Feb. 4, 2007 -- The price tag for the Iraq War is now estimated at $700 billion in direct costs and perhaps twice that much when indirect expenditures are included. Cost estimates vary -- Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz puts the total cost at more than $2 trillion -- but let's be conservative and say it's only $1 trillion (in today's dollars).
As a number of other commentators have recently written, this number -- a 1 followed by 12 zeroes -- can be put into perspective in various ways. Given how large the war looms, it doesn't hurt to repeat this simple exercise with other examples and in other ways.
Different Monetary Units
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.
One last and rather tiny governmental monetary unit functions almost as spare change and has the ungainly acronym NHTSA. It stands for the annual budget of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which is approximately $670 million, or about two-thirds of $1 billion. The Iraq War has cost about 1,500 NHTSA's, several of which could probably have reduced the more than 40,000 Americans killed annually on our roads.
Of course, using these nonstandard monetary units isn't quite appropriate when trying to come to terms with the more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers killed, the 20,000 wounded, and the number of Iraqis killed and wounded. The latter number is staggering, whether you subscribe to the figures put out by Iraq Body Count or those published in Lancet or to other even higher estimates.
Unlike death and serious injury, the medical costs for returning veterans, their decreased productivity, and the depreciation of military equipment can be quantified and constitute yet another huge indirect cost of the war.
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.
There are also more fanciful ways to induce a visceral feel for $1 trillion.
For example, it would take almost three decades to spend a trillion dollars at $1,000 per second, and if spending at this rate occurred only during business hours, more than 120 years would be required to dispense the sum.
Another time analogy is illuminating. A million seconds takes approximately 11.5 days to tick by, whereas a billion seconds requires about 32 years. Fully 32,000 years need to pass before a trillion seconds elapse.
Of course, some might argue that the $1 trillion expenditure in Iraq has made us both more secure domestically and more respected internationally than ever before. Perhaps as many as a dozen people agree with Cheney's recent hallucinatory comment that "we've had enormous successes, and we will continue to have enormous successes" in Iraq."
At times, it seems that the nightmare and expense of these enormous successes will continue for the next trillion seconds.
John Allen Paulos, a professor of mathematics at Temple University, has written such best-sellers as "Innumeracy" and "A Mathematician Plays the Stock Market." His "Who's Counting?" column on ABCNEWS.com appears the first weekend of every month.