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We've Given Trillions to the Super Rich -- There Are Many Better Uses for Your Money

For all the public money we give rich people, we can cure millions around the world of horrifying diseases.

There are many possible responses to the news that we have committed more than four trillion public dollars to Wall Street.

Mine is a roar of admiration.

Four trillion dollars! Holy hell! I didn't even know that was possible!

U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

After all, the cost of World War II in inflation-adjusted dollars was $4 trillion. This bailout thing is just getting started, and already we've burned through that.

Without even noticing.

Certainly without rationing sugar or collecting scrap rubber or any of that nonsense.

Who's the Greatest Generation now, baby?

Admit it. You feel it too. Just imagine someone snatching your laptop off a table and throwing it, Olympic-discus style, hundreds... and hundreds... and hundreds of feet. Sure, you'd be upset (and stuck with the bill). But however briefly, you'd feel admiration for the physical feat: Look at that thing fly!

So it goes with our bailouts, wild tax cuts, and war budgets. The money in play is staggering, but everyone acts like that's something to mope about. Where's the excitement?

Often, after reading an incomprehensible dollar figure, I'll Google "What does a trillion dollars look like?" to get myself fired up. One example of where this takes you shows a million dollars (pathetic, wouldn't fill a grocery bag), a billion (interesting, I could fit it in a truck), and then a trillion. (Wow, it spreads for acres! Look at that tiny human included for scale!)

It turns out that the United States can pick up that sort of weight and just smash it down on whatever the hell we want. Like Optimus Prime with giant square green paper fists. Slam! Slam!

Yet we've committed not one trillion dollars to the incompetent and/or corrupt, but more than four trillion dollars. That's according to a report to Congress from special inspector general Neil Barofsky, the overseer of the bank bailout program.

Technically, Barofsky adds, Wall Street's IOU to you and me is at about three trillion dollars these days, since some of it's been paid back. Relieved? Don't be. As these tsunamis of public wealth pour out, ignore the slosh and focus on the order of magnitude. The entire Gross Domestic Product -- the number reflecting all wealth generated in this nation for this year -- is only $14.1 trillion. So whether the sum of our money that's now their money is $3 trillion (1/5th of all wealth generated in America in a year) or $4.7 trillion (1/3rd of all wealth generated in America in a year), it still means that, for a big chunk of the year, every single one of us was working for Goldman Sachs et al.

Barofsky's report also suggests that Wall Street's tab might ultimately work out to $24 trillion, which would be $80,000 per American, or $320,000 for a family of four. But that's, like, totally the worst-case scenario. (Still, wouldn't it be impressive? I envision huge, five-foot-cubed, shrink-wrapped pallets of dollars dropping from the sky onto my neighborhood, smashing houses, crushing cars, killing beloved pets, blasting craters into asphalt streets. Yeah!)

Smallpox and Bikinis

And yet could we employ this financial muscle in a more constructive way?

For an illuminating example, consider how we dealt with smallpox. That airborne virus, with its fevers reaching 106 F and signature pus-filled skin eruptions, was the greatest killer of man ever known.

In the 20th century, smallpox killed more people than all of that bloody century's wars combined.

In fact, if you tally the worldwide death tolls for World Wars I and II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Iran-Iraq war and the Mexican Revolution, the civil wars in China and Russia and Spain, and all the other wars of the last century, from Afghanistan to Zaire, the total is less than one-third of the smallpox death toll.

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