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Politics and Economy:
David Brancaccio on an $87 Billion Bill

It's hard to forget that "special" feeling in the recesses of the stomach when you had to suck it up and ask the parents for a little more money. Multiply that feeling by an exponent or two and you get a sense of what members of the Bush Administration may have been feeling this week as they pushed Congress for more money to secure the peace in Iraq.

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David Brancaccio
David Brancaccio
on an $87 Billion Bill

Even by federal government standards the supplemental budget request is a lot of money, eighty-seven billion dollars. The word supplemental means just that…money on top of the 79 billion dollars already earmarked for Iraq and Afghanistan. Typically, federal budget figures are priced over ten years. Not this one. The eight-seven billion extra is for this year and odds are the administration will have to ask for more in 2004.

The money is earmarked for vital things like training guards for government offices and replacing power plants … we apparently want Iraq to have zip codes- there's money there for that as well… but it's also to pay for the continued presence of American troops… both in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After all, We promised stability and democracy, and few serious critics of U.S. policy would argue that America should renege on that promise, save the 87 billion, and come home.

Still, eighty-seven billion dollars.

The sheer size of the supplemental request for Iraq is prompting many of us to take a moment to reflect on what each of us might have done with a chunk of change like that. You know, if history had been different. Had the sanctions worked, had the inspectors stayed, had the U.S. had built a coalition that would have shared the costs of occupation as well the invasion.

What else could we have done with 87 billion dollars? I have some modest experience in this area. A couple of years ago I wrote a book about what Americans are inclined to do with lump sums. I figured you could learn a lot about someone's values by hearing what they'd do if a pile of cash came their way. Buy a house? Start a business? Help someone in need? In general, I found Americans a fairly giving bunch.

So perhaps using the 87 billion to pay off the budget deficits of the 41 states that came up short this year…Even the massive shortfall that tormented California this year would have easily fit.

Or if you woke up today in a "We Are the World" kind of mood there are plenty of global humanitarian things you could do like…$87 billion worth of clean water systems for tens of millions of children around the world, instead of just Iraq's…

A think tank called the Center for American Progress has also been playing with these figures.

The group notes that "87 Large" could pay for about two years of unemployment benefits for over 20 million Americans.

Or…double what we're currently paying for homeland security.

Or… increase by 87 times what the federal government currently pays for after-school programs. Three years of the proposed Medicare prescription drug program also fits.

It could be used to fix up America's infrastructure. Right now the city of Atlanta is fighting to get federal money for a big overhaul of its sewers. The President's request would spend nearly 10 times more for sewers and drinking water projects in Iraq than in the U.S. That's calculated per capita of population, but you get the point.

Pondering the potential of 87 billion dollars is like the return on investment of a lottery ticket. You pay a dollar for the chance to fantasize about what you would do with the jackpot in the nearly impossible event that you did win. But unlike a lottery, which is supposed to have the money on hand to pay its winners, there is no 87 billion dollars lying around in the U.S. Treasury ripe for the spending.

So we'll borrow and those who lend will charge us interest which will rack up impressively over the decades it will take to pay it back. Think of it like a house. An $87 billion house with a mortgage. Payments just half-a-billion dollars a month, every month for the next 30 years.

Tell us what you think.

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