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Published: Sunday, 12/3/2006

What better way to spend than in Iraq?

It's that time of year when you can read gazillions and bajillions of helpful tips for consumers looking to avoid massive holiday shopping debt.

Oh, if only we could just as easily control our national spending spree.

Discussing the Iraq war price tag, we might as well use "gazillion" and "bajillion" since the actual costs are high enough to be abstract concepts.

Recent estimates put the U.S. cost for Iraq as high as $2 trillion - a number not easily grasped, at least not by me. But here's how one of that estimate's generators tries to lay it out:

"I explain to my students that 1 billion seconds equal 32 years [and] 1 trillion seconds equal 300 centuries," said Linda Bilmes, who teaches public finance at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

She teamed with Nobel Prize-winning Columbia University economist Joseph Stiglitz earlier this year to analyze total direct and indirect costs of the Iraq war and came up with $2 trillion.

Just think: Donald Rumsfeld once insisted the whole thing could be done for $50 billion.

But we're spending $10 billion in Iraq each month, according to Professor Bilmes, who says the "emergency supplemental" war requests of the Bush Administration top $400 billion.

You used to be able to walk down New York City's 42nd Street and see a running calculator tally each minute of national debt. The gizmo is gone now, off somewhere being rejiggered because - ooops! - it was never designed to display a number beyond $9,999,999,999.99.

I have a tough time imagining such numbers. No matter how much Professor Bilmes breaks it down, I can't fathom "trillion."

When I want to get a handle on what this war costs, I ratchet down to local accounting, compliments of the National Priorities Project. This nonpartisan, nonprofit group breaks down federal spending, giving communities the means to analyze the impact of federal policy right in their own neighborhoods.

Toledoans' share for the Iraq war, according to the NPP, is $267,152,412. Or anyway, it was yesterday morning. Twenty-four hours later, it will have climbed.

(Check for yourself at http://costofwar.com. You can also try some interactive estimating at this American Enterprise Institute Web site: http://aei-brookings.org/iraqcosts.)

Another of the NPP's eye-opening views is Iraq spending by congressional district. And for those of us in Marcy Kaptur's 9th District, the cost of the Iraq war hits almost $720 million.

For this sum, we could instead have any one of the following:

•241,290 adults with health care.

•409,381 children with health care.

•65 new elementary schools.

•12,232 grade-school teachers.

•111,151 Head Start slots for young children.

•11,020 music and art teachers.

•89,069 university scholarships.

•17,268 cops or firefighters.

•14,850 inspectors for port containers.

When you can "see" the opportunity costs of the Iraq war in your own backyard, it's much more vivid. Put aside for the moment any ideological or logistical debates about our Iraq occupation. You could even be among the minority of Americans who favor this war and still pose this urgent question:

How much more of this can we honestly afford?

Roberta de Boer's column appears here on Sundays, and in Second News on Tuesdays and Thursdays.



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