be the case? I’m not asking you to justify your position on the Iraq war, I’m asking you to justify the use of a particular tool. Using WWII as an example (I think this war is probably uncontroversial – given WWI happened, WWII was probably a good idea) would a BCS have indicated, in 1939, that the conflict should happen?

  16. John,

    I broadly agree with your approach and if I looked in detail I would probably agree with your sums given the assumptions. I accept that Iraq didn’t have WMD and didn’t have nukes in particular. Thats not really the point. Iraq was seen as a staging post from which the middle east could be transformed into a series of democractic nations that would neutralise discontent and fanaticism. It would lessen the chance of fanatics one day getting nukes. It was a strategic play not a tactical one. As such the cost of a nuke in New York was probable part of the calculus. Although nobody can accuse the Bush administration of being very clear on any of this. Public opinion was treated as an obstacle to be neutralised not a potential source of wisdom. As such the public were spared any sort of complex of honest discussion.


  17. Sinclair, you’re driving me mad and embarassing yourself.

    Either you believe in rational analysis or blind religion. If you think invading Iraq is a matter of religion/faith, then obviously your opinion doesn’t matter. If you continue to reject rational analysis then it is pointless debating you as there is no grounds for intellegent discussion.

    I’ve explained several times how I judge the decision of going to war: Rationally analyse the consequences, including benefits and costs, and seeing whether the war is in our national interest.

    In contrast, you have not explained how you judge the decision of going to war. You have avoided answering all questions put to you. You reject rational analysis of consequences, but have no alternative framework.

    Of course a BCA could indicate that we should go to war. That would happen if the benefits were bigger than the costs. I think that most wars probably haven’t had a net benefit, which is why I don’t think most wars are a good idea. But it’s perfectly possible. As you suggest, WW2 is perhaps one of the more likely candidates (indeed, most people think so).

    But if rational analysis showed that you should never go to war — so what? Then you should never go to war!

    Likewise, if rational analysis showed that the government should never spend money on health/education/welfare etc — so what? Then you should never spend money on health/education/welfare.

    You seem to understand the concept with regards to most issues, but you reject rational analysis and turn to religious faith when it comes to the “devine necessity” of killing 600,000 foreigners and taking hundreds of billions of taxpayer money.

    I’m amazed (and disapointed) that you would “ask [me] to justify the use of a particular tool [BCAs]”. That tool is one of the basic tools used by people who are rationally analysing the consequences of a government action (ie economists). You are asking me to justify being rational! FFS Sinclair — surely you should justify why you are opposing rational analysis.

    I haven’t done any analysis on WW2. It is childish and absurd to insist that analysis of the Iraq war is invalid because I haven’t analysed a different war! If you want to analyse WW2, go ahead. My instinct is (like most people, apparently including you) that it had a net benefit… but that’s just an instinct.

  18. Lets us imagine you want to put a screw into the wall. You can (a) use a screwdriver or (b) use a hammer. You choose to use a hammer. I say, ‘John are you sure the hammer works’. You say, ‘Sure the hammer works. The screw is now in the wall.’

    You say BCA is a rational tool in common usage. I agree. You are arguing that BCA can be used to analyse all rational decisions (say rational decisions = n). I am not sure that it can be used in n decisions, but n – 1 decisions.

    So to put that in context: You say, ‘I used BCA is analyse the decision to go to war’. I say ‘Is this tool useful in making decisions to go to war’. You say ‘Yes. BCA told me the Iraq war was a bad idea ex ante, and look at the evidence ex post’. I say, ‘Okay. Good point. I’m still not sure, give me another example’. You may be perfectly correct. BCA may be the screwdriver as you say, or it may be the hammer as I suspect.

    I don’t know that a BCA would ever indicate a war of agression to be ‘rational’. Indeed, maybe they are not. Yet, WWII can’t be described as having been irrational. Similarly, a BCA would seldom, if ever, indicate that resistance to an invader is rational – especially civilian resistance. For every soldier killed, they may kill 10 civilians and so on. Yet many individuals do engage in resistance. (Indeed the public choice literature says we have too few individuals resisting because resistance has public good charatectistics and people are rational!).

  19. Another way to look at this issue of rational choice is to turn the question on its head. Who were the decisionmakers on the other side? I think the answer is quite interesting and a little surprising.

    I wish to argue that US inability to identify them and their capabilities and interests prove that the US decisionmaking process starting GWII was very flawed indeed.

