Maybe Washington should ask the United Way or the March of Dimes for help.

These and other professional fund-raising have much more success collecting on pledges than the U.S. government is having in getting money from some of the nations that promised to help defray the cost of the Persian Gulf war.So far, the United States has received only $36.8 billion of the $54.5 billion pledged by the allies. The slowest to pay have been Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and - understandably - Kuwait.

But the possibility of a shortfall doesn't seem to bother Congress nearly as much as fears that, after the laggards pay up, the United States might show a profit on the war. The skeptics cite the recent estimate of the General Accounting Office that the war's cost is likely to come to $40 billion, not the $54.5 billion claimed by the administration.

What folly! Actually, both sides of the debate are deluding themselves. The true figures could easily be much higher.

Just ask Ralph Estes, professor of accounting at The American University, and John Cavanagh, a fellow at The Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Writing in the Los Angeles Daily News, Estes and Cavanagh note that veterans' benefits from the past wars in this century have ended up running about 278 percent of each war's original cost. Consequently, when such benefits plus interest are taken into account, the price tag on the Persian Gulf war could end up at more than $480 billion.

Ouch!

That's enough money to hire every unemployed person in public works programs at $20,000 a year for more than three years, or increase the U.S. contribution to the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces 6,800 times, or fund Head Start for more than 344 years, or cover federal spending on maternal and child health 724 times, or pay for all the gasoline used in every passenger vehicle in America for nearly five years.

Make a profit on the Persian Gulf war? Don't be absurd. Instead, even if the allies pay up, Americans are going to keep paying for the liberation of Kuwait for many years to come.