J Walking

I read an article over the weekend that is still making me feel ill. It is about Iraq and the cost of the war. I can’t get it out of my mind.

I was in the White House on the day the president landed on the aircraft carrier and spoke with the “Mission Accomplished” sign behind him. I remember coming home and talking to Kim and feeling giddy about all that had been done – we had liberated Iraq. It was all so easy. The UN was wrong. The weapons inspectors had been wrong. The Democrats had been wrong. Everyone had been wrong except my president and his White House – the White House where I worked.

Now the horrifying realization that perhaps everyone but our White House had been…right. That a discussion for another day.

For this day, an article about the financial costs of the war that puts the trillion dollars spent into perspective and compares to other ways the money could have been used. It could prove to be one of the more important commentaries on the war ever written:

There are many comparisons that might be made, and devising new governmental monetary units is one way to make them. Consider, for example, that the value of one EPA, the annual budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, is about $7.5 billion. The cost of the Iraq War is thus more than a century’s worth of EPA spending (in today’s dollars), almost 130 EPAs, only a small handful of which would probably have been sufficient to clean up Superfund sites around the country.

Or note that the annual budget for the Department of Education is about $55 billion, which puts the price tag for Iraq at about 18 EDs. Just a few of these EDs would certainly have put muscle into the slogan “No child left behind.”

And since the annual budgets of the National Science Foundation and the National Cancer Institute are $6 billion and $5 billion, respectively, the $1 trillion war cost is equivalent to 170 NSFs and 200 NCIs. No doubt a couple of those NSFs could have been used to develop cheap hybrid cars and alternative fuels. Scientific progress is by its nature unpredictable, but some extra NCIs might also have lead to breakthroughs in cancer treatment.

The cost of the war can also be expressed as approximately 28 HS’s, where HS, the annual budget for the Department of Homeland Security, is about $35 billion. Really securing the ports and chemical plants would have only eaten up a few of these HS’s. A few more could have been usefully spent in Afghanistan.

…Another way to get at the $1 trillion cost of the Iraq War is to note that the Treasury could have used the money to mail a check for more than $3,000 to every man, woman and child in the United States. The latter alternative would have an added benefit: Uniformly distributed and spent in this country, the money would have provided an economic stimulus that the war expenditures have not.

Alternatively, if the money was spent in an even more ecumenical way and a global mailing list was available, the Treasury could have sent a check for more than $150 to every human being on earth. The lives of millions of children, who die from nothing more serious than measles, tetanus, respiratory infections and diarrhea, could be saved, since these illnesses can be prevented by $2 vaccines, $1 worth of antibiotics, or a 10-cent dose of oral rehydration salts as well as the main but still very far from prohibitive cost of people to administer the programs.

I can’t get those numbers out of my head – 200 times the amount spent battling cancer… $150 for every human being on earth…. all that money gone. It is unfathomable and now? I don’t have any answers just a sick feeling and a deep, lingering sadness over a great mistake that has cost so much possibility. And that doesn’t even cover the scores of thousands of dead and wounded Iraqis, the scores of thousands of wounded Americans, the thousands of dead Americans.

There is some peace in realizing the money never would have gone for those things in the first place. Neither this administration or any other would have expended those kinds of resources – and Congress never would have authorized them to do it. Then again, maybe that is some of my sadness – that we find it easy to write checks for wars and find it so hard to write checks for compassion.

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