What If We’d Spent $1.7 Trillion On Education, Instead Of The Iraq War?

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Fourteen years after the war in Iraq started, the New York Times is now reporting that Iran has essentially taken over that country. So the main result of the $1.7 trillion we spent there (in addition to loss of life) was apparently to clear the way for them.

This got me wondering… how much exactly is $1.7 trillion? What if we’d spent it on something else instead? Since we borrowed the money, we’ll be paying it off for generations. If we’d spent it on education, we could have reaped benefits for generations.

It turns out that $1.7 trillion is an unthinkably huge amount. When I starting crunching the numbers on what it could buy, I was stunned.

How we could have spent $1.7 trillion on education:


Sent half the adults in the U.S. on an overseas educational program. We could have sent 142 million Americans abroad for $55,000 per person (the Peace Corps average).

Made public-college tuition free in the U.S. for 20 years. According to this article, $63B per year would have done the trick, at then-current enrollment levels.

Equalized the funding gap between rich and poor K-12 districts for 45 years. Assumes $1,500 per student per year (average) for 25M students, would close this gap.

Given every K-12 teacher in the U.S. a 30% raise, for 20 years. Cost: about $90 billion a year.

Given 1,700,000 million-dollar challenge prizes to students and teachers. Maybe called Cheney Grants or Bush Prizes or… the WMD Genius Program?

Hooked up every school in the world to high-speed Internet. It would cost $3.2 billion to do this in the U.S… leaving $1,696 billion to do all the other countries.

Given $226 to each of the 7.5 billion people on the planet, to buy books. We probably could even have negotiated a big discount.

Bought a Chromebook laptop for almost everyone on the planet. Chromebooks for education cost around $300. So we could have bought 5.6 billion of them.

Funded preschool for every kid in the U.S., for 25 years. Read this for more on why early childhood eduction is important, and this for how much it costs.

Funded eight million full scholarships to top universities. Each cruise missile fired during the Iraq war cost the same as several college educations.

Doubled the federal Pell grant program, and fully funded it for 30 years. The current program costs $30 billion a year.

Doubled the quality of school lunches, and provided 280 billion of them. Current average cost is three bucks per lunch;

Provided 42 billion hours of private tutoring to needy students. At $40/hour.

Given $550,000 to every public school teacher to use in their classroom. There are 3.1 million public school teachers in the U.S.

Given $7 million to each principal to spend on their schools. There are 240,000 school principals (elementary, middle, and high school) in the U.S.


You get the idea. I’m not advocating for any of these specifically. I simply wanted to illustrate what a staggering amount of money $1.7 trillion is, and what could have been done with it.

For more information on the cost of the war in Iraq (and those in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria, not counted in the $1.7 trillion), see the detailed “Costs of War” reports by Brown University’s Watson Institute.

If you feel like giving a little money yourself to support education, but don’t have $1.6 trillion, check out Donors Choose.

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– Nelson Mandela

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