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Charles Cutter

$35 Million Before Breakfast
By Charles Cutter (www.cuttersway.com)
Dec 31, 2004 - 7:01:00 AM

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"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

This quotation, from President Dwight Eisenhower in 1953, greets you on the web site for an organization called the National Priorities Project. The NPP is a nonpartisan group whose purpose is to "educate the public on the impacts of federal tax and spending policies at the community level." The way our government tosses around financial data, it’s easy to lose sight that we’re talking about actual dollars being used for one purpose when that money could - more productively - be used to meet other goals.

The NPP provides a real-time counter to illustrate the ongoing cost of the Iraq war - $147.5 billion, as of this writing - and a measuring stick for what that money could have been used for. For instance, over seven million students could have received four-year scholarships at public universities; or, almost twenty million children could have attended the Head Start program for a year.

That $147.5 billion could have fully funded global AIDS programs for fourteen years, or it could have provided basic immunizations for every child in the world - for forty-nine years.

It’s all a matter of priorities.

The recent devastation in Asia, due to a powerful earthquake and resulting tsunamis, gives us a further means to gauge how American tax dollars are spent.

The initial offer of aid from the Bush administration was $15 million, which was subsequently increased to $35 million. (Spain, in contrast, has already committed over $60 million.) "I just about went through the roof when I heard them bragging about $35 million," said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT). "We spend $35 million before breakfast every day in Iraq."

It’s a catchy line, but it has the added distinction of being accurate. Figuring we spend a billion dollars a week for the Iraq war/occupation - and figuring each day starts at 12:01 AM - if you don’t have breakfast until after 6:01 AM, the U.S. has just spent $35,714,285.71. (The actual amount is even greater, since our weekly expenditure in Iraq in fact exceeds a billion dollars.)

Thirty-five million dollars, given the wealth of this country and the extent of the catastrophe, is an embarrassingly small amount. However, if our overall priorities had been different before the fact, a great many lives could have been saved.

Budi Waluyo, of Indonesia’s Meteorology and Geophysics Agency: "We have no equipment here that can warn about tsunamis. The instruments are very expensive and we don’t have money to buy them."

From CNN, 12/29/04: "Currently the Indian Ocean does not have a tsunami warning system…India’s Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal announced on Wednesday that a system would be installed there…at a cost of up to $27 million."

The current offer of $35 million will have limited impact; but if it were offered three years ago, in the form of an early-warning system, it could have spared countless lives.

American fiscal priorities received a stinging rebuke this week from Jan Egeland, emergency relief coordinator for the United Nations. In a much-publicized comment, he described the humanitarian efforts from wealthy Western nations as "stingy." In an editorial, the New York Times concurred: "Mr. Egeland is right on target…$35 million remains a miserly drop in the bucket…According to a poll, most Americans believe the U.S. spends 24 percent of its budget on aid to poor countries; it actually spends well under a quarter of 1 percent…Making things worse, we often pledge more money than we actually deliver…back in 2002, Mr. Bush announced his Millennium Challenge to give African countries development assistance of up to $5 billion a year, but the account has yet to disperse a single dollar."

George W. Bush offers a blank check for war, a bouncing check for charity.

However, with all due respect to Mr. Egeland and the New York Times, "stingy" - defined by Webster’s Dictionary as "reluctant to give or spend" - doesn’t seem the correct word to describe the Bush administration. Since this fiscal reticence only applies to humanitarian issues, it would be better to classify them as "uncompassionate."

But stingy? Not really. In fact, they’re wasteful in historic proportions; they’re eager to "give and spend" U.S. tax dollars. They continue to finance the military acquisition of Iraq using credit cards - payable, with interest, by you, your children, and their children. All this to the tune of $147.5 billion, growing minute by minute, day by day, year by year.

Bush & Co. may be greedy corporate warmongers, but they’re not stingy.


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