The distractions of war

Taking some time out from work, I glanced at the National Priorities Project’s Cost of War calculator. At the time of writing this, the total cost to the US of its occupation of Iraq stands at a conservatively estimated $462 billion. The National Priorities Project briefly explains how it calculates this cost, what figures are included, and which are excluded, here (e.g. operations in Afghanistan are excluded; regular pay for soldiers is excluded; combat pay is included). The figure is also reset every now and again, and will be reset once requests for 2008 war funding is approved by the US Congress.

The site also allows visitors to compare the cost to a range of regional and departmental costs in the US, e.g. how many teachers could have been employed in a particular state, or how many graduate students could have been funded in a particular state or nation-wide.

I did a rough South African comparison, simply to try and comprehend the magnitude of the figures involved. In no ways scientific, I used some rough calculations based, also, on the rate of cost. According to the ticker, for instance, the US is spending roughly $3 250/sec. in Iraq.

According to most recent currency exchange figures, that’s about R22 461/sec., 3 743 loaves of bread at R6 a loaf. Or 323 million loaves per day. That’s right, the US is spending R1 940 630 400 a day in Iraq. At around R30 per kilogram of stewing beef in South Africa, that is 65 million kilograms of beef. Everyday, all 46 million South Africans could have 1.4kg of beef, or 5 to six really decent portions of beef for what the US is spending on the war in Iraq.

Still difficult to comprehend? Per second, that is about 750kg of beef. I still struggled with the figures, so I thought I’d make up a just-more-than-basic hamper of groceries, based on Pick ‘n Pay online prices. Again, these are rough calculations, but I am just trying to comprehend the rough outlines of this adventure by comparing it to day-to-day life in South Africa.

The Hamper

I based the hamper on what I would buy now if I went grocery shopping. It is basic in the sense that the largest part of the hamper is just that and it includes some iconic items that one might include, say, if one wanted to be charitable and buy a poor neighbour or relative a hamper, something that was not uncommon at all in my childhood. There are two levels of ‘luxury’ items. Firstly, the hamper includes a few items that are not the basic in their kind or type. So, a decent cheese rather than the cheapest cheese. Not the cheapest cheese, but neither anything obsene or atavistically luxurious. For myself, but if this were to be a charitable hamper, not so basic as to insult the receiver’s dignity.

The second level of luxury would include items like cigarettes and printing paper. But I don’t want to get into philosophical arguments about needs and wants. These are goods that I would buy, these are included in my most basic grocery shopping list. Ultimately, readers can judge for themselves how basic this hamper is:

Apples, 4 golden delicious – R9
English cucumber – R7
Onions, 1kg – R8
Potatoes, 1kg – R5
Tomatoes, 6 – R15

Bread, 800gr loaf of wholewheat – R6
Maize meal, 1 kg – R5
Lentils, 500gr – R4
Rice, 1kg Basmati – R12
Cooking oil, 750ml – R10

Orange juice, 1 litre – R13

Elite Mature cheddar, 300gr – R30
Butter, 500gr – R19
Milk, 1 litre full cream – R6
Frozen peas, 1kg – R16
Eggs, 1 dozen – R13

Beef, 1kg – R30
Fish, 1kg angel fish – R22
Chicken, whole – R30

Carton of cigarettes R180
Ream of paper R35

Coffee grounds, 250gr – R26
Tea, tagless (100 bags) – R15
Sugar, 500gr – R6
Chocolate, 100gr slab – R7
Bathsoap, 1 bar – R3
Toothpaste – R6
Toiletpaper, 4 rolls – R16

Total cost: R554

Forgive me the solipsism, but here’s how the absurd figures of the cost of war in Iraq start to make sense to me. The hamper is a generous hamper in that some items will last longer than a week, but it simultaneously represents a basic weekly food bill. Some of my friends might even laugh at how low it is.

The per-second cost of war, R22 461, translates into 40 trips to the grocery store. Every second of the war could, for instance, pay my basic grocery bill for 40 weeks. That’s almost a year. OK, let’s say it is a year: R22 461/year for basic groceries.

Every day, the US war bill in Iraq could buy me groceries for 86 400 years. If I died at 70, that would be about 1 234 lifetimes. Put another way, the daily war bill could fund 86 400 writers for a year.

It’s present total cost – $462 billion, or R3 183 billion – could have funded 141 720 315 writers for a year – 141 million.

On the more luxurious side, the per-second bill could buy me 270 200gr-steak meals at the Hussar. Even if I went there once every week, that would be a steak meal for the next 5 years. The daily war bill would give me 23 328 000 – 23 fucking million – steak meals, a steak a week for 448 615 years.

Let’s look at the less luxurious side. South Africa is working towards a Poverty Datum Line (PDL) and estimates (link is in pdf) put it at R430 per capita per month in 2006. It includes food and non-food essentials. One day of war could thus prevent 4 513 093 South Africans from dropping below the PDL. Twelve days of war could keep that number of people in South Africa just outside of poverty for a year.

The total costs of war to date – R3 183 billion, remember – could keep 617 million South Africans on the PDL for a year, or all South Africans for 13 years.

2 Responses to The distractions of war

  1. Eugene Robinson says:

    It’s a pity the costs of not being in occupation or having the war mostly involve unquantifiables. Of course your position would still trump the opposing one, but it’s still not as simple as this post argues.

  2. Rustum says:

    Eugene, to quote from the post: “I did a rough South African comparison, simply to try and comprehend the magnitude of the figures involved.” I believe that’s the main, explicit point of my post.

    As to whatever arguments, simple or complicated, might be implied, I’ll shirk my responsibility and leave it to the reader.

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