Friday, September 26, 2008

What could a $700 billion government investment buy?

Regardless of your position for or against the $700 billion investment bailout that the U.S. Congress is debating right now, it's important to realize exactly what scale of investment we're talking about. Whether you consider the following past government investments failures or successes, they are examples of what high-dollar federal funding can accomplish, and how much $700 billion federal dollars could otherwise buy:

(Note, these figures have been adjusted for inflation into 2008 dollars.)
  • The Apollo Program, which managed to put a dozen men on the surface of the moon and bring them back safely, cost $25.4 billion in 1969 dollars, or about $152 billion in 2008 terms. The bailout plan is about 4.6 Apollo Programs' worth of money. For the cost of the bailout, we could have put an entire 53-man NFL roster on the lunar surface, and that's a conservative figure. Over 60 percent of total Apollo cost lay in development for the Saturn V, the lunar lander and command module, which this crude math pays out four and a half times over. For $700 billion, I'm fairly confident we could put two complete NFL teams on the moon, with coaching staffs and referees, and play a regular season game from the Sea of Tranquility.
  • The Manhattan Project, which for better or for worse gave the world the atomic bomb, cost about $2 billion between 1942 and 1945. That's about $28 billion dollars in today's money. The bailout plan is about 25 Manhattan Projects' worth of money. Let that sink in--we could have invented The Bomb 25 times over for what it's going to cost us to bail out Wall Street.
  • The Smallpox Eradication Program, administered by the World Health Organization between 1967 and 1979, cost a little over $23 million annually, for a total cost of about $300 million by the end of 1979. That's about $905 million in 2008 dollars. And though the U.S. paid less than a third of the cost, for the purpose of this exercise, let's say Uncle Sam footed the whole bill. The bailout plan is about 773 Smallpox Eradications' worth of money. We could wipe out over 700 vaccinatible diseases from the face of the Earth for the cost of taking on these questionable mortgage-backed securities. Granted, that's assuming that such vaccines exist, which often they do not. Still, Bill Gates thinks he can conjure a malaria vaccine for a mere $100 million. Let's say he's wrong by a factor of ten. We could still probably develop 300 vaccines and adminsiter them to every man, woman and child on the planet for the cost of this plan.
  • The Marshall Plan, which effectively rebuilt the economy of post-WWII Europe and funded the U.S. military presence therein, from 1948 to 1949, at a cost of $7.4 billion. In today's money, that's about $682 billion, slightly cheaper than just keeping Wall Street from crashing as hard as it is right now. The bailout plan is roughly equal to the cost of the Marshall Plan--plus four Nimitz Class nuclear aircraft carriers. Put another way, we're being asked to soften the crash--not prevent it--in one sector of our economy will cost the same as rebuilding the entire European Economy in the late 1940s, plus the cost of four of the most expensive pieces of equipment ever devised by man ($4.5 billion apiece), just so we get to an even $700 billion price tag.
Some problems are of such a scale that perhaps only government can tackle them. This financial crisis may be one of them. But let's take a moment to realize what we could have bought instead of this bailout, and how many times over, before we blithely sign a check for a seven with a eleven zeroes behind it.


  1. More strange and interesting comparative math. Thanks Jay, for that. I figured those seven gigadollars could just have bben easily used for some other type of project. And "Here's your change, sir."


  2. Similar post, also a good read ...