F itful spring sunshine is warming the neo-gothic limestone of the Houses of Parliament in central London, and the knots of tourists wandering round them, but in a basement cafe on Millbank it is dark and quiet, and Joseph Stiglitz is looking as though he hasn't had quite enough sleep. For two days non-stop he has been talking - at the London School of Economic (LSE), at Chatham House (international affairs think tank), to television crews - and then he is flying to Washington to testify before Congress on the subject of his new book. Whatever their reservations, representatives will have to listen, because not many authors with the authority of Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winner in economics, an academic tempered by four years on Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers and another three as chief economist at the World Bank (during which time he developed an influential critique of globalization), will have written a book that so urgently redefines the terms in which to view an ongoing conflict.
The Three Trillion Dollar War reveals the extent to which its effects have been, and will be, felt by everyone from Wall Street to the British high street, from Iraqi civilians to African small traders, for years to come.
Some time in 2005, Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes, who also served as an economic adviser under Clinton, noted that the official Congressional Budget Office estimate for the cost of the war so far was of the order of US$500 billion. The figure was so low, they didn't believe it, and decided to investigate. The paper they wrote together, and published in January 2006, revised the figure sharply upwards, to between US$1 trillion and US$2 trillion. Even that, Stiglitz says now, was deliberately conservative: "We didn't want to sound outlandish."
So what did the Republicans say? "They had two reactions," Stiglitz says wearily. "One was Bush saying, 'We don't go to war on the calculations of green eye-shaded accountants or economists.' And our response was, 'No, you don't decide to fight a response to Pearl Harbor on the basis of that, but when there's a war of choice, you at least use it to make sure your timing is right, that you've done the preparation. And you really ought to do the calculations to see if there are alternative ways that are more effective at getting your objectives. The second criticism - which we admit - was that we only look at the costs, not the benefits. Now, we couldn't see any benefits. From our point of view we weren't sure what those were."
Appetites whetted, 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 US$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. 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.