War Is a Bad Investment

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Fighting a war costs an immeasurable amount of money. Brown University’s Costs of War Project has been trying to measure what the country has spent on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and dozens of other countries over the past two decades, which is both a vitally important and utterly futile effort. There is no way to tally the cost of thousands of lives lost or forever changed from America’s wars around the world.


There is, however, a way to quantify what our economy could have been like if not for the war. Specifically, Costs of War determined that a dollar spent on defense spending creates shockingly fewer jobs than one spent on other ventures, like education or clean energy. In a new study, researchers found that, based on data from fiscal years 2001-2019, the country has spent around $260 billion per year on the forever war, a staggering sum that could have transformed the country if applied elsewhere.

From the study, written by HeidiGarrett-Peltier a PhD research fellow at the University of Massachusetts.

These three reasons—labor intensity, domestic content, and average wage—all explain the finding that $1 million of war-related spending supports fewer jobs than that same amount spent on clean energy, healthcare, education, or infrastructure. Including both direct and indirect jobs, the military creates 6.9 jobs per $1 million, while the clean energy industry and infrastructure each support 9.8 jobs, healthcare supports 14.3, and education supports 15.2. So for the same amount of spending, clean energy and infrastructure create 40 percent more jobs than the military, healthcare creates 100% more, and education 120% more.

Here’s what that means we lost, according to the study:

Alternatively, that same amount of spending could have created about 2.5 million jobs in clean energy or in infrastructure, or could have created 3.7 million jobs in healthcare, nearly 4 million jobs in education broadly defined, and close to 5 million jobs if we spent the funds on primary and secondary schooling. On average, if we include all four areas, the $260 billion spent on the war could have produced over 3 million jobs, and thus we lost the opportunity to create 1.4 million jobs on average. If we focus on the largest possible gap, that between defense and primary and secondary education, the lost opportunity is over 3 million jobs.


What goes unsaid, of course, is that the obscene level of spending necessitated to conquer two developing-world countries and colonize a dozen more has put a brutal strain on the economy. We have borne that strain despite the clear fact that all of that money would have been put to better use elsewhere. War is easy to sell, even if the returns are shit for everyday people; every study shows us that we’ve spent the past two decades funneling away our future into a bloated defense budget because our leaders have sold us all on fear.


The economy is relatively healthy at the moment, but imagine showing these numbers to someone in 2008 when the entire job market was up in flames. And with another recession looming, our military budget shows no sign of slowing down. The same people who sold us on Iraq—the American right—are now claiming that the Green New Deal will bankrupt the country based on made-up numbers, and destroying education in vulnerable states. We’d probably have the best government-funded schools in the world if Lockheed Martin and its army of lobbyists decided to start selling pencils.

Contributing Writer, Splinter