Ever Feel Like You've Been Cheated? 

The government's $8 billion-a-month con job

NEW YORK--Much abuse has been hurled at Halliburton and other well-connected contractors for overcharging and stealing from the people of Iraq and American taxpayers alike--and rightly so. But focusing on the contractors is a dangerous distraction. War profiteers are mere bit players in one of the biggest con jobs ever: the war itself.

In 2003, when Saddam statues were falling over and the wise white men of Washington (and one fake black woman) still thought they had a prayer of finding WMDs, the Bush Administration was burning through $4.4 billion a month on Iraq. Now even the most rabid neocons have abandoned their dreams of finding the weapons, planting the seeds of democracy or even restoring electricity, let alone preserving Iraq's territorial integrity. And yet the deficit spending has doubled, to $8.4 billion per month in Iraq and $1.3 billion in Afghanistan.

The more we pay, the worse it gets.

Iraq is a scam that Tony Soprano could only dream of. Through their representatives in Congress, arms dealers and energy companies have convinced us to waste our wealth on a war we no longer believe in. As a result, we Americans, citizens of the wealthiest nation on the planet, are living like Third Worlders.

Some people, i.e. 6 billion people who live in other, poorer countries, think it's funny. I find it bizarre.

Economist David Leonhardt notes some rarely mentioned hidden costs of Bush's misadventure, such as the "gas tax that the war has effectively imposed on American families" in the form of the increase in oil prices from $30 to $50 a barrel. Killing 600,000 Iraqis didn't come cheap; our military occupation troops have already blown up $100 billion in equipment and projectiles. All that materiel will have to be replaced. And don't forget $250 billion for disability payments and medical care for thousands of veterans who left body parts behind.

Leonhardt says he "didn't even attempt to put a monetary value on the more than 3,000 American deaths in the war." And why should he? After all, the government doesn't value them.

What if we left Iraq tomorrow--no troop "surge," no peace with honor, no Iraqization? Even an immediate cut-and-run would leaves us holding a $1.2 trillion tab--with nothing to show for it. (That's the optimistic view. Aside from the financial debt, the war's likely legacy is negative: weakened alliances, weakened international influence, being targeted by terrorists.)

What else might we have done with the $1.2 trillion we've wasted on the war, asks Leonhardt? Or with the $8.4 billion a month that's still being spent? He'd shift it to the even less winnable war, the one against Afghanistan. His is a dumb answer to a good question.

The Health Coverage Coalition for the Uninsured, a coalition of business and consumer groups, doctors, hospitals and insurance companies, recently calculated that they could provide free health care for half of America's 47 million uninsured people with less than one-tenth of what we're currently spending on Iraq. Universal health care--flash a card, see a doctor and receive meds for free--would run less than half of what we've spent creating an Iranian-backed Shiite theocracy in Iraq.

Alternatively, we could put an end to our shameful status as the only industrialized nation with a system of for-profit higher education. Divvy up $200 billion a year among America's 16.7 million college students and you get almost $12,000 each--which happens to be the average cost of tuition, fees and housing at a four-year college or university. The trickle-up effect of freeing parents and college grads of the burden of student loan debt could give a significant boost to our consumer-driven economy. Aside from the economic benefits of earlier and bigger purchases of first homes and automobiles by young adults, there would be social dividends as debt-free twentysomethings eschewed the rat race in favor of idealistic careers as teachers and Peace Corps workers.

Or we could take a more direct approach: government subsidies of first-home purchasers. A new GI Bill for college graduates could reward their hard work with a check for a cool $75,000 each, to be put toward a down payment on a new house. That's over 25 percent of the price of an average home sale. Goodbye, housing slump!

Conservatives, the old-school kind, would argue that it would be better not to spend that $200 billion at all, whether on a pointless war or on social programs, no matter how worthwhile. Balanced budget über alles, and all that. I write "would" because it's damned near impossible to find an old-school conservative these days, particularly among the Congressmen who get to decide how to waste our money. The guys who pass for "conservative" now are the neocon psychos who got us into Iraq and Afghanistan in the first place.

The government is going to spend us into debt no matter what. If we're going to mortgage our children's future, shouldn't it be on something that makes their lives better?

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