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We speak to economist Gerald Epstein, who did the cost-benefit analysis of the US invasion of Iraq. He found that the US military adventure cost US workers approximately two trillion dollars

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SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore. Imperialism, a highly contested term in political science- one form of imperialism is the act of using your military for expanding and extending borders and conquering land. Now, there is a less invasive form, at least less invasive militarily, but imperialism also could include gaining influence through political and economic means- why, a free market economy, which also subjugates foreign countries, to adhere to the national interests of the imperial state via the market place. 

Now, we saw both of these forms of imperialism coming together when we, meaning the US, invaded Iraq. Now, the U.S. Invasion of Iraq was done under a false claim that Saddam Hussein and Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Now, they did this to gain access to exploiting the natural resources that Iraq had, which is oil, and getting rid of Saddam Hussein, really helped order to gain control of the oil wells, he oil contracts, the resources, and the oil itself coming out of Iraq. 

Now, if the British empire grew very powerful by dominating foreign markets, natural resources, and of course cheap labor in the colonies, so could the U.S. Now, Karl Marx posed the question if it is worth it to impoverish millions of workers in the East Indies in order to procure for just one point five million workers in England in the same industry. Now, that question has become even more relevant today, when it comes to the U.S., and its mission, or imperialistic ambitions, abroad. 

Now, President Trump, during his inauguration, drew a direct connection between U.S. imperialism and the U.S. working class, and how his plans, his vision, for the United States could benefit its workers. Let’s listen. 

DONALD TRUMP: From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first. Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families. 

SHARMINI PERIES: In a new book, titled Changing Face of Imperialism, edited by Sunanda Sen and Maria Cristina Marcuzzo, Professor Gerald Epstein has a chapter in that book he wrote a while ago, “Do U.S. Workers Gain from U.S. Imperialism?” In this chapter, Gerald Epstein calculated that between 1985 and 2000, the bottom eighty percent of Americans lost between four hundred billion and 2.8 eight trillion dollars as a direct result of US imperialism. 

Well, on to talk about this with me is Gerald Epstein. He is co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute at UMass Amherst, and he’s professor of economics there as well. Good to have you back with us, Jerry. 

GERALD EPSTEIN: Thank you for having me. 

SHARMINI PERIES: Jerry, let’s start with the why you embarked on this endeavor in the first place, to explore if the U.S. worker actually gained some benefits from U.S. imperialism. 

GERALD EPSTEIN: Right, as you said- you know, I wrote this chapter actually quite a while ago, just as the United States was about to invade Iraq in 2003. And the question I was asking myself is- well, this seemed to be a wildly popular decision on the part of the Bush administrations, George W. Bush, including among workers. And my- the question I was asking myself is, why? This seemed like such a despicable, immoral, and crazy act. Why was it so wildly popular among people including U.S. working class? 

GERALD EPSTEIN: So, I decided to actually go out and look, try to put together a conceptual framework, look at the numbers, and see whether, in the recent past at that time, U.S. workers had benefited from U.S. imperialism. And, as you suggested in your introduction, there are different ways think about imperialism. One is, imperialism that involves the use of military force to achieve hegemony over other countries and extract benefits from them. And since I was interested in the invasion of Iraq, I decided to try to estimate mostly that kind of imperialism. 

And there’s a more informal type of imperialism, just based on various kinds of subtle powers the U.S. might have. It influenced the International Monetary Fund, other countries’ trade policies, their foreign aid policies, et cetera. These I put on one side. So, I was really looking at what I call “the iron fist” of Imperialism, the involvement of a military force. And I found, as you suggested, that in fact U.S. workers, in the fifteen years before the invasion, lost from U.S. imperialism. And so, I tried to calculate both the benefits and the costs. 

So, what could the possible benefits to U.S. workers be? Well, Michael Klare and others argue that a lot of U.S. Foreign policy has been directed towards controlling oil in the Middle East. And clearly, the invasion of Iraq was connected with that whole endeavor- to control the supply of oil. So, one issue is, well, who benefits from oil prices being lower and oil prices being more stable? A second role of imperialism is, for the United States, to be able to borrow money from the rest of the world at an incredibly low interest rate because of the role of the dollar, which is maintained partly by military force that the United States exerts. So, what is the benefit of workers, of getting lower-interest loans from the rest of the world and getting things more cheaply. So, those are benefits. 

