Monthly Archives: March 2017

Don’t Cut Foreign Aid

I’m on board with a lot of the cuts in the proposed budget. I can support cutting out, for example, the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and Corporation for National and Community Service. I can support cutting the Essential Air Service program. I can support cutting the funding for Meals on Wheels, if the funding really isn’t helping proportionately to the amount that is being contributed. (But I don’t object to the funding if it’s effective, however). In general, I can agree with the argument of this Commentary piece – that “[i]f that which Democrats say they value is of real worth, it—like Big Bird—can survive the tempestuousness of the marketplace.” I support the cuts to the United Nations, especially the climate change initiatives.

But I do have a problem with one area targeted for cuts. That is the across-the-board cuts to foreign aid. As Max Boot notes, it looks as though this budget proposal conveniently uses cuts to foreign aid to offset some of the increase in defense spending – even though there isn’t enough to make up for it. Boot futher lists several countries that receive significant funding and points out how those countries (Egypt, Jordan, Kenya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, etc.) are important to our foreign policy. Foreign aid spending and the State Department play a vital role in maintaining American power and helping countries to do things that we might otherwise have to do ourselves with our own military. Over 120 retired generals signed a letter urging Congress to avoid cutting the State Department and the aid budget.

There is something else to think about here as well, something near and dear to me: the opinion of Christian leaders, especially those involved in international development and poverty relief. Foreign aid can be instrumental not only in matters directly related to security, but also in saving lives, eradicating diseases, and protecting religious freedom, which are good in and of themselves and thus deserve serious consideration before cutting any of those efforts, but also, those things promote stability and engender good will for the United States and thus promote American interests abroad as well. Over 100 Christian leaders have signed a letter urging Congress not to cut these programs. Signees include Timothy Cardinal Dolan, who prayed at the inauguration, Leith Anderson (president of the National Association of Evangelicals), Rich Stearns (president of World Vision), Samuel Rodriguez (who also spoke at the inauguration), Rev. Eugene Cho, Dr. O. Alan Noble, Michael W. Smith, Brandon Heath, and Matt Maher. They argued:

At a time when we’re especially security conscious, the International Affairs Budget is crucial to demonstrating our values to the world, building friendships with other nations, and lowering security risks around the world.

With just 1 percent of our nation’s budget, the International Affairs Budget has helped alleviate the suffering of millions; drastically cutting the number of people living in extreme poverty in half, stopping the spread of infectious diseases like HIV/AIDs and Ebola, and nearly eliminating polio. Additionally, it promotes freedom and human rights, protecting religious freedom for millions around the world.

As followers of Christ, it is our moral responsibility to urge you to support and protect the International Affairs Budget, and avoid disproportionate cuts to these vital programs that ensure that our country continues to be the “shining city upon a hill.”

That shining city on a hill is what I’d like to continue to be as well.

Former Senate majority leader Bill Frist, who is now chairman of an organization called Hope through Healing Hands, wrote an article in Christianity Today also arguing that foreign aid should not be cut. He notes that, while the global church does help, “the burden is too great.” Millions require clinical care, need bed nets to prevent malaria infection, suffer from malnutrition, etc. He says:

But because these programs are less than one percent of the budget, it is analogous to getting a haircut when we need emergency surgery. We support a balanced budget, but to do so will require deep cuts in the mandatory spending that account for two-thirds of federal spending—not much smaller discretionary accounts like foreign assistance, which represents less than two-thirds of one percent of the budget. For less than a penny on the dollar, we provide the critical safety net for people around the globe who live on less than a dollar a day… As a nation, our leadership in health and development assistance is first and foremost a moral issue… Economists and historians posit that when countries fail economically, they become breeding grounds for terrorism and conflict… For Christians, such aid also aligns with our convictions to care for the poor and support a culture of life. From Genesis to Revelation, the Scriptures compel us to care for the marginalized—to care for the widow, the orphan, and the refugee…

So he says foreign aid “can be a win-win for America and the world.”

I agree.

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Roy, Douthat, McArdle on GOP healthcare plan

Avik Roy and Ross Douthat were the first two guys I thought to check in order to learn more about the GOP health care plan. (Roy is, of course, well known as a health care wonk, and Douthat is my favorite columnist). Like many others, their reaction is negative.