    Some preliminary observations:

    I trust that there would be no disagreement with the proposition rational analysis driving a decision to fight a war must assume that the outcome of a war can at best be a zero sum game. Thus, if one side “wins”, the other must “lose”. It may be argued that even though Japan lost WWII, the surviving Japanese population were better off for the loss. However, this possibility did not drive the US decision to wage war on Japan. The Japanese regime that decided to prosecute war was utterly destroyed.

    Thus, when we do a BCA we count the effects on the decision makers, not the contingent, mediated and accidental results. For example, without WWII there would be no nuclear industry, but the decision to go to war had nothing to do with a desire to create a nuclear industry. The rise of a nuclear industry has no place in a BCA analysis of the rationality of British and American choices to enter WWII.

    Now to Iraq.

    It is important to note that the US has taken on two classes of direct enemy in Iraq: the Saddam regime and a hydra-headed insurgency. However, there is also an indirect enemy whose actions explain the apparent chaos in Iraq.

    Let us consider the rationality of the decision of these direct enemies to engage the US.

    1. Saddam.

    I believe that it would be uncontroversial to observe that Saddam is a loser. However, when did Saddam lose the last means to preserve his regime? Bush gave him no choice but to abdicate or to fight. He chose to fight because he figured he had nothing to lose. His decision to fight was not so irrational because he did not suffer a major opportunity cost. Saddam is therefore not a big loser. The US can therefore not be said to be a big winner.

    2. The Insurgency.

    By accident or by design the Insurgency has turned military engagement in Iraq into a major negative sum game. They are prepared to create chaos and misery in the country and to extend the period of that misery until the US tires of the cost in money and blood and withdraws. When the US withdraws the Insurgency will fight a civil war. One coalition will emerge victorious to rule a shattered society.

    Parts of the Iraqi Insurgency are being quite irrational in that their actions serve to drive out the US upon whom they depend for survival. I believe that this applies to the broad Ba’athist and Sunni groups. On the other hand, parts of the Insurgency have been quite rational in that they stand to inherit Iraq when the US withdraws. These are the Shiite forces.

    And there is an extra factor. To a greater or lesser degree, Iraq’s Shiite forces are proxies for Iran’s ambitions in the region. Iran is being presented with an extraordinarily cheap victory in Iraq over its most dangerous enemy.

    GWII was a war that Iran did not seek. But Iran has found victory drop into its lap. Having been presented with this opportunity, Iran has made a series of very rational decisions, including winning the US-sponsored elections, abetting in the chaos, and supplying small amounts of very effective weaponry to be used against US troops.

    When the US made the decision for war in Iraq, The Bush Administration:

    1. Overestimated what Saddam had to lose.
    2. Underestimated the ability of Iraq’s insurgency to turn the war into a major negative sum game.
    3. Took no apparent notice of the ability of Iran almost effortlessly to emerge as the big winner.

  20. After the US toppled Saddam the place had widespread looting but was otherwise quite peaceful and the US military was mostly greeted with smiles. The insurgence didn’t kick off until after the Iraqi army was stood down. Prior to this decision the Iraqi army had been asking the US army how it could help. I think that the peace could have been won in Iraq if the reform agenda had been much more limited. For many Iraqis standing down the army signified a switch from a welcome liberation to an unwelcome occupation. If the Iraqi army had not been stood down it is possible that the US could have withdrawn the bulk of its forces in 2004.

  21. Katz — I don’t believe that war is necessarily a zero-sum game. True, the US defeated Saddam. But the relevant welfare measure is the welfare of the people, not the welfare of the politicians. On that scale it is perfectly possible that people can be made better-off (+ve sum game) or made worse-off (-ve sum game). Hence the need for rational analysis.

    Terje — you say “the peace could hav ebeen won in Iraq if the reform agenda had been much more limited”. Interesting point. What sort of agenda would you suggest? Wasn’t sunni-shi’ite tension inevitable?

  22. John,

    I’m partly thinking aloud. However if the Americans had limited themselves to toppling Saddam and handing power back to the locals without dismantling the institutions or trying to guarantee a transition to democracy they might have been able to depart quickly without making too much of a mess. They could then see how things evolve with the caviet that they might come back and topple the next guy unless he plays ball and moves things in the right direction. I don’t think that mass civil strife was necessarily inevitable if the institutions were retained. Disbanding the army created a power vaccum but also put a lot of soliders out of work and gave them an incentive to go tribal. I think the Americans intended to get out quick however they suffered from mission creep and poor planning. And of course they had little intelligence from before the war so they didn’t know who to trust on the ground.

    I agree that the war was a mistake from the start. However it could have gone better.


  23. “But the relevant welfare measure is the welfare of the people, not the welfare of the politicians.”