What are the costs to U.S. workers? Well of course, there’s the cost of blood, human life. A lot of the military is supplied by U.S. workers. But I didn’t include that, that’s clearly negative. But the other cost is the budgetary expenditure, military expenditures, which in the United States are massive. And who pays for those, who pays the tax burden to pay for those military expenditures? So, when I added it all up, what I came out with was the figures you mentioned- was that, in fact, the U.S. worker, as a group, you can measure them as a lower sixty percent of the income distribution, the lower eighty percent of the income distribution lost. tremendously, as much as two trillion dollars or so, economically from imperialism. I also conjectured that, is this always true? 

In the 1960s, 1950s, 1970s- I didn’t study this period, but I looked at it- and it seemed like the argument is stronger that during that period, U.S. workers did benefit from some of the imperialistic adventures that the U.S. government engaged in. Part of the reason is because U.S. workers didn’t have to pay as much of the burden. The tax system was much more progressive in those times. Richer people paid a higher percentage of taxes and the cost of military adventures were less. 

By the time of the 1980s, U.S. workers clearly were not benefiting economically from this. So, if U.S. workers are supporting these kinds of military adventures, it’s not really for economic reasons, according to my analysis. Something else is going on, which kind of raises the question, what could be going on in the future if President Trump and his administration decides to get into another war in the Middle East, say with Iran, or other military adventures? Would they be popular among U.S. workers? And it’s unlikely it would be so for economic reasons. There would have to be other reasons. 

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Jerry, the tendency of the working class to actually be right wing and support wars, which is a well-known phenomenon- you know, most of the right-wing sections of the United States tend to be supporters of military action by the United States. Now, even when it is obvious that empires and missions of the empire serve mainly the upper classes, it is often the lower classes that actually have to pay the price. It is the lower classes that are mainly in the military. And so, I think Mark’s referred to this as “false consciousness” on the part of the working class. Do you think that by measuring and publishing the cost of the empire, the way you have, and its impact it’s having on the working class, is it possible to conceive that people will abandon the kind of thinking that they are having, about war-mongering in particular? 

GERALD EPSTEIN: Well, I think the roots of this kind of support for military adventures, just as the roots xenophobia and the roots of racism and anti-immigrant feelings and so forth, are much deeper than pure economics. I guess my view is that it could help. I mean, at the margins, publishing these kinds of- this kind of information, pointing out the economic costs to people who might otherwise support these kinds of policies- especially since Trump, in this case, has really put it in economic terms you know putting America first helping workers So, to confront that kind of argument directly may have a small impact, and I think it’s worth doing. 

SHARMINI PERIES: And to dispel the myths associated with this kind of empire, mission of the empire impacting the workers, what are some of the big data items that we could draw on to shift public opinion? 

GERALD EPSTEIN: Well, first of all, the cost of the military and who’s paying the taxes to support the military, or whose government benefits are being cut as a result of this kind of expenditure. That’s number one. Number two, of course, is who’s paying the price in terms of having to be, as you said, in the military losing their lives. The impact on veterans is such a heavy price, and the government is not taking care of the veterans. These are all things which are, in some sense, obvious. But it’s worth harping on, being clear on, in terms of these kinds of costs. 

Ultimately, though, there’s a huge moral question, you know. Is it morally correct to engage in this kind of destructive activity, killing thousands of people in other countries, under these kinds of conditions? And of course, the answer is no. So, I don’t mean that these economic arguments should displace the much more important strategic and moral issues. But it’s an additional argument to emphasize. 

SHARMINI PERIES: All right. I know various economists like yourself and Joseph Stiglitz, who wrote the book on the three trillion-dollar cost of the war in Iraq, for example, are trying to draw attention to it. I hope that it starts to catch on in a more popular way, because I think that’s when people really realize, you know, we are paying for this and we are losing our lives, and we need to do something about it. So, I thank you so much for joining us today, Gerald, and I do hope you come back soon. 

GERALD EPSTEIN: Okay, thanks, Sharmini. 

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network. 

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Gerald Epstein is co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute and Professor of Economics at UMass Amherst.