For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across—which happened to be Earth—where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle […]
For thousands more years the mighty ships tore across the empty wastes of space and finally dived screaming on to the first planet they came across—which happened to be Earth—where due to a terrible miscalculation of scale the entire battle fleet was accidentally swallowed by a small dog.
Those who study the complex interplay of cause and effect in the history of the universe say that this sort of thing is going on all the time, but that we are powerless to prevent it.
‘It’s just life,’ they say.
— Douglas Adams, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Chapter 31.
I do not doubt that catastrophes sometimes occur because of terrible miscalculations of scale. Sometimes, however, even accurate determinations can be equally deceptive. Every so often I encounter numbers in the news that are difficult to put in context. For example, I recently read that Harvard’s endowment is currently valued at $32 billion, which, by the way, is 11 percent less than it was worth just four years ago.
Contrast that with the entire country of Afghanistan, which in 2001, the year of the American invasion, boasted a Gross Domestic Product of only $21 billion. It has risen considerably since we began investing so heavily there, of course. My understanding is that the country’s primary export, opium, is also on the rise.
The GDP of Iraq in 2003 was only $13.6 billion, a byproduct of the UN sanctions that had been in place for twelve years. At that time the administration was arguing that this pitiful country was arming itself with “weapons of mass destruction.” They probably expected to find inexpensive chemical weapons after the invasion, but I remember plenty of talk of “mushroom clouds.” The idea that Iraq was at that point developing nuclear weapons or any other sophisticated weapons system was nothing short of preposterous.
Iraq is also doing much better now. In its case the huge increase in the price of oil is a big factor, as is the fact that sanctions have been lifted.
George W. has a degree from Harvard. I wonder whether he considered asking Larry Summers, who was then its president, to buy the two troublesome countries. Would that not have been a lot easier?
One thing that was definitely not on the table was to ask Harvard to use its endowment to fund the wars. Summers would certainly have asked how much it would cost, and the administration refused to address that question at all. The last time that I looked the cost of the Iraq War was estimated at over $804 billion, and we had spent approximately $534 billion on the conflict in Afghanistan.
So, how was it possible for us to spend so much money on these two conflicts and have such an unsatisfactory result? Or, to put it another way, how could anyone have thought that the right way to deal with the problem of a small group of people who hated America enough to organize and execute an armed takeover of four civilian airplanes was to write a blank check to the U.S. army, navy, and air force, and tell them to invade two countries, one of which had absolutely nothing to do with the incident?
Maureen Dowd in her New York Times column of January 13, 2007, claimed that in college President Bush had been a very aggressive player of the game of Risk. In this game one player attempts to conquer a territory controlled by another by amassing huge piles of “armies” in the target territory. If the aggressor has overwhelming resources, failure is almost impossible.
However, the armies against which one fights on the game board are never indigenous. They are fighting in and for territories that they themselves had previously conquered. When they are defeated, they are neatly removed from the board. By contrast, the opposing armies, such as they were, in Iraq and Afghanistan seemed to disappear as soon as our troops began arriving. The resistance did not cease, however; it just went underground. In fact, for a long time it seemed to get stronger and stronger as new recruits more than made up for battlefield losses.
It makes me wonder whether that dog survived swallowing the Vl’hurg battle fleet. Unfortunately, Douglas Adams died in 2001 without revealing the canine’s fate.
Another example of scale that is difficult to fathom is how incredibly rich a few Americans are. Everyone understands that there are very rich people, but I doubt that many appreciate just how rich the plutocrats are. The top 1 percent of Americans own an astounding 37.1 percent of the nation’s wealth. The next 19 percent of Americans own 50.6 percent. That leaves only 12.7 percent of the total wealth for the bottom 80 percent of the population.
Maybe someone can come up with a graphical way to display this incredible disparity so that the poor suckers who are not in the top 20 percentile can readily visualize what a raw deal they have received. How about this? Suppose one hundred people had eight bags of money. What would you think if one of the people was allotted three bags, nineteen shared the money in five of the bags, and the other eighty had to make due with only one bag? To make it accurate, the guy with three bags could throw a couple of nickles to the eighty.