What We Could Have Done with the Money

50 Ways to Spend the Trillion Dollars We've Spent on Iraq


By Rob Simpson

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The war in Iraq is not only controversial, it’s also astronomically expensive. Now Rob Simpson answers the question many concerned Americans have been asking: Wasn’t there some other way the government could have spent one trillion of our tax dollars?

What We Could Have Done with the Money presents 50 thought-provoking spending alternatives. With a trillion dollars, we could . . .

  • Fix Social Security right now: Stop worrying. Stop debating. It’s done. Over. Fixed.
  • End homelessness in America: House 15 million homeless families, get a million kids out of foster care, and have change to spare!
  • Give everyone in the world satellite TV: Can we have the revolution later? I’m watching CSI right now.
  • Pay everyone in Iraq to be nice to each other: Hey! If someone tripled your salary for the next 20 years, wouldn’t you behave?
  • Go Green: Give 100 million car buyers a $10,000 subsidy on their hybrid.
  • Or gold . . . : Pave every highway in America with gold leaf.
  • Play ball!: Fly everyone in Iraq to America, put them up in a nice hotel for three days with all the extras, take them to a baseball game and fly them home . . . and have a lot leftover.
  • Cure cancer: Double research spending for as long as it takes.
. . . not to mention paying all credit card debt, buying everyone in the world an iPod, building 75 million solar-powered homes, and 39 other revealing pipe dreams.

Shocking, thought-provoking, and incredibly entertaining, Simpson takes a hard look at the government’s top priorities–both what they are and what they should be.



In the time it takes you read this sentence, the war in Iraq has cost America another $50,000.1

When the total cost estimate first hit a trillion dollars, I happened to be watching one of the political talk shows. The question of “Why aren’t people outraged?” was raised, and the answer was simply that most of us can’t imagine how much a trillion dollars is. And so this book was born. It is, at its root, an effort to help us all appreciate just how much money that is. The hope is that by illustrating some alternatives, we can put the number in some sort of meaningful context.

But the book, frankly, seeks to do more than help you understand how much money we’re spending. It was also created to provoke action.

This is our money. We could be doing great things with it—for ourselves and our families, for America and for the world. This is the sort of money that launches New Deals, that builds interstate highway systems, that pays for Marshall Plans.

My hope is that as you read this book, you will feel informed, enlightened, entertained, and amused. By the time you’ve finished it, you will almost certainly be appalled and angry. If that motivates you to ask candidates for office tough questions, to vote for change, to demand accountability from those we elect—not just during this election, but from this point forward—then it will have spurred you to become a better citizen, and one hopes that you will be rewarded with better government.

Now, hurry up and get reading. You’ve just blown another $800,000.


A portion of the royalties from this book are being donated to Homes for Our Troops, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that assists severely injured servicemen and -women and their families by building homes or adapting existing homes for handicapped accessibility. For more information, visit www.homesforourtroops.org.

- 1 -


Solving the Problem

You Don’t Even See

For most of us, the word “homeless” conjures up images of men begging for money on downtown street corners. Not families. But 600,000 families will experience homelessness this year, including more than a million children.2

That’s a tragedy for them, but it’s also a problem for the rest of us. Homeless children are more likely to be in poor health, to experience developmental delays, to develop mental health problems, and to exhibit behavioral problems. In short, they’re much less likely to become law-abiding, productive citizens as adults.

Getting these families into stable housing is not just the compassionate thing to do, it’s an investment in our collective future.

The reason we have so many homeless families is, quite simply, the lack of affordable housing. There is no place in America where a minimum wage job provides enough income for a household to afford the rent for a modest apartment. Even earning double the minimum wage won’t do it.3

Five million American households spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing,4 meaning they’re one car breakdown or layoff or doctor’s bill away from the streets.

The good news is, the solution here is simple and, in most cases, permanent.

When homeless families get housing subsidies, they very rarely find themselves facing homelessness again. (They are twenty-one times more likely to remain stably housed than comparable families exiting a shelter without a subsidy.)5

There are an estimated 15 million families in America who need assistance to pay for housing. Currently, about a third of them actually get the help they need. Section 8 vouchers provide an average of $6,805 per year per family.7 So to provide another 10 million vouchers would cost $68,050,000,000.

