It doesn't seem to have sunk into the collective consciousness of America that the ultimate costs of the war in Iraq may ultimately be more than the entire federal debt that was accrued between 1781 and 1981 -- in the neighborhood of $3 trillion. Linda Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz, co-authors of "The Three Trillion Dollar War: The True Cost of the Iraq Conflict," have been on the media trail for the past month explaining where this absurdly huge amount of cash has been, and will be, spent:
Why doesn't the public understand the staggering scale of our expenditures? In part because the administration talks only about the upfront costs, which are mostly handled by emergency appropriations. (Iraq funding is apparently still an emergency five years after the war began.) These costs, by our calculations, are now running at $12 billion a month -- $16 billion if you include Afghanistan. By the time you add in the costs hidden in the defense budget, the money we'll have to spend to help future veterans, and money to refurbish a military whose equipment and materiel have been greatly depleted, the total tab to the federal government will almost surely exceed $1.5 trillion.
But the costs to our society and economy are far greater. When a young soldier is killed in Iraq or Afghanistan, his or her family will receive a U.S. government check for just $500,000 (combining life insurance with a "death gratuity") -- far less than the typical amount paid by insurance companies for the death of a young person in a car accident. The stark "budgetary cost" of $500,000 is clearly only a fraction of the total cost society pays for the loss of life -- and no one can ever really compensate the families. Moreover, disability pay seldom provides adequate compensation for wounded troops or their families. Indeed, in one out of five cases of seriously injured soldiers, someone in their family has to give up a job to take care of them.
But beyond this is the cost to the already sputtering U.S. economy. All told, the bill for the Iraq war is likely to top $3 trillion. And that's a conservative estimate.
Here are a few things America could do with $3 trillion:
- Pay down the national debt, which now stands at $9 trillion.
- About five years of free gas for every driver in the United States.
- 100 million Americans could attend Harvard with full tuition, room and board paid for.
- Feed and educate the world's poor for the next 30 years.
- 20 complete interstate highway systems.
- 15 round trips to Mars.
- You could buy the world a Coke -- 300 times