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The Truth, Mainly - 11/21/2005

Cost of Iraq minute: $100,000?

Got an odd piece of e-mail the other day. It was written by Melanie Hunter for CNSNews.com, whatever that may be, and its opening sentence was this:

"President Bush and the current administration have borrowed more money from foreign governments and banks than the previous 42 presidents combined, a group of conservative to moderate Democrats said Friday." I yawned.

The source of that bit of news was a group called "Blue Dog Coalition." I almost never read pieces that claim to have been written by dogs. Not that I have anything against dogs, but I don't quite trust humans who try to make you think they're canines.

But I pushed on to the next paragraph which said that "according to the Treasury Department, from 1776-2000, the first 224 years of U.S. history, 42 U.S. presidents borrowed a combined $1.01 trillion from foreign governments and financial institutions, but in the past four years alone, the Bush administration borrowed $1.05 trillion."

I yawned again.

I had a dim sense that I ought to be indignant over that news, but I couldn't get my indignation tap turned on. That's because I find it almost impossible to get indignant about a number ending with a whole lot of zeros. You know, something like "The governor was indicted for confiscating ten bazillion dollars from the aid-to-the-homeless fund."

I have no idea how many zeros there are in $1.05 trillion either. So when I read on the internet that President Bush has borrowed $1.05 trillion when all the previous presidents combined borrowed only $1.01 trillion, I just doze off because I have no idea what such numbers mean.

I was an English major.

But then my older son—the math-physics-computer jock—forwards some e-mail to me. It's from my son's friend, a guy named Robert Heckendorn, and he's come up with a way of giving new meaning to large amounts of money we're spending on the war.

What Heckendorn does is talk about the intersection of money and time and place. (Don't feel inadequate; I didn't know there was such an intersection either.) He proposes that "we look at money in terms of an 'Iraq-minute' to get a feeling for at least the monetary cost of this war."

That quest, he says, started when he flew to Washington, D.C. He asked the lady at the airport desk if he could take the Metro—the D.C. subway—into downtown. She said the subway hadn't been built out to the airport because it would cost about $1 billion (however much that is) to extend the subway that far.

And, Heckendorn says, that's where he got his idea: "It occurred to me, if we are spending billions a year in Iraq, perhaps we could just leave Iraq a couple of days early and pay for the entire subway extension project.

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In fact, what could we pay for if we even left Iraq just a minute early?"

So he did the math. He wasn't an English major.

He says that according to the National Priorities Project, we'd spent more than $204.5 billion on the war by Sep. 30, 2005.

Rounding the total out to $200 billion, he figures that since March 1, 2003, we've spent $6.45 billion per month, $215 million per day, $8.9 million per hour, and $149 thousand per minute.

Get that? One hundred forty nine thousand a minute? More than my wife and I paid for our house, but still an almost recognizable number to me. What boggles my mind is that we may be spending that amount every minute.

In order to avoid overstating his case, Heckendorn concludes that "one Iraq-minute equals $100 thousand."

And he goes then to the heart of his numbers:

"Next time someone says to you, 'If only we could get $2 million to fix that road,' you say 'Why, all we would have to do is leave Iraq 20 minutes early to pay for that.'"

And if a new school is going unbuilt because of its $24 million cost, 'you say: 'If we left Iraq four hours early, we could pay for that.'"

He goes on: When someone complains about some new and needed public facility that government says it can't afford, "put it in Iraq-minutes for them."

That billion-dollar subway extension in D.C.? Come back from Iraq five days early and we've saved enough money to pay for building it.

I'm still not sure how all that adds up to the Blue Dog assertion that President Bush has borrowed more than a trillion dollars in the last four years.

But how much the president is spending on things we don't need—and thereby not able to spend on things we do need—is suddenly coming into sharp focus.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is: leonsatterfield@earthlink.net.


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