KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When the Sunday morning political pundits began talking last year about the tab for the war in Iraq hitting $1 trillion, Rob Simpson sprang from his sofa in indignation.
"Why aren't people outraged about this? Why aren't we hearing about it?" Simpson said. And then it came to him: "Nobody knows what a trillion dollars is."
The amount _ $1,000,000,000,000 _ was just too big to comprehend.
So Simpson, 51, decided to embark "on an unusual but intriguing research project" to put the dollars and cents of the war into perspective. He hired some assistants and spent 12 months immersed in economic data and crunching numbers.
The result: a slim but heavily annotated paperback released, "What We Could Have Done With the Money: 50 Ways to Spend the Trillion Dollars We've Spent on Iraq."
Simpson is no geopolitical, macro-economic, inside-the-Beltway expert. He's an armchair analyst and creative director for an advertising agency, a former radio announcer and music critic in Ontario and a one-time voiceover actor.
His alternative spending choices reflect his curiosity and wit.
He calculates $1 trillion could pave the entire U.S. interstate highway system with gold _ 23.5-karat gold leaf. It could buy every person on the planet an iPod. It could give every high school student in the United States a free college education. It could pay off every American's credit card. It could buy a Buick for every senior citizen still driving in the United States.
"As I started exploring, I was really taken aback by some of the things that can be done, both the absurd and the practical," Simpson said.
America could the double the 663,000 cops on the beat for 32 years. It could buy 16.6 million Habitat for Humanity houses, enough for 43 million Americans.
Now imagine investing that $1 trillion in the stock market _ perhaps a riskier proposition today than when Simpson finished the book _ to make it grow and last longer. He used an accepted long-term return on investment of 9 percent annually, with compounding interest.
The investment approach could pay for 1.9 million additional teachers for America's classrooms, retrain 4 million workers a year or lay a foundation for paying Social Security benefits in 65 years to every child born in the United States, beginning today.
It's too recent to make Simpson's list, but that $1 trillion could also have paid for the Bush administration's financial bailout plan, with $300 billion to spare. It might not be enough, however, to pay for the war in Iraq. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has recently upped his estimate of the war's cost to $3 trillion.
Simpson created a Web site companion to his book that lets you go virtual shopping with a $1 trillion credit card. Choices range from buying sports franchises to theme parks, from helping disabled veterans to polar bears.
Click on Air Force One, the president's $325 million airplane. The program asks: "Quantity?"
"At one point we couldn't find anybody who actually stuck with it long enough to spend $1 trillion," Simpson said. "It will wear you out."
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