Watching newscasts, I’ve noticed that immediately after the announcer says something like, “The candidates are disputing whether the Iraq War has cost $200 billion or $400 billion,” I’ve already forgotten the amounts. Even when a huge number like that sticks in my head, it doesn’t mean much. I understand what I can buy with the $84 in my wallet, why I’m waiting to buy that 6-megapixel digital camera I’ve been drooling over, or how long it will take my wife and me to pay off our mortgage. But it’s hard to grasp the hundreds of billions the Iraq war is costing, this year’s $477 billion deficit, the $1.75 trillion U.S. budget, or the $7.4 trillion national debt.
It occurred to me that these amounts would make more sense if reporters specified how much they were costing each of us. It wouldn’t be hard. Anyone can Google the current U.S. population (around 295 million), the number of households (around 105 million), or the number of taxpayers (around 100 million). Simple division produces numbers that make a lot more sense, at least to me.
Let’s take our 7.426 trillion dollar national debt. Divided equally among every man, woman and child in the U.S. those trillions boil down to just over $25,000. I’m relieved to realize that I could handle my share if needed, although I guess it would be tough on children, the poor, most seniors, and even many people filling those new service jobs. The load does seem heavier if we figure what it represents for each household (almost $71,000), or each taxpayer (just over $74,000). But at least we can understand it.
Let’s tackle this year’s U.S. budget of $1.75 trillion. Each citizen should pitch in $6,000 or so, each household around $16,000, and each taxpayer around $18,000. I guess not all of us are paying our share, since tax revenues are falling way short of government expenditures—the deficit.
Per person, this year’s $477 billion deficit comes to $1600; per taxpayer, $4900; and per household, $4400. I’m not thrilled that my wife and I are taking on an additional $4400 to $9800 of debt this year (depending on whether you count us as one household or two taxpayers). Still, I’m sure that the government isn’t spending any more than it deems absolutely necessary. And since my wife and I don’t have children, why should we worry about who will have to pay for that added debt?
Just like President Bush and Senator Kerry, I had some trouble finding exact figures for the cost of the war in Iraq. I located a War-in-Iraq cost counter (http://www.costofwar.com/) that read $139,678,787,255 when I looked at it, although the last six digits were spinning by so fast it was hard to keep up. Another site said that Congress has appropriated $160 billion so far, and will probably need to toss in an additional $60 billion after the elections. Since the war is likely to drag on, maybe we should go with the larger figure of $220 billion. If every man, woman and child were billed, each of us would owe around $750. Every household’s share would be around $2050. And each taxpayer’s share is about $2250 so far.
With these more understandable numbers in hand, each of us can now meaningfully ask if we think we’re getting our money’s worth with this war.
I don’t feel any safer, especially now that it’s clear that Saddam Hussein didn’t have any weapons of mass destruction and didn’t have much contact with the people I’m most worried about—Osama bin Laden and other Islamist terrorists. There still seem to be a lot of them, maybe even more than before the war, and they are still pretty successful at blowing people up.
I also don’t feel better about the situation in Iraq, what with more than a thousand U.S. soldiers having been killed and lots more wounded. It’s not macho to admit it, but I also don’t feel very good about the thousands of Iraqi civilians who’ve been killed despite our soldiers’ very real efforts to target combatants only. (If I remember correctly, we had a problem like that in Vietnam, too.) All those dead and wounded Iraqis may be one of the reasons our program to secure and rebuild Iraq isn’t going all that well.
I’m not feeling great about our position in the world either. President Bush and his advisors tell us that our international reputation and relationships were not as important as our need to go to war in Iraq. I’ve tried hard to think that way, too. Still, I keep remembering presidents like Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan who somehow managed to be strong and statesmanlike at the same time. I can’t get it out of my mind that even though we are by far the most powerful nation militarily, it’s still worth something to be on reasonably good terms with as many other countries as possible.
In short, even though I did not like Saddam Hussein, I personally would rather have skipped the war in Iraq and have kept my $2250.
I might have added the money to my retirement account, or brought my car in for the repairs I’ve been putting off, or maybe my wife and I would have traveled somewhere. It probably would have been easier to find a country where everyone wasn’t angry with the United States.
And even if my $2250 went straight to the government, I think I’d feel better if it were spent on teachers and schools – on health insurance for all those people crowding emergency rooms, on the Headstart program, or even, strange as it sounds, to help cut the deficit.
No, the war in Iraq has definitely not been worth $2250 to me. Actually, I wouldn’t have bought it at half the price.
Robert Adler is a freelance journalist and has been published in Nature, New Scientist, ScienceNow, The Boston Globe and The San Jose Mercury News, among others. For more commentary visit http://zerospinzone.blogspot.com