Comparing his destruction with that of other monsters over the years is of questionable value, but quite a few folks have been doing it this week, including Tim Fernholz and Jim Tankersley of the National Journal. Their price tag for bin Laden is $3 trillion over 15 years.
Other enemies throughout history have extracted higher gross costs, in blood and in treasure, from the United States. The Civil War and World War II produced higher casualties and consumed larger shares of our economic output. As an economic burden, the Civil War was America's worst cataclysm relative to the size of the economy. The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service estimates that the Union and Confederate armies combined to spend $80 million, in today's dollars, fighting each other. That number might seem low, but economic historians who study the war say the total financial cost was exponentially higher: more like $280 billion in today's dollars when you factor in disruptions to trade and capital flows, along with the killing of 3 to 4 percent of the population.
On the other hand, these earlier conflicts--for all their human cost--also furnished major benefits to the U.S. economy. After entering the Civil War as a loose collection of regional economies, America emerged with the foundation for truly national commerce; the first standardized railroad system sprouted from coast to coast, carrying goods across the union; and textile mills began migrating from the Northeast to the South in search of cheaper labor, including former slaves who had joined the workforce. The fighting itself sped up the mechanization of American agriculture: As farmers flocked to the battlefield, the workers left behind adopted new technologies to keep harvests rolling in with less labor.
World War II defense spending cost $4.4 trillion. At its peak, it sucked up nearly 40 percent of GDP, according to the Congressional Research Service. It was an unprecedented national mobilization, says Chris Hellman, a defense budget analyst at the National Priorities Project. One in 10 Americans--some 12 million people--donned a uniform during the war. But the payoff was immense. The war machine that revved up to defeat Germany and Japan powered the U.S. out of the Great Depression and into an unparalleled stretch of postwar growth. Jet engines and nuclear power spread into everyday lives. A new global economic order--forged at Bretton Woods, N.H., by the Allies in the waning days of the war--opened a floodgate of benefits through international trade. Returning soldiers dramatically improved the nation's skills and education level, thanks to the GI Bill, and they produced a baby boom that would vastly expand the workforce.
Unlike those conflicts, the writers argue, fighting bin Laden has not produced many benefits.