November 25, 2011 in City

The real cost of war? Here’s food for thought

By The Spokesman-Review

What if we, as a community, could scrounge up $563 million for some kind of worthwhile project?

A little health care for poor kids or a new police officer or two? Filling a pothole or adding a day of library service? No? Then how about a cool $563 million to put into the deficit reduction pot? Or a grotesque tax cut for the rich, so they’ll start creating jobs for us again?

I’m just asking: Anything we could do with a cool half-billion, here in Spokane?

What if we scoured the entire 5th Congressional District, and found $2.1 billion in the couch cushions of the past 10 years? A couple billion dollars – about the size of the latest hole in the state budget?

What if the entire state of Washington had had an extra $26.5 billion to spend on various government initiatives or give-backs for tax misers? That’s just a bit smaller than the state’s entire general fund.

Well, it turns out we have had that kind of money here in Spokane, here in the Fighting Fifth, here in Washington state. And we’ve sent it off to be spent by the biggest government program of them all: war. Our national bill for fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is approaching $1.3 trillion, and it’s getting more expensive every second.

Not to mention some people died, too.

These figures come from Cost of War, a website of the National Priorities Project, a nonprofit that breaks down and explains government spending in terms of local contributions. At a time when the cranky and self-righteous are targeting poor recipients of government spending, there is a curious silence about the literal mountain of cash that has gone into Iraq and Afghanistan, all while taxes were being cut.

The aptly named National Priorities Project exposes the canard that we don’t have enough money to pay for certain things in this country – an argument that is constantly made about, say, benefits for school teachers or unemployment benefits for those who can’t find work. No – we can’t afford those things. We can afford, though, to spend simply billions of dollars on ginned-up wars and wars that are, perhaps, less ginned-up but seemingly futile.

We can sure do that. We’re all in on that one – unless you count our level of commitment to, say, providing medical care once the soldiers come home.

We can spend so much on overseas fighting – and complain so much about spending money on these other things – that it all gets mixed up in our heads. It becomes hard to see that spending on the social safety net is dwarfed by spending on war. In the land of billions, it’s kind of hard for those of us living in the thousands to get our minds around things.

And the more detached from reality these figures become, the harder it is to feel as though we are participating in these decisions in any way. That the vast expenditures on war are a choice we are making as a country, as opposed to an immutable law of nature.

That’s why we need a different unit of measurement when we talk about these sums. A way to more effectively talk about what we are choosing to do and not do.

How about this: the Grocery Year.

The Grocery Year is the cost of feeding one American for a year, give or take. It is one of the many tradeoffs tracked at the National Priorities Project website (, and it’s got a lot going for it, not least of which is its direct connection to the belly.

We need that kind of thing, it seems. A way to understand the world in the context of our own desires.

The national bill for the last decade’s wars roughly equals 602.2 million Grocery Years.

In other words, every single American could have eaten for two years on the money we spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. We could cover food-stamp spending at the current level for about 13 years.

Whether you see this as a bad deal or a good one – a bargain war! – probably depends on how much you’re willing to consider the bellies of others. But it’s unmistakable that all the various things that are supposedly dragging our government down don’t add up to much compared to the biggest government program of them all, the one that we financed with tax cuts.

Our war spending equals the cost of hiring 18.6 million teachers, according to the project. Or a year’s health care for 646 million kids. Or 18.1 million police officers. Or 227 million Pell Grants for college students – which is about 10 times the number of actual college students in the country.

It feels, to a degree, silly to make this comparison. I can’t figure out why that is. Why should it feel faintly ridiculous to note that our war spending so outstrips all the other spending about which there is such a deluge of whining and umbrage? To suggest that two years’ worth of food for hundreds of millions of Americans might be worth more than two ill-begotten wars that have left more than 6,000 American servicemen and servicewomen dead, in addition to tens of thousands of civilians?

Silly. Pointless.

Still, it’s nice to understand these things in a new light. To know that we’ve had a large chunk of money to hurl into the world from lowly Spokane, and that money – that $563 million and counting – could have been used for many other kinds of things.

Like 264,447 Grocery Years.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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