Apr 27, 2015

Dollars & Sense

"I like to pay taxes.  With them, I buy civilization."
                                                                      --Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

"Whatever it is that the government does, sensible Americans
 would prefer that the government do it to somebody else.
 This is the idea behind foreign policy."              --P.J. O'Rourke

commentary by killre

It's back.  I thought it was dead, but like the monster in a horror movie it simply slipped beneath the inky waters of the sea to rear its ugly head elsewhere.  In this case, elsewhere was Great Britain.

A few weeks ago, Americans with too-itchy share-clicking trigger-fingers were passing around a poorly reasoned harangue (an all too common phenomenon) against foreign aid.

How poorly reasoned?  I'm glad you asked.  Atop a pile of some legitimate domestic problems, the generator of the post listed having "to dial '1' to speak English" as one of the arguments against sending tax dollars overseas.

Had I been feeling snarkily productive at the time --or productively snarky, or whatever-- I likely would have pointed out that no-one needs to dial '1' to speak English.  They dial '1' to communicate in English.  Failure to grasp this distinction is symptomatic of a failure to grasp a much more important one: the supreme and exhausting effort described --pressing a button-- does not rise to the level of problem.  I'm not even sure it is worthy of all the syllables in the word inconvenience. Even if it were a real problem, rather than a trumped-up one, it does nothing to address the pros or cons of foreign aid, nor does it belong on the same list as hunger, homelessness, and inadequate health care.  It's like the manager of a heavy-hitting ballclub penciling-in as his leadoff hitter the equipment boy from the canasta team.

Fortunately, that fad faded.  As I indicated in my opening paragraph, however, it has risen again, leaner and meaner, this time in jolly ol' G.B.  In the last few days, some of those same itchy-fingered Americans have been click-sharing a similar message posted on a site called "Britain First."  I'm taking wagers on whether they know Great Britain is actually a separate country, or they just don't care.  My money is on the former.  Without looking into it any further than this lone post, it is easy to surmise that "Britain First" is much like "America First": an isolationist-flavored political movement, dedicated to the direction backward.

I suppose I could link, if I really had to, but in this case there wouldn't be much point.  The so-called "photo" being passed around is text-only, and is easily transcribed here:

"Doesn't make much sense, does it???

Homeless go without eating.  Elderly go without needed medicines.  Mentally ill go without treatment.  Troops go without proper equipment.  Veterans go without benefits that were promised.  Yet we donate billions to other countries, and excessive immigration before helping our own first.  1% will re-post and 99% won't.  Have the guts to re-post this.  I KNOW I'm in the 1%."

See, you can tell it was written by a Brit, because there are no misspellings.  Aside from that, it is the same hailstorm of half-truths, unsupported claims, twisted information, and questionable grammar that you'll find in most right-leaning, bumper-sticker-esque, American political rants-- with a dash of intimidation to give it that tangy aftertaste.

Since the Americans who brought this rant to my attention surely intended the message to be applied to American policies, rather than the British ones for which it was actually written (and about which I would feel far less comfortable commenting), I will respond as such.  As is my wont, I'll treat what I see as the less-important points as appetizers, and save the meat for the entrĂ©e.  Let's eat!

"Doesn't make much sense, does it???..."
No, as I will show, your argument doesn't make much sense-- in triplicate.

"...Homeless go without eating..."
True, the homeless often go hungry, but that only tells half the story.  To be more precise, the homeless go without shelter; the poor go without eating.  Yes, the homeless are also poor, and therefore also go hungry, but what does it say about the generator of this post that he or she couldn't be bothered to come up with a complete list?

"...Elderly go without needed medicines.  Mentally ill go without treatment ... Veterans go without benefits..."
Along with the poverty and deprivation mentioned above, these are legitimate issues.  Kudos for caring... or is it just lip service?

"..., and excessive immigration before helping our own first..."
This clause has the rare distinction of being both an incomplete thought and redundant (the word first is extraneous).  I honestly cannot glean why the issue of immigration is being raised here.  I suspect, much like dialing '1' in the American version of the same message, it is simply an unrelated item that sticks in the originator's craw.  Perhaps I think that because excessive is the only dynamic adjective in the entire message.  It is also an unsupported one, both substantively and stylistically.

Now, then...

"...Troops go without proper equipment...
Yet we donate billions to other countries..."
As stated, I am approaching this argument as an American answering other Americans.

In 2014, the United States spent $610 billion training, paying, deploying, supplying, and yes, equipping its military.  The next seven most highly financed militaries in the world received the combined equivalent of $601 billion U.S. dollars.  I'd like to reiterate that: the United States, by itself, outspent China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France, Great Britain, India, and Germany COMBINED for military-related concerns.  If it is indeed true that our troops are ill-equipped, the problem is not financing; the problem is management.

