To say the United States defense budget is immense is to understate the obvious. Over the rest of this decade, we will spend close to a trillion dollars on military bases and personnel, conventional hardware, strategic megaweapons, and ''star wars'' technologies. But just how much is a trillion dollars?
If Ronald Reagan were to explain the magnitude of this sum, he might, in his best Great Communicator style, tell us something like this: A trillion dollars in thousand-dollar bills put end to end would circle the planet four times. A trillion dollars in hundred-dollar bills would stretch like a giant escalator to the moon and back several times. And, in no doubt a conservative-pleasing fantasy, a trillion dollars in one-dollar bills dropped over the USSR (presumably from B-1 bombers) would smother Mother Russia in United States currency.
A better way to comprehend the defense budget is through the economist's concept of ''opportunity cost.'' We can translate a trillion dollars into all the good things Americans will not have because 25 cents of every federal budget dollar and almost 10 cents of every dollar Americans earn go to promoting the arms race.
The opportunity cost of the defense budget - a trillion dollars - is this: It is a thousand new hospitals, half a million new schools, and (not or) half a million new factories. Alternatively, a trillion dollars is a free college education for every child, a new car for every eligible driver, or a year's worth of groceries for every family. Finally, a trillion dollars is enough money to completely rebuild our bridge and highway system, provide free mass transit for a year to every major United States city, or put an additional $4,000 in every American's pocket.
In short, a trillion-dollar defense budget over the rest of the decade is the difference between a well-aimed but aging America of inadequate schools and hospitals, decaying roads and bridges, dying smokestack industries, and a tax system that takes an enormous bite out of discretionary income vs. a more prosperous and peaceful nation in which all Americans have adequate education and proper health care, enjoy the convenience of a modern transportation system, benefit from the employment opportunities created by industrial revitalization, and pay much less in taxes and spend much more on their own comfort and well-being.
In a very real sense, the opportunity cost of the defense budget also represents the price tag of four decades of failure to successfully negotiate an end to the arms race with the ''communist menace.''
In this election season, it is fashionable to blame the hard-line and confrontational policies of the conservative Reagan administration for this failure. But one need only recall the era of Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam war, and the ''domino theory'' to see that this persistent inability to negotiate a workable peace with the Kremlin is a bipartisan one. Indeed, even as Democratic challenger Walter Mondale is hurling his peace and nuclear freeze rhetorical missiles at incumbent Ronald Reagan, Mondale's own party (as revealed in a platform plank that only party rogues like Jesse Jackson have dared criticize) is planning to spend almost as much on defense as the Weinberger-led Reagan hawks.
The point, then, is that whoever gets elected in November must do infinitely better at the task of seeking peace than any previous administration if we are to cut through the Soviet-American ''armament curtain'' and save both sides the opportunity costs of the escalating and expensive arms race.
One obvious reason this must be done is that the escalating arms race is pushing the world ever closer to nuclear war. But in an America grown numb with the cries of nuclear wolf, the ''peace imperative'' will likely not come from the argument that we will all be dead if the arms race continues. Rather, such an imperative must come from the realization - dramatized by the opportunity-cost concept - that our lives could be so much richer if that race were halted.