Rising Toll

A new Lancet study estimates that one in forty Iraqis (650,000 people) have died since the 2003 invasion. It’s a careful piece of research, which – unlike the last Lancet study – also compares its figures with those from the Iraq Body Count.

Can we believe a number this big? My instinct tells me that there is probably some overreporting (since mourners are more likely to stay home, sending researchers house-to-house until they reach their target sample size doesn’t seem a good strategy), but it’s difficult to think that this bias would alter the result by an order of magnitude.

Lots of good commentary on the blogosphere. Tim Lambert slaps down some of the more statistically illiterate critics, John Quiggin notes the large number of deaths from airstrikes. But the response that I think is most interesting is that of Tyler Cowen, who thinks that we should be focusing on the fact that the death rate is rising.

A very high deaths total, taken alone, suggests (but does not prove) that the Iraqis were ready to start killing each other in great numbers the minute Saddam went away.  The stronger that propensity, the less contingent it was upon the U.S. invasion, and the more likely it would have happened anyway, sooner or later.  In that scenario the war greatly accelerated deaths.  But short of giving Iraq an eternal dictator, that genie was already in the bottle.

If the deaths are low at first but rising over time, it is more likely that a peaceful transition might have been possible, either through better postwar planning or by leaving Saddam in power and letting Iraqi events take some other course.  That could make Bush policies look worse, not better.  Tim Lambert, in one post, hints that the rate of change of deaths is an important variable but he does not develop this idea.

We all know that the political world judges Iraq by the absolute badness of what is going on (which means Bush critics find a higher number to fit their priors), but that is an incorrect standard.  We should judge the marginal product of U.S. action, relative to what else could have happened.  (North Korea, and the UN response, will give us one data point from another setting.)  In that latter and more accurate notion of a cost-benefit test, U.S. actions probably appear worst when deaths are rising over time, and hitting very high levels in the future. 

One can come up with explanations for a rising death rate that don’t inculpate the Bush administration (eg. it takes a few years to organise an effective insurgency), but the idea of looking at changes rather than levels is a clever one.

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