An article in the Financial Times last night put Osama bin Laden's total cost to the United States at more than $2 trillion. It's one of a handful of such essays that have come out in recent days. The thesis of the piece by Alan Beattie is that if somebody had taken the United States up on its $5 million reward offer in 1998, not only would 9/11 not have happened, but the Iraq and Afghanistan wars would have been prevented, and money spent on national security and intelligence could have been saved, which also would have saved everybody time and productivity because air travel wouldn't have been slowed down so much.
The piece argues that a little more than a trillion has been spent on the conflicts (per the Congressional Research Service), and another trillion or so spent on a combination of national security and hindered productivity thanks to slowed air travel. Thus, a big part of Beattie's number for how much bin Laden has cost has something to do with how much airport security measures have cut into productivity--people could have been making money instead of standing in line. But Time's Stephen Gandell isn't so sure about this. Here's his glib response:
You have [to] believe that most of us are productive all the time, and I'm not so sure about that. For me, my hours right before a plane trip are usually spent sleeping. So not very productive. Of course, if you were to compute how much lost sleep time due to air travel has driven up health care costs then I guess you could also get to a large number that way.
While putting a cost on time and lost efficiency and stuff like that is a huge business, it's very doubtful anybody will come to a number that is at all satisfactory. People have all kinds of costs they can pin on 9/11, from the Florida Gators 2001 football championship to criminal prosecutions against drug dealers. It's obvious bin Laden is better off dead from a security standpoint, but trying to put a price tag on him is just going to drive everyone crazy.