America First – A Response

In this week’s Memphis Flyer there is an opinion piece called America first. Bound by the constraints of print media, it is far from comprehensive, but brings up an important conversation; What should our foreign aid look like? Should we even have any foreign aid?

On a certain level, I agree with the author. In a world where we only need look just beyond many of our neighborhoods to find poverty, disease and all other manners of societal dysfunction, we should be spending our time, effort, and money fixing the problems in America rather than propping up Pakistan’s military with new F-16 parts, or working to maintain Egypt’s tenuous grasp on 20th century style government.

Unfortunately, the world just isn’t that simple, and Mr. Reese seems to be engaging in the same type of hyperbolic rhetoric that demonized the mythical Cadillac driving “Welfare Queens” from the 80’s and 90’s, which led to the dismantling of welfare without having any real positive impact on the rate of poverty. Since 1980 the poverty level in America has ranged from about 12% to as high as 15% (Source). Putting limits on the safety net didn’t fix anything. Taking away foreign aid won’t fix anything either.

Foreign Affairs spending constitutes about 1.5% of the total budget. In the 2006 budget, $13b went to the State Department and $18b went to humanitarian and military aid. That $18b pales in comparison to the $500+b of requested funds to the DoD that doesn’t include war spending, or the $545b that was spent on Social Security. Hell, that $18b doesn’t even put a dent in the $500b of deficit spending or the $211b of debt service we pay each year. Could that $18b help people here at home, certainly, but let’s not act as if we’re giving away the farm.

The truth of the matter is we may give more money, but that money is far less humanitarian aid than other countries as a percentage of their GDP. In 2007 the Brookings Institution reported that the US consistently ranks 26th or 27th out of the top 28 giving nations as a percentage of GDP (Source).

The solution is a shade of grey that most pundits, writers and readers are unwilling to acknowledge. We have to get past our Cold War era funding of foreign military. That world no longer exists. We have to invest more in educating and insuring people. We have to invest more in sustainability through new methods of powering transportation, and the infrastructure to support these new methods. We have to help our own people in these ways, as well as people abroad. This means redirecting our foreign appropriations from military projects to educational, infrastructural, and health care projects. We have to take the long-term goal of creating opportunity abroad in order to create more opportunities here at home. It’s the rising tide analogy. Most importantly, we have to get past the myth that foreign and domestic spending are somehow mutually exclusive.

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