President Howard Dean, anyone?
Whether Dean, Kerry or someone else, the winning Democrat in 2004 would almost certainly have run for reelection in 2008 (it is hard to imagine Hillary Rodham Clinton launching a primary challenge against a sitting president). That means Barack Obama might still be a senator from Illinois. There would have been no history-making first African American president, no birth-certificate controversy — and Obama could still be friends with his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
If Bush, unable to run as a wartime president, had lost in 2004, he would not have had four more years to alienate Republican moderates with wars and deficits. In this parallel universe, that group of voters might have stayed with the GOP rather than defecting to the Democrats in great numbers in 2008 — and would have wielded more influence in contemporary politics than the tea party movement. And unlike Obama, a Democratic president in a world without 9/11 might have paid less attention to right-leaning independents and governed as more of a progressive.
And what of the U.S. economy in a world in which Mohamed Atta and his fellow terrorists never hijacked airplanes? If the United States had not invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, the national deficit and debt would be considerably lower today. According to a recent report by the Congressional Research Service, between September 2001 and March 2011, Congress appropriated $1.283 trillion for the wars, additional security measures and health care for veterans — with 63 percent of the total related to Iraq and 35 percent to Afghanistan. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have estimated that the long-term cost of the wars, including veterans’ care, may exceed $3 trillion.
That’s a lot of money, no doubt. But as a contribution to the long-term budget deficit, the combined costs of the wars are lower than the costs of the Great Recession and related recovery measures. Recession-driven deficits, in turn, are lower than the long-term deficits caused by the Bush tax cuts.
Bottom line: Even without 9/11 and the subsequent wars, the United States still might be facing huge deficits — particularly if the Bush tax cuts had been enacted and if the stock and real estate bubbles had inflated and then popped, with disastrous effects for the global financial system and consumer demand.
Indeed, when historians write the actual — not counterfactual — history of our time, Sept. 11 might receive less attention than the crash of 2008, which produced the greatest global economic crisis since the Great Depression. The bubble that burst that year was a result of trends dating back to the 1970s, including American consumers taking on excessive debt to finance consumption, despite their stagnant incomes, and the low interest rates made possible by Japan and China, which recycled their huge trade surpluses into purchases of U.S. debt to keep their currencies artificially low and their exports competitive.
These macroeconomic imbalances would have made a global economic reckoning inevitable, with or without 9/11. As it happens, the costs to the world economy after the bubble burst, in lost wealth and slow growth, dwarf both the direct economic damage inflicted on Sept. 11, 2001 — $40 billion in insurance costs, temporary losses in the airline business and a stock market decline — and the indirect costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and of spending on homeland security. And its possible full costs, including the failure of Europe’s experiment in integration and the self-defeating moves by countries exporting unemployment to one other through protectionist policies, have yet to be tallied by historians.
The fall of Lehman Brothers has resulted in far more economic damage and greater long-run consequences than the fall of the twin towers. This is not to minimize the horror of 9/11, its tragic death toll or the costs of its aftermath, but to put them in perspective. Whether the attacks of Sept. 11 had taken place or not, the world almost certainly would have been devastated by weapons of mass destruction — not airplanes hijacked by jihadists, nor the imaginary atomic bombs and chemical weapons of Saddam Hussein, but explosive credit derivatives in the hands of the world’s bankers.
Michael Lind is policy director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and the author of “The American Way of Strategy.”
Read “Five myths about 9/11” and “9/11 has become all about New York — with Washington and the Pentagon nearly forgotten.”
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