“We should pull the troops out right now,” asserted a hunched, eighty-year-old woman. “If some other army told you how to run your country, how would you feel about that?” Yes, if I were an authoritarian dictator who happened to enjoy gassing Kurds, I’d be incensed. Your point being?

Several weeks ago, I was marooned in a remote, crowded airport terminal, my flight delayed by San Francisco International’s routinely nasty weather. Unfortunately, a bustling conversation started right beside me, and I couldn’t avoid the wandering eyes and mouths of my fellow frustrated travelers forever. This was bad enough for my concentration, but when the participants launched into a round of uninformed pontification, morbid curiosity overcame me.

Aside from the Bush crew’s ridiculous notion that it would be quick ‘n easy, there are many flawed ideas about the trouble in Iraq. Most of this discourse is the sort of dull whine you hear from, say, windbags in airports, but some bleeds into the realm of economics. In his seminal Economics in One Lesson, Henry Hazlitt taught readers that “the art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy” and “tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” Put succinctly by Steven Landsburg, “Do the winners gain more than the losers lose?”

We’ve all done cost-benefit analyses – say, gauging whether it’s worth cramming on Sunday night to drink on Saturday, Friday, Thursday and Wednesday – in our heads. Many are running them on Operation Iraqi Freedom, and all too often, doing it badly. A recent paper by economist Joseph Stiglitz attempts to probe the situation. Shockingly, the author willfully ignores Hazlitt’s guideline, a choice unbecoming of a seasoned professional. He must have been so busy tallying the cost of the United States’ actions in Iraq that we can only assume he forgot about, uh, Iraq. Doubtless many will gasp, hand politely over mouth, at Stiglitz’s $1.02 to $1.85 trillion-estimated price tag. This is like being shocked at the similarly incomplete and irrelevant mathematical declaration that “one plus x equals.”

Stiglitz is correct that losing soldiers and ordnance over in IED Alley is a significant cost, as are increased fuel costs, but is there truly no benefit in no longer being lorded over by Saddam Hussein? Wretched, undeveloped nations stay that way only with the help of cruel, klepto-cratic governments; the rule of old “So Damn Insane” had both qualities in spades. The situation is complex and important enough to be treated as such: Americans incur costs, as do Iraqis. Iraq will obviously profit from a state that isn’t essentially a violent hostage-taker, as will America from no longer being required to, with rapidly diminishing returns, contain a useless, volatile regime.

A halfway decent economic analysis will take into account all of these factors and countless more. On college campuses, members of the studentry and professoriat alike have seized the war in Iraq as an opportunity to clumsily ape the political climate of the Vietnam era. The comparison is insultingly false, but such a scenario still stokes the marijuana-clouded fires of debate. When you’re next involved in one, do be sure to think economically by considering the costs and benefits not just for one, but for all.

The conclusions remain yours to draw, but as the late Michael Kelly, former Atlantic Monthly editor and himself a casualty of Iraq, wrote: “I understand why some dislike the idea, and fear the ramifications of, America as a liberator. But I do not understand why they do not see that anything is better than life with your face under the boot. And that any rescue of a people under the boot (be they Afghan, Kuwaiti or Iraqi) is something to be desired. Even if the rescue is less than perfectly realized. Even if the rescuer is a great, over-muscled, bossy, selfish oaf. Or would you, for yourself, choose the boot?”

Daily Nexus columnist is still trying to figure what 1 + x equals. Colin Marshall