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The Real Cost of War

How many new teachers could we have paid for with the billions spent on the Iraqi occupation?
 
 
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A few nights ago, we took our granddaughter, who recently moved back to Oakland from Oklahoma, to her middle-school orientation. Eleven years ago I sat in that very same auditorium with my daughter -- who was then entering the seventh grade -- and listened to the principal, her assistant and various representatives from the Parent's Association talk about the students' new and exciting journey.

Oakland's schools have never been financially flush and the school district's budget woes have accumulated over the past few years. With Oakland schools now in financial receivership, I expected some belt tightening -- but the news was far worse for my granddaughter and for our small corner of public education:

  • The average class size has once again risen to between 28 and 32 students;
  • There is only one counselor for the entire student body, all 980 students;
  • The only electives available for entering sixth graders are Art and Band.

The very next morning, Paul Bremer, Iraq's top U.S. civil administrator, told the Washington Post that America's continuing involvement in Iraq would cost tens of billions of dollars. In addition to the $4 billion that is being spent every month, Bremer allowed that it would cost $2 billion just to meet current electrical demand and an estimated $16 billion over four years to deliver clean water to all Iraqis.

The oil industry, which is still not functioning at pre-war levels, was supposed to subsidize much of Iraq's reconstruction. But now Bremer acknowledges that even deliveries of oil at 2002 levels would not meet the cost of reconstruction. With few other countries willing to pay the freight for the Bush Administration's Iraq fiasco, the burden of payment will fall squarely on the shoulders of U.S. taxpayers.

On Sunday evening, September 7, President Bush announced he planned to ask Congress for an additional $87 billion, mostly for military operations in Iraq -- which he is now calling the "central front" in the war against terrorism -- and to help defray reconstruction costs. A small sum is to be earmarked for Afghanistan.

The president said he hoped other countries would willingly contribute to the rebuilding effort. As of this writing, no other major country beside Britain has opened its pocketbook. If, as expected, Congress approves the president's request, "it would push America's already-record budget deficit next year to well above $500 billion," the London-based Economist magazine reported.

The next time you read about fees going up at your local Junior College or State University, think Iraq. The next time you wonder about how many people in the United States don't have access to adequate health care, think Iraq. The next time you read about rising fees and diminishing services in our national parks, think Iraq. When you're suffering compassion fatigue and are annoyed by the growing number of homeless on your city streets, think Iraq.

'Cost of War in Iraq'

To get a clear understanding of how much of your money is being spent in Iraq, visit the "Cost of the War in Iraq" Web site at www.costofwar.com. When you go to the site, the numbers reflecting the cost of the war scroll by even faster than the numbers you see each week at the gas pump. On Tuesday, September 16, the counter was on cruise control, zeroing in on the $74.5 billion mark.

Cost of War is the product of Niko Matsakis and Elias Vlanton. Matsakis is a computer programmer who works at a start-up company in Cambridge, Mass., and Vlanton "has spent over two decades writing based on research in government documents and archives."

"Niko and I are really part of a wave of citizen journalism," Vlanton wrote in an email. "Journalism because it tries to understand developments in the world; citizen based because we're fundamentally anti-corporate: None of us are trying to curry favor with editors and producers; none of us slant our work to climb up a corporate ladder; none of us are dependent on leaks which ensnare journalists more than their sources."

Besides keeping an eye on the obscene cost of the war in Iraq, the site compares the cost of the war with the cost of providing adequate pre-school programs, health care for children, better financed public schools, college scholarships, energy independence and sufficient public housing. The site breaks out these costs on a city-by-city basis, covering a number of major metropolitan areas including San Francisco, Denver, and Atlanta, as well as smaller towns including Enfield, CT, Medford, MA, and Ojai, CA.

"If the [Iraq war cost] counter says $70 billion, that really includes $50 billion in outlays this year plus $20 billion in interest costs over the next 10 years," Vlanton explained. "So when you select 'Public Housing,' the counter says that 730,000 units could have been built with the money. That's because we took the cost of a single public housing unit, $70,000 and divided it into $50 billion -- hence the 730,000 units. The numbers for the cities just take the percentage each city pays of the total federal tax bill, and crunches it for all categories."

According to the Web site, the numbers are kept accurate by periodic readjustments "to keep up with the announced costs of the invasion." The most recent readjustment came on August 5. To arrive at the cost totals, the site draws upon multiple and disparate sources. Among them: an April 16, 2003 briefing by Department of Defense Comptroller Dov Zakheim; the Fiscal 2003 Supplemental Appropriations Bill, (H.R. 1559); and testimony given by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld before the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 9. Cost of War also includes a calculation of "the cost of interest payments." (For more on how Cost of War arrives at its numbers, see www.costofwar.com/numbers.html.)

"Thirty years ago," writes Vlanton, "when I worked on a radical student newspaper in St. Louis, we used to joke that 'freedom of the press belongs to those that own the presses.' Now, with the mainstream media becoming even more superficial and monolithic, and with internet technology opening up new possibilities, more and more people want their own press -- and can have one."

President Bush has vowed to continue the fight in Iraq. The number of U.S. dead since the president declared and end to combat operations on May 1st is now 156, bringing the total of all U.S. deaths to 295 since the beginning of the invasion. Those numbers will continue to rise. Two weeks ago, ten more teachers were cut from the payroll at my granddaughter's school. Those numbers will also rise.