Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

What would you do if you won the Iraq lottery?

Posted by metaphorical on 4 February 2007

It’s fun to imagine winning the lottery. What would you spend it on? The Iraq lottery is the money you would “win” if we weren’t spending billions on the deaths of thousands of U.S. soldiers and unknown thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

The first question in any lottery fantasy is, how much?

Back in September the Congressional Budget Office said we’re spending about $8 billion a month in Iraq. In January, it estimated we’ve spent $350 billion so far. And neither of those figures takes into account the 21,500 combat troops that are going over there on the Bush “surge” plan.

The CBO says that will cost $20-$27 billion for a year. Why so much? Well, don’t forget, as the president conveniently seems to whenever he talks about it, the 15,000 to 28,000 support troops needed as well, as MediaMatters notes. (That page also notes that for some reason the NY Times chose to use only the low end of that estimate.)

The Nobel-prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and a colleague, Linda Bilmes, recently estimated the costs will be somewhere between $1 trillion (the “conservative” estimate) and $2 trillion dollars (the “moderate” estimate) for the National Bureau of Research.

So it’s not unreasonable to just ask, in very very very round numbers, what we could have done with half a trillion dollars if we didn’t spend our money on killing three thousand American soldiers and some much greater number of Iraqis?

Back in January, David Shuster was on Hardball discussing just that. Here are his thoughts:

To put the financial cost of the Iraq war into perspective, consider this—Congress is squabbling over whether to spend a billion dollars a year to screen all cargo in passenger airports. For the Iraq war, the U.S. government is spending a billion dollars every four days.

Want to add another 6,000 more border control agents to help keep terrorists from crossing the Mexican border? The cost, $1.4 billion annually is what we‘re spending for the Iraq war every six days.

Congress has refused to pass legislation that would pay for vaccinations for every American child. But we are spending that amount in Iraq, $4 billion, every 16 days.

If anyone asked me, the priorities for a half a trillion dollars would be very clear.

  • securing ports and other infrastructure (a mere 5 or 6 years after 9/11)
  • R&D in renewable energies and conservation to get us off the oil teat
  • real mass transit throughout the country – whatever it takes to make this country navigatible without a car
  • rebuild schools, especially middle schools.

Those last two aren’t so easy, of course. I recently spoke with the head of the China office for Arup Partners, a multinational architecture and design firm based in London. They’re in charge of the master plan for a planned eco-city near Shanghai, the first full eco-city in the world. I was told, “Cities are designed around the automobile. Everything changes if you try to design a city that isn’t centered on cars.”

Retrofitting mass transit into our cities and suburbs and exurbs is much harder than starting from scratch. But it’s essential. Today, even in the NY metro area a relative haven for mass transit, there are any number of pairs of points you can’t get between without a car. The number of people who live in places like New Rochelle or Palisades Park and can walk to a supermarket and a commuter train or bus is dwarfed by the number of people who have to get into a car every time they forget to buy laundry detergent. Even a pedestrian-friendly town like Portland, Oregon has buses (and a light rail line) that can take you between any two points, but not necessarily in less than 2 hours and two transfers.

Once we have a way to get around within cities, high-speed trains can get us between them.

Last week, China started up a high-speed rail line between between Shanghai and the ancient capital city of Nanjing. The trains come from the same Japanese company that made the Shinkansen lines in Japan and will travel at “only” 160 km/hr until they’re fully vetted. Sometime in April they’ll run at their top 250 km/hr speed. That’s not a lot faster than the Acela, but the Acela only runs between New York and Washington D.C. The Chinese are building high-speed lines between Shanghai and Beijing and Shanghai to Hangzhou.

The number of city-to-city runs in the U.S. that would cut down on expensive, airplane runs that use tons of fuel has to be over two dozen. Austin-Dallas-Houston-San Antonio with a Houston-New Orleans spur. Milwaukee-Chicago-St. Louis. Memphis-Nashville-Chattanooga-Atlanta. San Diego-L.A.-S.F.-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver, with spurs to Las Vegas and Sacramento. And so on.

The school situation in the U.S. is critical. Today, 4th graders are competitive with the rest of the world, but 8th graders are not, and the problem cascades from there. High schools play catch-up, unable to bring students up to the level that colleges need. As a consequence, American students come to college with 1 year of physics, if that, while Chinese students arrive with 3 or 4. Not all of them, of course, but they start with many more.

We need the reduce middle-school class sizes, improve the quality as well as the quantity of classes, and add to the lengths of the school day and year. With more time in class, we can increase math and science without taking away from history and English, and we can bring back art and music—essential subjects if we’re to maintain our lead in one of the few areas we have one, the creative arts. Although the world’s second language is English, it’s still a disadvantage that everyone else is bi- or trilingual and we are not. Sometime in the 2030s, around the time the Chinese are acknowledged the leaders in living without oil, we will wish we had met the world halfway.

If the war ends up costing the full $1 trillion, we could always fix Social Security and health care in this country. Oh, and giving millions of retirees back at least part of their lost pensions wouldn’t be such a bad idea either.

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