What $700 billion could buy

We’re spending $700 billion to bail out the idiots who got us into this mess and we end up with nothing to show for it but the bag we’re left holding and maybe a disaster averted (we hope).

We could be spending a lot less to get a lot more. A national wi-max buildout would cost between $5 billion and $14.5 billion. That would enable every American to get high-speed access to the internet and to its education, commerce, connectivity, innovation, jobs, and value. With a lot left over.

Or take the $700 billion and divide it by America’s 114.5 million TV households. Minus the 40-percent-plus margin that cable companies make on internet access (that’s the number I heard from them), we could provide broadband access to every one of those homes for about $300 a year. That means we could give every American free broadband access for 20 years.

We could buy 3.5 billion One Laptop Per Child machines. Want world peace and understanding? Give one to every Muslim on earth and every citizen of China (or since China can afford them, make that everyone in India or everyone in Africa and South America combined) and you’d still have more than 500 million machines left over.

Or we could give 4.4 million Americans free college educations at private institutions. We could give 23 million Americans free college educations at public institutions like mine. That alone would improve our competitive position and transform dying industries.

Or we could more than triple total annual R&D spending in the U.S. I can’t find total R&D on alternative energy but with this money we could multiply what Google.org is spending by a factor of 35,000.

Of course, these comparisons are specious. We’ll see a lot of op-ed charts that make such apples-and-kumquats correlations. The point will always be the same: Where are our priorities? Where are we investing our money?

And what are we getting out of spending this $700 billion. We, the people, damned well better make demands on our representatives to get something for our money.

Tom Evslin has a good list of suggestions that would in some ways treat the bailout like a bankruptcy reorganization. Robert Reich has a similar suggestion for a “giant workout of Wall Street.” Here’s Don Tapscott calling for unprecedented transparency. These are about extracting a pound of flesh for our ton of gold.

But I also want something about investing in our future and the economy: broadband access, technology, education, R&D, something that will build the future rather than mortgage it.

: LATER: Says Umair Haque:

The time is now.

Now is the time for revolutionaries to step up and build something better, something more real, and something greater.

There will probably never – at least in our lifetimes – be an opportunity for total economic reinvention this tremendous.