A month ago there was a spate of "sky is green" articles claiming that Iraq is no longer an important issue for voters:
Iraq War Fades as an Election Issue (NPR, Dec 6) "...concerns about Iraq remain, but the war is not the only top-tier issue among voters. Many have turned their focus to domestic issues such as health care, energy, the mortgage crisis and immigration."
Pocketbook issues push past Iraq in poll (USA Today, Dec 28) "More than half the voters in an ongoing survey for The Associated Press and Yahoo News say the economy and health care are extremely important to them personally. They fear they will face unexpected medical expenses, their homes will lose value or mortgage and credit card payments will overwhelm them."
Domestic issues now outweigh Iraq (NY Times, Jan 3) "...the war is becoming a less defining issue among Democrats nationally, and it has moved to the back of the stage in the rush of campaign rallies, town hall meetings and speeches that are bringing the caucus competition to an end. Instead, candidates are being asked about, and are increasingly talking about, the mortgage crisis, rising gas costs, health care, immigration, the environment and taxes."
The funny thing is, when this voter sees "health care," "mortgage crisis," "rising gas costs," "the environment," and "taxes" I read them all as a single four-letter word: Iraq.
The cost of the Iraq war has been around a half-trillion dollars.
That figure is from the National Priorities cost of war site, which pulled data largely from the Congressional Research Service (more info on their sources). They note that it is enough to give almost 40 million people health care, to hire over 2 million grade school teachers, to build over a million units of affordable housing -- in 2007 alone!
Tyler Cowen, a George Mason University economics professor, came out with slightly different figures. Writing in the Washington Post, he put the cost of the Iraq war at over a trillion dollars, based on data from Congressional Democrats on the Joint Economic Committee. That's enough for 28 Departments of Homeland Security.
How does this relate to the current campaigns?
Obama's health care plan is supposed to cost $50-65 billion per year (PDF); Clinton's plan costs about twice that. Get us out of Iraq, and you can pay for Obama's plan in six months, with another $50 billion left over as pocket change. Clinton's plan would be an even swap -- get us out of Iraq, and every American gets health insurance.
By comparison, to accelerate the basics of health care -- to fund the NIH, which in turn funds most of the biomedical research in the country -- is much, much cheaper. Congress just gave the NIH yet another sub-inflation increase (effectively a budget cut). But by January 6 of this year we'd already spent in Iraq the same amount that we'd need to give NIH the 5% increase it needs to keep growing. By the time you read this, we'll have thrown away enough on Iraq this year alone to increase the NIH by 30%.
The subprime mortgage problems have pulled the rug out from under the banking industry (or, like Wile E Coyote after having run off a cliff, has forced them to look down) and sent the stock market into a downward trend that's forced the Federal Reserve to aggressively cut interest rates, which will further decrease the value of the dollar, further harming our global power and effectively shrinking the savings of everyone who keeps their money in cash. (Of course it might have been even worse if the Fed hadn't.)
Bank of America wrote off $5 billion last quarter. Morgan Stanley wrote down over $9 billion. Citigroup wrote down almost $10 billion. Merrill Lynch wrote down $14 billion. Globally, banks across the world have written off about $120 billion in mortgage-related debt. By comparison, this coming year the President aims to spend over $150 billion on Iraq. That includes a request he made in October for an additional $45 billion -- a single supplement that would have been enough to cover all the US banking write-downs from our miserable fourth quarter.
If you don't want to use the money to bail out the banks, then that $150 billion on Iraq could also be spent to knock more than a third off of Bush's projected 2008 federal deficit of $400 billion. (By comparison, Bill Clinton showed a federal surplus of over $200 billion in his last year in office.)
Or maybe your issue is tax cuts. Instead of providing services and security (such as it is) to Iraq, we could just give that money back to the taxpayer. For what we'll have spent in Iraq by the time he leaves office, President Bush could have mailed out Christmas cards stuffed with a check for almost $5,000 to each household.
If that sounds like chump change to you, maybe you're not someone who needs it. But the lowest 40% of households pay taxes of about $100 billion per year. (The lowest quintile pays about $15 billion and the second-lowest quintile, with an average pre-tax income of $37,000 per household, pays another $80 billion.) Want to help the poor and lower middle class? We could simply stop collecting taxes from the bottom 2/5ths of American households each year for what it costs us to be in Iraq.
Both Clinton and Obama have repudiated the Iraq war, so naturally in a contest between them the conversation will often turn to other issues. But you may want to bookmark this post for the general, when Clinton or Obama will be running against someone like McCain, who is willing to spend the next 100 years in Iraq (at 100 billion per year, that comes out to $10 trillion in today's money -- more than a doubling of the national debt). Every other issue depends on freeing up the money we're currently sending to Iraq.
And you may want to pass this post along to anyone you know who believes public money should be spent for the public good. They may have their own personal Most Important Positions, as I have mine (NIH funding), and they may be focusing more on where everyone stands on education, or health care, or social security. The problem is that any policy to improve those issues depends on cutting our spending in a country where 80 percent of Iraqis want us out (and about half want us out now).
Until then, you can tell them that every domestic issue on their agenda, from pocketbooks to patient care, from the cost of milk to the price of gas, can unfortunately be spelled with just four letters: I-R-A-Q.