The Iraq invasion has cost more than one trillion dollars. How much is one trillion?

May 3, 2007 | By | 17 Replies More

Mathematician John Paulos has been working hard to help us imagine the amount of money spent to invade and occupy Iraq.  Many experts suggest that it has cost $700 billion in direct costs and probably twice that much if you include the indirect costs.  Others estimate the cost at $2 trillion.   Paulos asks us to assume that the amount is one trillion, then sets out to help us imagine what one trillion is:

Another way to get at the $1 trillion cost of the Iraq War is to note that the Treasury could have used the money to mail a check for more than $3,000 to every man, woman and child in the United States. The latter alternative would have an added benefit: Uniformly distributed and spent in this country, the money would have provided an economic stimulus that the war expenditures have not.

Alternatively, if the money was spent in an even more ecumenical way and a global mailing list was available, the Treasury could have sent a check for more than $150 to every human being on earth. The lives of millions of children, who die from nothing more serious than measles, tetanus, respiratory infections and diarrhea, could be saved, since these illnesses can be prevented by $2 vaccines, $1 worth of antibiotics, or a 10-cent dose of oral rehydration salts as well as the main but still very far from prohibitive cost of people to administer the programs.

How about illustrating a trillion by reference to time and money:

It would take almost three decades to spend a trillion dollars at $1,000 per second, and if spending at this rate occurred only during business hours, more than 120 years would be required to dispense the sum.

iraq protests - STL march 2007.jpg

[These photos are from the March 2007 St. Louis protest of U.S. military action in Iraq]

cemetery - protest.jpg


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Category: Economy, Iraq

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (17)

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  1. grumpypilgrim says:

    One trillion dollars is an almost incomprehensibly large amount of money. To help put it in perspective, here are some more comparisons…

    A stack of one trillion dollar bills would stand more than 55,000 miles high. That's more than twice the distance around the earth's equator.

    A stack of one trillion dollar bills would weigh more than one million tons. That's more than the combined, fully-loaded weight of all ten Nimitz-class aircraft carriers in the U.S. Navy. How big are ten Nimitz-class supercarriers? Tied end-to-end, they would be two miles long and have a combined flight deck area of 45 acres (about eight city blocks).

    One trillion dollars would be enough money to *build* more than TWO HUNDRED such supercarriers — enough to give one to every sovereign nation on earth.

    The two World Trade Center towers, destroyed on 9/11, each weighed 500,000 tons. Together, they accounted for 4% of the real estate in Manhattan. A stack of one trillion dollar bills would exceed the combined weight of both buildings.

    The cost to build the Freedom Tower, where the WTC once stood, is estimated at $3 billion. One trillion dollars would pay for 333 such buildings — more than 60 of them in every state in America.

    The maximum take-off weight of a Boeing 767-200 is 200 tons. The weight of one trillion dollar bills would equal the take-off weight of 5,000 fully-loaded Boeing 767s.

    The United States Navy is the largest navy in the world, with a tonnage greater than that of the next 17 largest navies combined. It has a budget of $127.3 billion for the 2007 fiscal year. One trillion dollars is eight times the 2007 fiscal year budget of the U.S. Navy — about equal to the entire budget of the U.S. Navy for all eight years of George Bush's presidency.

    The 2007 budget for the U.S. Defense Dept. (excluding Iraq) is about $500 billion and is greater than the annual budgets of all the defense departments of all other nations on earth combined. One trillion dollars is more than the combined 2007 budget of every defense department of every nation on our planet.

    More information about understanding large numbers can be found in my post titled "Understanding a billion," here:

  2. Vicki Baker says:

    Grumpy – thanks for that. I'm thinking I'll print it out and share with my daughter's 6th grade class. I wonder how many college educations a trillion dollars would buy?

  3. grumpypilgrim says:

    According to the College Board, one year at a public college cost $15,566 for the '05-06 academic year, and about double that amount at a private college. To make the math easier, let's round the cost to $20,000. Let's also invest the $1 trillion in long-term government bonds, so the money will produce interest income every year without reducing the principal. That way, we could provide scholarships every year, forever. At 4.6% (the current long-term government bond rate), a $1 trillion investment would produce $46 billion per year. Forty-six billion dollars per year would provide $20,000 scholarships for 2.3 million people. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were about 11 million people, aged 16-24 years old, enrolled in college during October 2005, so we could give 20% of them a full scholarship, every year, forever. (See,… Alternatively, $46 billion per year, divided by 11 million college students, would give every college student in America about $4200 per year, every year, forever. That's without actually spending the $1 trillion, just spending the interest it would produce if invested in governement bonds. If invested in stocks, which earn, over the long term, about 10% per year, we would earn $100 billion per year in caiptal gains — enough to give 11 million college students about $9,000 per year, every year, forever.

