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December 2003
$87,000,000,000.00
By John Paul Galles

     In October, the President and Congress approved an $87 billion package to fund the occupation of Iraq and operations in Afghanistan. Since we are no longer at war, one wonders whether such after-effects of war-making are prudent.  Personally, my own preference would be to avoid such an expenditure if at all possible (but it’s not), given the enormity of our federal budget deficit. In fact, this number is not even included in
the calculation of our current budget deficit, which is approaching $500 billion.

       Wasn’t it Illinois Senator Dirksen who said, “A billion here and a billion there,
and pretty soon you’re talking real money...”? With inflation and the growth of
government spending, we might be near a new quote using the descriptor “trillion.”

       Eighty-seven billion dollars… That is a staggeringly large sum for anyone to conceptualize. Media outlets and think tanks have attempted to describe it in terms of images and alternative spending programs. According to one source, a stack of eighty-seven billion dollar bills would compare to a 10-story building on two-thirds of a city block! Or if we were to spread the $87 billion bills over a football field, it would not “afford” much of a game as the players would be buried in 55 feet of money!

       It is true that $87 billion could be spent a lot of different ways; Newsweek and
the Center for American Progress, among others, have offered comparisons with alternative spending programs as follows:

• $87 billion is more than all of the states’ current budget deficits, combined.

• $87 billion is more than twice the amount of national spending on Homeland Security.

• $87 billion is roughly the total of two years’ worth of all U.S. unemployment
benefits.

• $87 billion is enough to pay 3.3 million people who have lost their jobs a
check for $26,363 each.

• $87 billion is 87 times the amount the federal government spends on after
school programs.

• $87 billion would allow schools to hire 2,000,000 new teachers.

• $87 billion is 8 times the total of Pell grants to students to finance the
cost of attending four-year public colleges.

• $87 billion is 9 times what the federal government spends on special education.

• $87 billion is 10 times what the federal government spends on all environmental protection.

• $87 billion is more than the cost of the first three years of the Medicare
prescription drug proposal.

• $87 billion is enough to give $300 to every man, woman and child in America.

       The alternate uses of $87 billion are not the issue. Fighting the war against terrorism or rebuilding a country in the aftermath of war is not a choice, at least not for us here in America. Appreciating the alternate uses of $87 billion, however, is helpful in realizing the enormity of the task being mounted, and realizing the cost of doing so relative to other uses that might more directly, and certainly more immediately, affect each and every one of us.

       This is the very kernel of politics, a process we too often oversimplify in backlash to its complexity of tradeoffs. So frequently there is no one best choice, but a combination of choices that are better than another. As electioneering heats up, and the  real issues rise to the top of our national debate, we will all have a chance to choose candidates that reflect our ambitions within those tradeoffs. Get ready! The 2004 elections give us another opportunity to participate in that debate and give direction to our country!!

John Paul Galles is the publisher of Greater Charlotte Biz.
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