Invest $1 trillion in the stock market




Growth per year (Ibbotson forecast)




Total to be dispersed each year




Cost of housing vouchers for 10 million families






Maybe we could use some of the leftover money to help those men on the street corners (who include about 200,000 veterans).6 Something to think about the next time you’re downtown.

That’s substantially less than we could earn on our trillion dollars, using Roger Ibbotson’s market forecast. Ibbotson (Yale University, also Ibbotson Associates) is arguably America’s leading market forecaster.8 He calls for long-term market growth of 9 percent.

So we can get all those families into decent, stable housing. But the story is even more positive than that because the children of homeless families often end up in foster care. Nationally, the average cost of placing the children of a homeless family in foster care is $47,608, almost seven times the cost of a housing subsidy.

Of course, with the subsidy, the family actually stays together.

So a program to reduce family homelessness would be easily affordable, would keep families together, and save 1 million children a year from the litany of problems outlined above.

- 2 -


A Place to Call Home

Say what you will about Jimmy Carter as a president, he’s almost certainly the best ex-president we’ve ever had. As if global diplomacy, the Nobel Peace Prize, a Grammy Award, writing twenty-three books, and fund-raising for great causes weren’t enough, he has made Habitat for Humanity one of the most well-known and successful assistance programs in history.

What makes Habitat so popular, I suspect, is that it’s not about charity. It is the definitive “hand up, not handout” program. While disadvantaged people across America and around the world now live in homes built by Habitat, nobody gets a free ride. No one gets a Habitat home without contributing both their own money and sweat equity.

There’s no denying the need. Around the world, about 1.6 billion people live in substandard housing, most of them in urban slums.9 In America, the wealthiest nation in history, roughly one-third of us have housing problems, ranging from overcrowding to poor-quality housing to homelessness.

Most of them are working people who simply can’t afford decent housing. (Our unemployment rate is usually around 5 percent, yet 33 percent of families have housing problems.) How about we use that trillion dollars to put a proper roof over their heads?

The average cost of a Habitat house in the USA is just under $60,000.10 Which means that with a trillion dollars (and a lot of work from prospective home owners and Habitat volunteers), we could build housing for 16,666,667 families.

That won’t completely solve the problem, because some 65 million people in this country have serious housing problems.11 But it’s one heck of a good start that could make one heck of a difference to our country in the years to come.

Money spent on Iraq War




Cost of average Habitat home in America




Number of families whose lives we could change


The average American family these days is 2.58 people, meaning that we’d actually be helping 43 million Americans. Now imagine that one in ten of them decide to help with future Habitat projects. That’s an army of more than 4 million people helping their neighbors. Think of it as the biggest barn-raising party in history.

That’s because home ownership has been proven to encourage families to get more involved in their community; it helps the working poor build wealth; and children who grow up in decent housing are healthier, do better in school, and stay in school longer.

All of which would make this country a better place to call home for all of us.

- 3 -


Like We Mean It

People have referred to New Orleans as “the city that care forgot” for decades. It used to mean that life was carefree in the Big Easy. In recent years, though, the term has taken on a new and much sadder meaning.

While thousands of Americans have traveled to the Crescent City to help it rebuild, most of us assumed that government would somehow take care of it. Well, government hasn’t.

There is much to fault in the rebuilding efforts—the Army Corps of Engineers, for instance, says that the levees “may be” rebuilt by 2011—but let’s take the positive approach and think about what we might achieve with, say, a trillion dollars to spend.

Let’s start by protecting New Orleans against another Katrina. A total of $8.4 billion has been allocated for the levees. The actual cost to rebuild the levees to withstand a category 5 storm could run to as much as $40 billion.12 Fine. Do it.

Experts point to disappearing wetlands around New Orleans as one of the reasons the damage from Katrina was so severe, since each mile of wetlands reduces storm surge by several inches. It could cost up to $14 billion to restore coastal wetlands.13 Do it.

We can put some architectural excitement into the city with the proposed New Orleans National Jazz Center and park. The plan would cover a twenty-acre area and include a new hotel, city hall, concert halls, an open-air park, a jazz museum, and studio and classroom space. A bold vision, with a preliminary price tag of $715 million.14 Round it up to a billion dollars, and do it.