    If we were to divide the $1 trillion among the 4 million sixth grade students in America, we could give each of them $250,000 — enough to buy each of them a nice house. (See,

  4. Ben says:

    "more than 60 of them in every state in America."

    333/50 = 6.7

    Anyway, it's still a lot of paper. I think writing a check would be easier…

    1,000,000,000 paid to the order of GWB.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Ben's right: 6 in every state. Sorry, I got a bit carried away….

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    I keep thinking about Vicki's sixth-grade daughter. Erich's post points out that "the Treasury could have used the money to mail a check for more than $3,000 to every man, woman and child in the United States." What he did not mention is that, instead, the Internal Revenue Service will be sending a bill for more than $3,000 to every man, woman and child in the United States — including one to Vicki's sixth-grade daughter. She and her classmates will all be paying for Bush's Iraq lie, perhaps for the rest of their lives.

    This is one reason why I despise the fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush Administration and most of the Republican party (and a good share of the Democratic party, too). They always make a big show about giving tax cuts to voters (or benefits, in the case of Democrats), but what they never mention is that they are piling their resulting debt onto the backs of children who can't vote.

    Oh, and btw, Bush didn't just saddle Vicki's daughter (and everyone else in America) with a bill for more than $3,000; he more than doubled the national debt to $9 trillion, so we all will be getting a bill from the IRS for more than $27,000, of which more than $15,000 came from George W.

    Of course, he didn't mention that when he made a big show, during his 2000 campaign, about giving a $500 tax rebate to every taxpayer in America. "Vote for me, everyone, and I'll put money in your pocket." Yeah, $500 cash in your pocket and $15,000+ charged to your credit card…and another $15,000 charged to each of your childrens' credit cards.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Here's another example to put things into perspective. In this article (, the European Space Agency (Europe's version of NASA) is balking at the "enormous cost" of an enhanced robotic mission to Mars. The enhanced mission, set to launch in 2013, would add an orbiter to the ground robot — something that would solve several logistical problems.

    What is the "enormous cost" that they are balking at? Tens of millions of euros — less than what it costs the U.S. to stay in Iraq for one afternoon.

  8. grumpypilgrim says:

    Here's another comparison. The investment cost, over the next *decade*, to begin weaning America off oil is less than $200 billion, according to this website: A trillion dollars could have made five such investments, presumably increasing the odds of success.

  9. Erich Vieth says:

    Bush has cost this country $32 TRILLION:

    "The federal government's fiscal exposures totaled approximately $53 trillion as of September 30, 2007, up more than $2 trillion from September 30, 2006, and an increase of more than $32 trillion from about $20 trillion as of September 30, 2000," Walker said. "This translates into a current burden of about $175,000 per American or approximately $455,000 per American household."

  10. Erich Vieth says:

    The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are close to 20 million dollars per hour.

  11. grumpypilgrim says:

    Any way we cut it, the cost of Bush's unnecessary invasion of Iraq is nearly incomprehensible, which is perhaps why so few Americans are calling for his impeachment.

    BTW, another way to put Bush's war spending into perspective is to observe that the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — the sum total of all the products and services produced in the entire country — was slightly more than $13 trillion in 2006, so, if Bush blows $600 billion in one year in Iraq, that's about 5% of the entire U.S. economy. Thus, if the U.S. economy grows less than 5% per anum, the Iraq war basically negates the nation's real economic growth…and that's for each year he stays in Iraq.

    The really sick statistic is that the GDP is calculated in such a way that war spending actually increases it, thus making Bush's war look like a good thing for the economy, when in fact it's a disaster and could even prove ruinous in the long run.

  12. MohammedLoya says:

    this whole war is an excuse to gain oil and a useless waste of $. After Iraq re stablizied troops should have left, but then again if they left there was the posibility that things would return to normal. but the govt should be focused on global problems like hunger, famine, education, health. etc. but watever. i hope this earns a scholarship

  13. grumpypilgrim says:

    How much is one trillion dollars? That's one thousand dollars for every minute since Jesus Christ was born.

  14. Erich Vieth says:

    Here is a great way to visualize one trillion dollars.

  15. Dan Klarmann says:

    A trillion bytes is an $80 hard drive (in 2009).

    A trillion computer clock cycles (internal logical states) in a home computer takes about 16 minutes (2GHz).

    A trillion Uranium atoms weigh 0.000000004 grams (4×10<sup>-10</sup>g)

    A trillion dollars is ten times the estimated cost of the entire currently proposed manned lunar landing project. But probably only five times the actual cost. Although such projects — called boondoggles by the short sighted — usually pay many times their own costs in serendipitous dividends.

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