HKS Affiliated Authors


April 1, 2024, Audio: "HKS Senior Lecturer Linda Bilmes, an expert on public finance who has studied post-9/11 war costs for the past 20 years, says their staggering $5 trillion price tag was enabled by what she calls the “ghost budget.” Using an unprecedented combination of borrowing, accounting tricks, and outsourcing, presidential administrations, Congress, and the Pentagon were able to circumvent traditional military budget processes in a way that kept war costs out of the public debate and resulted in trillions being spent with minimal oversight. The result: corporations and wealthy investors raking in huge profits; massive waste and fraud; and—combined with the Bush and Trump tax cuts—a shifting of the burden of the costs of war away from the wealthy and onto middle- and lower-income people and future generations. Of course by any metric, the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were costly. Human life? At least 430,000 Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistani civilians dead, along with more than 7,000 U.S. military personnel and thousands of civilian contractors. Democratic progress? Afghanistan is once again an authoritarian theocracy under the Taliban, and instead of transforming Iraq and the region, the invasion and occupation undermined popular sentiment toward democracy, unleashed sectarian violence, and strengthened autocratic regimes. But the budgetary problems are something we can address now, Bilmes says, with congressional reforms and prudent planning for the long-term costs of the wars, including caring for veterans. “The Ghost Budget” is also the title of Bilmes’ next book, which will be published next year."