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Find the Cost of Freedom? $20,000 Per

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Message Gregg Gordon

Much ink was spilled March 23, when the 4,000th US soldier was killed in Iraq. And almost as much just a few days earlier -- March 19 -- which marked the fifth anniversary of the invasion now recognized as a catastrophic mistake by just about everybody but George Bush and his dog Barney.

But little note was taken just a month earlier, when another important milestone was passed. February 22 marked the day that US expenditures on the war passed the $500 billion mark, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Americans have a vague sense of the magnitude of that number. A recent poll showed the public, rightly or wrongly gives the cost of the Iraq war the largest part of the blame for our current economic woes.

But still, it's a number so far beyond our everyday experience, its impact is kind of numbing. We have no measuring sticks for it. So try this on for size:

While there's been no official census of Iraq for decades, a population of 25 million is not too far off the best estimates. That means over the past five years, the United States has spent about $20,000 for each and every "liberated" Iraqi man, woman, and child. And they ain't free yet (except, of course, those "freed" from the troubles of this earth).

Wow. As much as I've opposed this war from the start, until I ran these numbers, I don't think the sheer insanity of it all really sank in. We probably could have built a new house for every single family in Iraq, instead of reducing the ones they have to rubble. (Houses cost less there -- labor is cheaper, the main building material is cement, and if there's one thing they have more of than oil, it's sand.) Instead of reducing their electricity to a few hours a day, we probably could have provided enough solar panels to make Iraq the first all-solar country (the sun shines a lot there). And we certainly could have provided the facilities which would have made it unnecessary to wade through ankle-deep sewage to get to the market, where you're just liable to get blown up anyway.

The current burn-rate of US funds in Iraq is $435 million a day, almost $20 for every Iraqi. But don't tell the "Sons of Iraq," the former insurgents who are now on our payroll as an at least temporarily pro-US Sunni militia. They only get $10 a day, and if they knew, they'd no doubt say, "Where's the rest?"

I can't but think if the American people were presented with this figure, the war would end tomorrow. Talk about nothing for something. Think about how honked off some people got about imaginary "welfare queens."

But of course, these are just the out-of-pocket costs, and they're just the tip of the iceberg. Zachary Coile of the San Francisco Chronicle recently broke out some of the costs to come.

Future health care and disability payments to our wounded veterans -- $590 billion. Cost to replace equipment and restore our military to a state of readiness -- $280 billion. And of course, we didn't raise taxes to pay for any of this, so it's all borrowed money that has to be paid back, with interest -- $615 billion in additional debt service payments. And then there's that pesky price rise at the gas pump you have to pay resulting from the destabilization of the world's biggest oil-producing region -- $274 billion.

And that still doesn't quite do it. There are also the opportunity costs -- the price we'll have to pay because we didn't spend this money more productively. According to Coile, $435 million a day could provide Pell Grants to over 160,000 college students -- probably be a boost to our competitiveness down the road. Think illegal immigrants are a drain on our resources? Over 10,000 border patrol agents might have helped. Providing health insurance to about 330,000 children would probably head off some expensive illnesses. Some 9,000 more cops would have certainly prevented some property loss, and we're liable to need them, because almost 60,000 pre-schoolers that might have been in Head Start aren't. It's a good bet we'll be paying to keep some of them in prison someday.

Overall, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz and his colleague, Laura Bilmes, put the total price tag for this war at $3 trillion -- $120,000 for every Iraqi, $10,000 for every American (multiply that by the size of your family), 25% of our economic output in a year. It's cost more, adjusted for inflation, than every American war other than World War II. That's right -- World war, involving the mobilization of virtually every military-age male and sending them thousands of miles across both oceans to fight, while turning our entire industrial base into an armaments plant. But we fought that baby on the cheap, compared to the whiz-bang toys we fight wars with now (and that obviously work our will so well).

Of course, I doubt we would have adopted a more sensible program on the front end. As a country, we're much more generous when it comes to destroying than employing. Witness the fact that we'll spend well more than twice as much to keep someone in prison than to keep someone in school.

Still, it seems pretty obvious everyone would have been better off if we had just handed out the cash.

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Gregg Gordon is a writer, musician, activist, and otherwise ne'er-do-well in Columbus, Ohio. "Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little." - Edmund Burke
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