The Three Trillion Dollar War at Home

The United States has passed an historic and symbolic watershed in its unrelenting, two generations-long quest to incarcerate as many Blacks as humanly possible. As of January 1, more than one of every 100 adults is behind bars, about half of them Black. That’s not counting Afro-Latinos and other Hispanics. The U.S. is the unchallenged leader in mass incarceration, with the largest Gulag on the planet, based on raw numbers of inmates – 2,319,258 in federal and state prisons and local jails – and per capita incarceration: 750 inmates for every 100,000 people. Russia, which led the world back in Soviet times, is number two, with 628 inmates per 100,000. The Black and brown U.S. prisoner population, alone, roughly equals that of China’s – a nation with four times the population of the U.S.

Black Prison Gulag and the Police State, Glen Ford , March 5, 2008

The administration’s estimates have been low—and wrong—from the start. Some of this is the result of its shortsightedness about every aspect of the war, beginning with its nature and duration. For instance, extensive use of reservists and the National Guard avoided the need to increase the size of the armed forces or resort to a draft—but at a heavy price, including reliance on highly paid contractors, people who in other contexts would have been called mercenaries. Another factor is the soaring price of fuel caused by the increase in the price of oil—which is itself, in part, a consequence of the war.

But even the $600 billion number is disingenuous—which is to say false. The true cost of the war in Iraq, according to our calculations, will, by the time America has extricated itself, exceed $3 trillion. And this is a deliberately conservative estimate. The ultimate cost may well be much higher.

The $3 Trillion War, Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes April 2008

With the 5th anniversary of the war coming on March 19 we will soon be swamped in numbers, such as Stiglitz’s estimate. The thing about these sorts of numbers is that they can become so abstract that they are meaningless. I am not sure concrete illustrations help: “…to count out One Trillion ($1,000,000,000,000) dollars nonstop without sleeping or eating it would take Thirty-Nine Thousand (39,000) years”( Earth’s Common Sense Think Tank).

What I find much more frightening are the problems we are not talking about because we are always talking about the war. Edwards’ push in other directions only went so far; the limited health care proposals of both Clinton and Obama may just make things worse. Now comes word that the U.S. leads the world in mass incarceration and that not surprisingly the prisons echo the class system and are filled with the minority poor.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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