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The below is the first contribution from “the Data Artist”, an author who hails from the fintech world and is a believer in beautiful rather than big data.
What is the value of a dead solider?
A quality adjusted life year — or QALY– was not something most of us had heard of until the Covid pandemic hit. Once it did, however, it didn’t take long before the ethical complexity of trying to figure out the reasonable cost of saving a vulnerable life was thrust into the limelight.
Previously unheard of mathematicians to most people, such as Sir David Spiegelhalter, an expert in the field of Qaly calculation, soon became household names.
But the truth is that economists have been attempting to place a value on human life for decades.
This is not out of some quasi-philosophical desire to turn everything into a number but simply to help governments make better policy and spending decisions in matters of life and death.
For example, with a finite budget do you spend funds building 10 pedestrian crossings outside schools, fund an expensive cancer treatment for a single patient or have a Downing Street party to celebrate the government’s success in defeating Covid? It’s a tricky decision to make.
But placing a value impact of saving lives or avoiding disablement, in terms of VOLYs (year of life value – currently £60,000 in the UK) or QALYs should in theory help to make for better decisions.
A war economy spins this logic on its head.
Rather than trying to value the cost of saving a life, the focus instead turns to the economic cost of extinguishing a single enemy life.
For whom the actuarial bell tolls
At the height of the pandemic many people, including those who had lost loved ones, understandably found the whole concept of putting a value on human life repugnant. In a world of finite resources, however, hard choices have to be made. This is the logic that drives the practical rationale behind triage.
It may be morbid but it makes sense that the same logic should be applied to policies designed to kill people, albeit presumably only bad people who were planning to do bad things. (Which in war, whether fairly on unfairly, constitutes the broad brush of all enemy combattants.)
In that vein, the American-led war against the Taliban from 2001-2021 provides some interesting statistical insights.
A good starting point for assessing what the fair value of extinguishing an enemy life was in Afghanistan is the $5m award that was offered by US Authorities for the capture (alive not dead) of senior Taliban leadership. It seems reasonable to conclude the death or capture of ordinary foot soldiers might be worth considerably below that.
And yet, once the total sums spent by the US and its allies are factored in the cost of killing a Talib far exceed that.
Between 2005 and 2021 the US funded the Afghan armed forces to the tune of $74.42bn.
To understand how this translates into a value for each dead Talib needs the total number of Taliban killed during the war.
Since Taliban were not counted with quite the precision as financial aid to the Afghan army we have to rely on estimates. Brown University tallied over 50,000 dead Taliban, based in part on numbers released by the Afghan ministry of defence.
This works out at $1.48m per Talib.
However, that is only part of the story. The total “costs of war” spent by the US Department of Defence were $824.9bn.
Deducting “reconstruction costs” (also assessed by Brown University and the Afghan MoD), which hopefully did not result in the killing of too many people, leaves $742.2bn spent on direct war fighting giving us a total cost per dead Talib of $14.84m.
But counting the dead is far from straightforward when the fallen come from a guerrilla army and they are killed by modern weapons.
These numbers also exclude the costs of other allied powers in fighting the war and supporting the Afghan armed forces. Some calculations of the US costs go as high as $2tn, but that includes reconstruction, long-term care of the American wounded and interest on the funds borrowed to prosecute the war. So overall $15m per dead Talib seems a reasonable number, if the term “reasonable” can ever really be applied to killing people.
Estimating the cost of killing a Russian soldier invading Ukraine is a little trickier.
The war has been in progress for less than two months as opposed to 20 years. It is therefore harder to determine how much of the promised aid from the US, UK, EU and others will actually be delivered.
Instinctively, it feels correct that it should cost a lot more to kill a Russian soldier.
After all, unlike the typical Talib — a farm boy in sandals and armed with a rusty old Kalashnikov — Russian soldiers come heavily armed, well-trained and transported by expensive armoured vehicles.
The data tell a different story. Even after taking the whole of Ukraine’s annual military expenditure into account, including published promises from the US and EU, and then dividing the number by the NATO estimate of Russian deaths, we arrive at a figure of no more than $774,000.
As we reminded ourselves initially, the point of looking at data, no matter how unpalatable, is to make better decisions. So what might be gleaned from the findings above?
The more bloodthirsty reader could reach the conclusion that sending Javelin and Stinger missiles to Ukraine, is enormously good value compared to killing members of the Taliban.
The more humane reader may take the above as a reason not to support Ukraine and instead to build many more pedestrian crossings next to schools.
The more thoughtful reader will consider how the experience of Afghanistan demonstrated that war can develop a momentum all of its own, unrelated to the reasons for going to war.
The spending on the war in Afghanistan got so out of control it may have been more cost effective to buy each Talib a passport for a pleasant civilised country, a nice beach front property and still have a few million dollars left for them to start a business, or simply just to retire.
Ukraine needs help to defend itself. But someone should also keep track of the numbers to identify if and when it becomes more cost effective to end the war in a different way.
For example, given the heavy presence of soldiers of fortune in the conflict already, offering combatants a handsome pay off not to fight could make for a more peaceful resolution.
Think of this akin to running a common agricultural policy for conflict, where combattants instead of farmers are offered subsidies not to work.
It’s a policy that was, after all, very proficiently deployed by the Taliban against the NATO-trained Afghan army.