The budget-tightening weeks are a tough time in Washington. After all, our revenues are finite, so budgeting is a zero-sum game: every dollar we spend on education is a dollar we can’t spend on the military; every dime we put into Social Security is one dime that can’t go to NASA, and so on. So when it comes time to cut, every portion of spending can, in a very real sense, be evaluated against any other portion. Yet, we rarely do that kind of broad evaluating — we stay busy trying to decide whether we’re giving the Marine Corps a new tank instead of a new jet. That’s not a conversation about national priorities, and not the kind of conversation we can and should be having. Why not weigh that tank against, say, $12 billion in federal subsidies for education?
In the same spirit, let’s compare a couple of wars (I hear war-bashing is in vogue): the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan vs. the War on Cancer. The two military wars have involved $1 trillion over the last 10 years; the War on Cancer has accounted for about a fifth of that ($200 billion) over the last 40 years. Since it’s difficult to assess the consequences of these wars in the broadest sense, let’s evaluate all three of them against their common (initial) justification: have they protected Americans from harm? Regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s difficult to say: we’ve done damage to the capacity of Islamic extremists to attack the United States, but we’ve also given those extremists an empowering popularity they didn’t enjoy previously in Arab and Muslim communities at large. Meanwhile, concurrently with the War on Cancer, we have witnessed a 5 percent decline in the overall cancer death rate in the United States.
Now, it’s tough to say how much of that 5 percent decline is a consequence of federal spending on cancer research and how much of it has to do with other things. Let’s guess (and it’s probably a stingy guess) that only half of that 5 percent decline — 2.5 percent — is a direct result of federal spending. The reduction almost certainly occurred at a linear rate (i.e. it didn’t happen all at once in 1971 or just last year), and we’ll assume that the US population grew at a linear rate over the last 40 years, too. That means, making a couple of innocuous statistical assumptions, that federal spending on cancer initiatives has saved about 250,000 American lives since 1971, and continues to save 15,000 American lives every year. So in other words, if we stopped spending money on cancer research today, we would still be saving as many American lives each year as we would by preventing five September 11th attacks.
This is, to some degree, guesswork. But it’s a lot closer to fact than any of the guesswork that suggests we’re saving lives by fighting two wars abroad. Remember that every $100 we use to pay off an Afghan elder — every $50,000 bomb we drop on some god-forsaken hut in the mountains — is that much money that isn’t saving Americans from cancer. Our budgets are built blind to these implicit trade-offs, but it’s exactly such trade-offs that we need to be discussing.
Because the issue is, in many ways, exactly as simple as I’ve formulated it. In both these wars it’s our lives that we’re trying to protect. It’s not values — our values are ours as long as we want them. It’s not territory, or resources: Central Asian mountain-men, no matter how well-financed, cannot threaten those. It’s just about safety — about preserving life. One the one hand, we spend $100 billion (and a few hundred American lives) per year for no concrete gain, and on the other, we spend $5 billion per year to add to the 15,000 lives we’re already saving from cancer. It doesn’t take an accountant to see that we’re making a mistake.
Jesse Williams is a junior in Branford College.