A proposal has been put forward for a Gulf Coast Civic Works Program, modeled on the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, which would create 100,000 public jobs paying $15 an hour, to help residents get back on their feet and rebuild their communities.15 Get them working forty hours a week for a year, and the total would only be $3 billion. Pay them a little more, cover the Social Security and Medicare costs, you’re still getting away with less than $5 billion. Add in some skilled tradespeople, who will earn more—maybe kick the total up to $6 billion. Throw in half a billion for supplies and we’ve probably covered the costs of getting power lines, water, and sewers working again.

Rebuild levees




Restore wetlands




National Jazz Center




Civic Works Program




Houses for displaced families




Rebuild rental units




Public housing




Business subsidies




B-to-B ad campaign




Tourism ad campaign






Approximately $35 billion has actually been earmarked for rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Sadly, two years after the storm, only 42 percent of that money had been spent.

Some 81,000 families displaced by Katrina still live in FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers.16 Build them each a $200,000 house. Total spent—$16.2 billion. Heck, upgrade the appliances and put in granite countertops, you’re still below $20 billion.

Some 33,000 rental units have been identified as needing to be rebuilt.17 Let’s ballpark $150,000 apiece for them. Approximate total cost, $5 billion.

New Orleans had about 5,100 public housing units.18 At $150,000 per, that’s another $765 million to rebuild them.

Looking beyond buildings, the area’s economy is going to need a leg up. Maybe subsidies for opening new businesses on the Gulf Coast. Let’s pluck a number out of the sky and dedicate $10 billion to that. No, $20 billion. Then let’s spend $100 million on a business-to-business ad campaign to let people know about it. Speaking of advertising, how about another $100 million to encourage the tourists to come back?

Okay, I’m getting down to some relatively small stuff here. And the city that care forgot is starting to feel like the land of opportunity.

Total spent—$107,465,000,000.

And just in case you’re inclined to quibble with some of the numbers, let’s double that. We’re now at $214,930,000,000.

Leaving us almost $800 billion to spend on other things. And leaving at least some of us wondering why this hasn’t happened.

- 4 -


Go Ahead, Be a Streetwalker

I mean that in the nicest way. As in, you should feel free to walk the streets of your neighborhood or even downtown and feel safe doing it.

Is that too much to ask?

Most of us don’t feel that way right now. There are parts of every city in America where you wouldn’t walk around if you could avoid it. Or even drive through. Bruce Springsteen once sang about the part of town where you don’t stop if you hit a red light. Ignoring the fact that perhaps Mr. Springsteen should have his driver’s license suspended, he makes a good point.

No doubt, there are deep systemic problems within American society that lead people to a life of crime. We should try to solve them. Maybe some of the suggestions in other chapters (free college education, housing for the working poor, health care for all) could help us solve some of those underlying issues. For the moment, though, let’s just attack the crime problem head-on.

Let’s make it harder for criminals to do criminal things and get away with it. Maybe I’ve watched a bit too much Law & Order, but I’m thinking that more cops would help us do that.

So here’s where I’ve gone with this one:

The median salary for a patrol officer in the USA is $46,596.19 According to the Bureau of Justice, there are 663,535 police officers nationwide.20 With a trillion dollars, we could have thirty-two times that many. Nothing scientific here, but I’m guessing that if your town had thirty-two times as many cops, you might see a decrease in crime. And yes, there would almost certainly be more donut shops.

Looking at it from a slightly more sensible side, we could double the number of police officers in every city and town in America, and cover the cost for the next thirty-two years. Something to think about the next time you hear a sound just as you’re dozing off and wonder if it’s someone trying to break into your house.

New police hires




Average salary for a police officer




Annual cost




Years and years of feeling safe




Total cost


We could even afford to raise the average police salary by just over $250 a year. Or, as a thank-you to the cops who’ve been keeping us safe to this point, we could give each of them a $16,000 bonus.

- 5 -



On Sale
Jul 1, 2008
Page Count
128 pages
Hachette Books

Rob Simpson

About the Author

Rob Simpson is an advertising executive. He lives in Cinncinnati.

Learn more about this author