Early this winter, the PBS "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" interviewed the medical director at a community clinic in Northern California. He recalled the sight of military equipment moving along railroad tracks next to his office. "I've joked with my colleagues," Dr. David Katz said, "if we could just get one of those Abrams tanks we could probably fund all the primary care clinics for a year."
The comment didn't make it on the air - it was only included in video on a PBS Web site - and that was unfortunate. We need more public focus on what our tax dollars are buying.
As medical providers and patients struggle with low funding and high barriers to adequate health care, the nation's largesse for war continues to soar. Every day, the U.S. Treasury spends close to $2 billion on the military. Such big numbers are hard to fathom, but it's worth doing the math.
In Yolo County, for instance, where Dr. Katz watches Abrams tanks roll by his beleaguered clinic, taxpayers have already provided the IRS with $449.8 million to fund the Iraq war. That's enough to provide health care to 168,154 children for a full year.
Those figures come from the National Priorities Project, a nonpartisan group with a nifty - and often chilling - online calculator (www. nationalpriorities.org). Type in the name of your locality, and huge military costs suddenly hit close to home.
More than 40 percent of federal tax dollars go to military spending. The outlays buy a mighty war machine while depleting our own communities.
In San Francisco, taxpayers have already sent the U.S. government $2.2 billion for the Iraq war - enough to provide health care to 828,378 children for a year. In Oakland, the figure is $826.7 million, costing out to a year of health care for 309,036 children. In San Mateo County, taxpayers' tab for the war in Iraq has reached $2.6 billion, enough to cover a year of health care for nearly 1 million kids.
To make matters worse, this money wasn't just squandered. It financed warfare that damaged - often fatally - the health of Americans and Iraqis.
When the National Priorities Project crunched the numbers for the entire Bay Area, it found that taxpayers have already sent the IRS a total of $22.6 billion for the Iraq war. In retrospect, other options for that money are heartbreaking. For a full year, it could have provided 9,284,504 people with health care. Or it could have paid for 67,522 affordable housing units.
In pursuit of green goals, the Bay Area's share of expenditures for the Iraq war could have provided upward of 10 million homes with renewable electricity for four years.
Mostly, the dividing line between foreign policy and domestic economy has narrowed to the vanishing point. As we know from our personal lives, priorities - whether openly examined or not - are pivotal. And government budgets tell the tale of social priorities writ large.
Here's a fact worth pondering: If the money that taxpayers in the state have already provided for the Iraq war - $83.1 billion - could somehow be magically rerouted to the state government's coffers, the lawmakers in Sacramento would now be faced with the problem of what to do with a massive surplus.
We shouldn't expect that a reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq will do much to slow the rocketing costs of America's global military ventures. The Obama administration plans to double U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan by early 2010, which will set a new deployment baseline in that country for years to come. And a significant boost in the overall size of the U.S. armed forces is on the bipartisan agenda in Washington.
Meanwhile, along the railroad tracks near Katz's clinic in Yolo County, the Abrams tanks are likely to keep rolling. Each one has a price tag of $4.3 million. And we're paying for it.
What a community could buy for the cost of a war
To use the National Priorities Project calculator, visit: http://www.nationalpriorities.org