Wednesday, January 17, 2007

There Should be a Mastercard Ad

David Leonhardt has some fun with numbers:

The human mind isn’t very well equipped to make sense of a figure like $1.2 trillion. We don’t deal with a trillion of anything in our daily lives, and so when we come across such a big number, it is hard to distinguish it from any other big number. Millions, billions, a trillion — they all start to sound the same.

The way to come to grips with $1.2 trillion is to forget about the number itself and think instead about what you could buy with the money. When you do that, a trillion stops sounding anything like millions or billions.

For starters, $1.2 trillion would pay for an unprecedented public health campaign — a doubling of cancer research funding, treatment for every American whose diabetes or heart disease is now going unmanaged and a global immunization campaign to save millions of children’s lives.

Combined, the cost of running those programs for a decade wouldn’t use up even half our money pot. So we could then turn to poverty and education, starting with universal preschool for every 3- and 4-year-old child across the country. The city of New Orleans could also receive a huge increase in reconstruction funds.

The final big chunk of the money could go to national security. The recommendations of the 9/11 Commission that have not been put in place — better baggage and cargo screening, stronger measures against nuclear proliferation — could be enacted. Financing for the war in Afghanistan could be increased to beat back the Taliban’s recent gains, and a peacekeeping force could put a stop to the genocide in Darfur.

All that would be one way to spend $1.2 trillion. Here would be another:

The war in Iraq.


Obviously, there's no guarantee that had this war been averted, the savings on hypothetical war-related costs would be diverted to such worthy causes. Actually, given the fact that Bush was/is President, most of the windfall would probably have been squandered on more tax cuts for the wealthiest among us.

Still, what struck me about Leonhardt's piece was the stark elucidation of the willingness of humans to consume vast amounts of resources in the name of "war" - exorbitant expenditures that we would otherwise bristle at as constituting the wastefulness of "big government" had the largesse been aimed at something more humanitarian in nature. This is how I put it in a previous post on the subject:

In service of the exalted task of war, we agree to spend otherwise unthinkable amounts of money without a commensurate level of consideration. Once a war begins, it is as if the blank check is signed and there is no real, substantive debate about costs and benefits. Quite the contrary, oversight is anathema and such discussions are often deemed to be improper - in bad taste if you will. Instead, most discourse surrounding the war is relegated to abstractions about morality, grand strategy, jingoistic accusations and defenses, as well as other "enlightened" subjects. [...]

Due to the humanitarian component included in the sales pitch, war supporters often strike a pious and self righteous posture that sucks the air out of any debate or possibility of dissent. Yet many of those same "morally superior" war proponents seem willing to tolerate much human suffering that doesn't require enormously expensive, destructive and murderous wars to relieve. A commenter over at Jim Henley's place summarized this phenomenon rather succinctly:

...[T]here is no one more contemptible than the people who are filled with sympathy for residents of poor countries only when it’s an occasion for dropping bombs on them.

Yes, it’s terrible that people were killed by Saddam, or the government of Sudan, or Milosevic, or whoever. It really is bad.

But it’s also bad that people are dying of water-borne illnesses, malaria, and many other problems that can be dealt with much more cheaply and reliably and without killing anybody. Someone whose empathy for the poor expresses itself only through advocacy for violence is much worse than someone with no empathy at all, who at least will leave them alone.

The War Nerd actually takes it one step further in explaining the utility of bribery vs. "shock and awe" ballistics in terms of achieving victory in complicated, counterinsurgency type conflicts:

Simplest and safest [way to win CI conflicts] is bribery. I don't know why we don't do it more often. Almost makes me believe the guys running things are secret war nerds themselves, because otherwise they'd do bribery as a way of bringing down "rogue states" all the time. Just do the math. Right now, November 12, 2006, the official cost of Iraq is around $340 billion. Suppose we'd just bombed Iraq with dollars; we'd be the heroes of the world, and every family in Iraq would be - are you ready for this?-$70,000 richer [ed. note: make that $275,000 richer by Leonhardt's count]. That would make Iraq one of the richest countries in the world. I guarantee you those greedy bastards would find better things to do with their time than drill holes in each others' heads with power drills. Everybody'd thank us. Not just the Iraqis but every gold chain manufacturer in Egypt, every brothel manager in Amsterdam, every Mercedes dealer in Baghdad. They'd be wheeling and stealing, cheatin' and greetin', till they OD'd on haggling.

Which would be just fine. Along the way, Saddam would have been overthrown in a few seconds, like the first time he tried to tell a young Baghdad blood he couldn't drive his new convertible into the country.

The Iraqis were never going to revolt for democracy - I mean, be honest, who would? But a new car? Boom, ol' Soddom is a hood emblem, and Uday and Qusay are seat covers. Then, when every Iraqi had a car, all we'd have to do is let them run out of gas and say, with our feet up on the table, "So...y'say you need some oil refined, huh? Let's make a deal." Piece of low-sulfur hi-octane cake.

Yeah, but where are the fireworks? What about the chest thumping? The vicarious titillation of the armchair warriors? The sense of purpose to our otherwise mundane existence? Can you really put a price tag on that?

Actually, you can.And some people are more than willing to cash in

(hat tip to Blake's own Passport)

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