(A recent episode of HBO's Veep highlighted a political aspect of the financing/ management problem.  Looking to cut Federal spending, fictional President Selina Meyer induced the Joint Chiefs to offer a way to cut the Defense budget.  They answered with an outdated submarine-building program that would single, uh, boatedly excise $50 billion.  Alas, subs are complicated machines and the manufacture of components for this one took place in about two dozen different congressional districts.  Upon realizing thousands of their constituents were about to lose jobs, those two-dozen congressmen threatened to vote down one of the president's other, unrelated initiatives.  As a result, the $50 billion unnecessary submarine project stayed active and in the budget.)

In addition to the $610 billion the Federal government lavished on the military in 2014, it spent $52 billion in foreign aid.  Let's compare those numbers on a smaller scale.  $610 billion represents almost 20% of the total Federal budget for the year.  $52 billion, then, would represent about 1.6 or 1.7%.  In other words, for every tax dollar sent to Washington, 20 cents goes to the various branches of the armed services.  The total amount of every tax dollar sent to all foreign governments worldwide: slightly more than a penny and a half.

What do we get for that penny and a half?  Well, the effectiveness of foreign aid can certainly be debated.  I won't do that here, because it is both off-point and a lengthy discussion.  Ostensibly, though, it is supposed to work something like this...

For decades, one of the guiding lights of U.S. foreign policy has been the some-what high-minded notion that more democracy (democratic republicanism) and less oppression, more development and less squalor, more openness and less corruption make the world --including our little corner of it-- a better place.  There are essentially two ways of working toward these goals: military intervention, and economic assistance.

(Some might say, "What of diplomacy?"  Diplomacy certainly has its place.  I'm willing to admit there might be aspects of diplomacy that I have not considered in this context.  However, diplomacy is ultimately just a fancy word for conversing with.  One of the harsh realities of this world is that when you are conversing with a contentious party, you need to back your words with either the threat of violence or the promise of a payoff.)

The first option --military intervention-- has many drawbacks, not the least of which is that it tends to run counter to some of the very ideals it strives to achieve.  Invasions are usually destructive, oppressive and undemocratic, and bring with them deprivation, at least in the short term.  Additionally, they are expensive undertakings in both blood and treasure: tens of thousands of people are killed, maimed, or displaced, and hundreds of billions of dollars are spent.  Worst of all, military intervention rarely changes hearts and minds.  Democracy cannot be forced; it must be nurtured.

That's where the second option --economic assistance-- comes to the fore as the better choice, at least in theory.  The generator of the post uses the word donate.  Intentionally or not, this is a misrepresentation of the intent of foreign aid.  Proponents of the policy do not view it as a donation; they view it as an investment.  Some of the money is intended to finance U.S. security-based concerns: counter-terrorism, and the limiting of nuclear weapons-- pseudo-military spending, really, in the guise of what its opponents would call charity.  Much of the money, though, is earmarked for a wide variety of projects ranging from building better roads to improving crop yields.  Such projects, it is thought, will raise the standard of living and foster trade.  This in turn will lead to better education and a freer and more peaceful exchange of ideas and ideals.  Then, if democratic republicanism and other aspects of the Western way of life truly are the best the planet has to offer, the whole wide world will see it for themselves, want it for themselves, and work toward it on their own initiative.

All this, at a cost less than one-tenth the annual price tag of having the mightiest military force in world history... and misusing it.

...Or so the theory goes.  As I said, the real-world effectiveness of foreign
aid --past, present, future-- is a debate worth having.  It deserves to be a discussion, though, rather than an ill-informed rant.

Now for dessert:

"...1% will re-post and 99% won't.  Have the
guts to re-post this.  I KNOW I'm in the 1%."
Oooo.  Guts. Glory. Ram-- right down your throat.  Nothing like a little cyber-based peer pressure to get a message across.  When the argument runs empty, resort to name-calling.  Of note here is that the percentages are completely made-up, pulled from thin air and supported by same.  Even if the (purely theoretical) percentages were accurate, they don't represent the true audience.  The generator of the post is saying, "All who see this will agree with it, but only one in a hundred will have the guts to say so."  He apparently cannot conceive of anyone questioning even some of his assertions.  After all, he made SUCH a cogent argument: seven incomplete sentences, a couple of them wildly off-base.  Additionally, a large segment of the 99% don't care that much, while others just might be put off by the intimation that they are a coward if they don't im-mediately fall in line.  No, it couldn't be disagreement, or apathy, or a strong will; clearly, they lack guts.

Found on Mars this week:
A snowshoe!  Or maybe it's a tennis racquet; the jury is still out.