Getting Real About the Cost of the Iraq War

Who’s Counting: The Cost of the Iraq War: Can You Say $1,000,000,000,000?
John Allen Paulos

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.

Read the rest of it here.

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