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The other day I came across a statistic buried in a Reuters news story on the web. I read right past it the first time, but went back, read it again, wooled it around briefly, mulled it over, then just sat staring, stupefied. Skin crawled. Neck hair stood. Could this be right? Surely not. It was a sum that demanded to be shared, I thought, so I shared it spousally — “Oh, come on, it can’t be that much!” — then scuttled on off to the weekly gathering of the Arkansas Hold ’Em Poker Club, arriving early. My hippie-dippy pal Gill was shuffling already, with a few others of the regulars dragging up chairs — Old Navy, Moneybags, the Movie Star, the Professor. I told them I had a question before we got started. “What would you guess is the per diem cost of the Iraq War?” They made some rough guesses. Ranging from astronomical to a shitload. None was as high as $186,000,000, the right answer. Took a moment for it to sink in, as it had with me earlier. In this age of overruns, signing bonuses, whiplash awards, and congressional pork, we’re all numb to high-dollar amounts. But then Moneybags said, “A DAY?” “A day.” A small groan from Moneybags then. The Professor said, “Beg pardon, but I understood you to say $186 million A DAY.” “That would be correct.” “One eight six, zero zero zero, zero zero zero?” “Bingo.” A whistle from the Professor. “Jeepers,” Gill said. “You can say that again, Little Buddy,” Old Navy said, just like on the S.S. Minnow. Moneybags was dealing the first hand but the vastness of the sum began to eat at him. He began to stew. He stopped in mid-deal, and said: “So it’s that much every day?” “It’s how much they admit to. Bound to be a lot of covert extra.” “Well, how’m I supposed to play poker when you bring up something like that?” “It’s your money. I thought you’d want to know.” He finished the deal but made no move to pick up his cards. A metaphor had come to trouble him. “I’m imagining a line of 50-foot J.B. Hunt tractor-trailer semis two miles long, each one with a million dollars of cash money in the back, and every morning, when the sun comes up on those godforsaken wastes, the 186 truckdrivers take that humongous winding caravan out into the desert and just dump all that money, and it blows the hell away. “Then the next morning, $186 million more. And the next morning. And the next. And the next. And the next. This just goes on forever, right?” Ad infinitum. Apparently yes. Human folly on a massive scale zip-filed into a single statistic. An earthy expletive from Moneybags. Murmurs of disgruntlement from et and al. Maybe if I expressed it a different way. So I broke it that the war was costing those of us gathered around the table there between seven and eight million dollars an hour, every hour since T minus shock and awe. Another way to look at it was $2,000 a second. “TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS A SECOND!” Several of them said it at the same time, the all-caps theirs. Two thousand dollars a second to buy some ragged people a dose of our style of government whether they want it or not. We sat thinking about spending two thousand dollars a second on a war that nobody can quite figure out the point of. And about all the other stuff it might be better spent on. With $186 million a day, or $2,000 a second all day long, you could give every Third World family a cow or goat or buffalo or laying hen like the Heifer Project does, and if they had children you could throw them in a dog for a pet, as long as they would agree to take care of it and not eat it. You could not only rebuild New Orleans, you could put the whole town under its own dome, and stretch it out to cover Trent Lott’s new place with him and the president rockered on the verandah pitying the poor. You could buy up all 186 million remaindered copies of “My Life” by Bill Clinton and put them in the school libraries in place of all the pornography that’s there now. You could put every deserving rapper in a new Escalade. You might be able to sign one professional athlete of mediocre talent for maybe as long as ten years. And in just three months at $186 million a day you’d be a full peer of the Walton heirs. What these poker players thought, though, was that it would make one hell of a big blind.
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