    Relevant for whom? As I have suggested, regimes whether democratic or not hardly concern themselves with the welfare of the people, except insofar as they are interested in preserving or extending the scope of their own sovereignty.

    For example, neither Chamberlain nor Roosevelt cared at all about the welfare of Germans or Japanese when each of them declared war on their enemy.

    Thus my observation about the actual BCA that may have gone through the minds of Chamberlain and Roosevelt, or any other leaders who decide on war, stands.

    They were interested in the stewardship of the sovereignty which they were elected to protect.

  24. “However if the Americans had limited themselves to toppling Saddam and handing power back to the locals without dismantling the institutions or trying to guarantee a transition to democracy they might have been able to depart quickly without making too much of a mess.”

    Terje, with all due respect, you strike me as the type of guy who does not understand the horrors of some of these regimes. Have you ever been to Rwanda, to Birkinau, visited the WTC site, have you spoken to people who saw what Saddam did? You cannot “model” freedom from the security of your comfy home in Australia!

    Anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of what has gone on in Iraq would understand that apart from the army and religion, there were no effectively operating civil institutions in Iraq. I’m happy to put you in touch with people who have worked in Iraq if that will help with your “analysis.”

  25. In hindsight, dismantling of the army may be seen as one of the biggest mistakes made. It is an interesting topic as the Americans at the end of WW2 “dealt with” the wartime leaders and promoted the junior officers in Japan and in Germany they engaged in denazification. However due to the the beginning of the Cold War had to ensure that West Germany still had a viable army. In Iraq, they seemed to ignore these lessons, however in their defence, the big difference in Iraq is the Sunni/Shiite divide.


  26. Matt,

    Dismantling the army was edict 2 put out by the CPA. Edict 1 was debathification. This would seem to have been a mistake also as many teachers, doctors etc were members in name only, predominately to access higher wages. The party should have been disbanded but past members should not have been automatically excluded from government jobs. Edict 1 and edict 2 lowered the capacity of the government to deliver services and at the same time created a body of hostility towards the CPA and the Americans in general. It is telling that the bombings by the insurgents started two days after edict 2.

    I acknowlege that this is easy to state in hindsight. I certainly had nothing to offer of use at the time as to how they might win the peace more effectively. It does seem to me that there have been some belated acknowledgement of these mistakes and attempts to unscramble the egg in as much as this is possible.


  27. John, broadly speaking I agree with your point that government action should be subject to rational analysis, and that we (Aus taxpayers) shouldn’t pay to improve the living standards of Iraqis. However, your analysis seems to omit the long term negative effects of leaving Saddam in power*. Like Terje said, it was a strategic move by the Americans. Saddam’s rule had the potential to create further discontent in the region, leading to negative externalities for the west.

    *I’m only arguing that it was right to depose Saddam. What happened since then is a mess.

  28. I ignored the long term negative of leaving Saddam in power? I assumed that having him in power would increase the costs of terrorism by 90%, and you call that “ignoring” the effects?

    What are these supposed huge costs to australian taxpayers of having Saddam in power for a few more years. He was there for the entire 90s and somehow I still managed to eat breakfast and play tennis. He didn’t even give me cancer!

    No half-educated person actually thought that invading Iraq would turn the middle east into a bastion of peace and hippy hand-holding democracy festivals. But even if there were additional externalities fixed by the invasion (in addition to the hugely over-estimated benefits that you seem happy to accept even though they are patently untrue), then it still baffles the rational mind that they could come anywhere near the size of the costs.

    As most libertarians will warn you, vague references to unsubstatiatable externalities is the last refuge of the pro-government taxeaters.

    And the idea that you can pick the good parts (depose Saddam) and leave out the bad parts (everything that happened next) also is the tired and silly assertion of the socialist. If there seriously was a political option of:

    a) I’ll take all the good things government can do, but please leave all the bad stuff out…

    … then we could all be socialists! But (and it’s embarassing I have to explain this to libertarians) the government isn’t perfectly benevolent or brilliant. Government programs always have unforseen consequences. They always go wrong somehow. Somebody always adds their own agenda. Their costs always increase. There is inevitably a change of government, or a change of plan, that undermines the original “pure” plan.

    If you think the choice is between a perfect government and government inaction, then of course you will choose your perfect government. But you’re views are irrelevant to reality.

  29. What are these supposed huge costs to australian taxpayers of having Saddam in power for a few more years. He was there for the entire 90s and somehow I still managed to eat breakfast and play tennis. He didn’t even give me cancer!

    By that measure the cost of the war has been pretty low also. Unless because we invaded Iraq you have had to cancel breakfast and tennis or you have come down with cancer.

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