Here is Avik Roy’s article at Forbes. He mentions that the best part of the bill is its overhaul of Medicaid, but criticizes other parts, such as its failure to repeal most of Obamacare’s insurance regulations because Republicans decided to pass the bill using reconciliation, which can only be used for taxes and spending; the flat tax credit, which creates a disincentive that traps people below the poverty line; the high threshold for phasing out the tax credit, etc. Best quote is at the end:

Expanding subsidies for high earners, and cutting health coverage off from the working poor: it sounds like a left-wing caricature of mustache-twirling, top-hatted Republican fat cats. But not today.

Ross Douthat had a series of tweets that I feel are worth mentioning. First, this:

Then, this series:

He also re-tweeted a decently fair-minded explanation of what Paul Ryan might be thinking – almost, but not quite, a defense – from a surprising source, Matthew Yglesias at Vox.

Finally, Megan McArdle at Bloomberg takes apart the plan – it’s basically Obamacare lite, among other problems – and provides a rather funny line, if you’re in the mood for snark:

I must point out that it’s actually quite clear what problem this bill solves: the problem of Republican legislators who want to tell their base that they repealed Obamacare, just like they promised. Tada!

She also points out that, since it’s not likely to work, the GOP would own any ensuing failures; no longer could they point to Obama and the Democrats as the problem.

As it stands, I’m inclined to doubt it should be passed. Something should be done, but not anything. It needs to be something good; something with enough bipartisan support to pass both the House and Senate. Something that won’t simply get repealed when the Democrats inevitably win an election and return to power. We can’t just keep passing the health care yo-yo back and forth every four or eight years. And it needs to be something that won’t let the Democrats credibly declare the “conservative” plan a failure and therefore show the need for single payer health care.

If I were the GOP leaders, I would seriously consider dropping the philosophical opposition to a mandate as a sort of litmus test for any reform, and begin to tout a plan like Switzerland’s. Republicans get to lower government health care spending, and transform the system from an employer-based system to a private, individual, consumer-driven market, while the mandate, regulations on insurers, and goal of universal coverage could be what entices enough Democrats to support it. That might be a way to get 60 votes in the Senate and change the system for the long term (and avoid single payer).

If that’s not possible, perhaps just go with Cassidy-Collins for the “federalist compromise.”

Why I like Madam Secretary

No, not that Madam Secretary. The other one. The TV show.

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Madam Secretary, which is in the middle of its third season, is about a highly capable former CIA analyst who gets pulled out of private life to become the Secretary of State. She has a few kids and a strong marriage with her husband, who is a theology professor and also an important character on the show, so the responsibilities and pressures of dealing with family and teenagers add to her job of dealing with the many diplomatic crises that arise in her job.

I’m aware that many conservatives have approached the show with a lot of skepticism (or not approached it at all, simply rejecting it) due to understandable suspicions that the show was intended as propaganda for the failed Hillary Clinton presidential race. In my opinion, while the show has liberal leanings, it’s not very good propaganda for Hillary herself, if it was intended as such. I suspect that the creators saw the backdrop of the Hillary campaign as an environment that would create more interest in their show.

About the only parallels between Clinton and Secretary Elizabeth McCord are that both are women and have blond hair. Secretary McCord is extremely competent, is relatively young for a political figure and quite good-looking, has a loving and stable marriage (though they must work through occasional conflicts) that is quite different from what we imagine the Clintons’ marriage to be, has kids in high school and college, is not politically ambitious and did not previously hold political office, and is highly honest and ethical. If there is supposed to be some kind of relationship between the two, the only kind I can imagine is a clear contrast.

So with that said, why do I like the show?

If you’re a political junkie looking for a good Washington-based political drama, what are you to do? You could try Veep, which as I understand it, is a comedy-drama with plenty of cynicism and snark. You could try Scandal, or the (short-lived) State of Affairs. These shows offer cynical, conspiratorial, and above all salacious views of the affairs of Washington D.C. Or you could double down on all three with House of Cards. Now I’m sure HoC is a well-acted, engaging show – perhaps one of the best on television, from what I’ve heard. And I’ve watched shows with quite a bit of objectionable content, and will probably continue doing so – I’ve watched five seasons of Homeland and one or two of The Americans. But I don’t want to watch too many of those, and from what I’ve seen in reviews and a little Wikipedia skimming, HoC might have little to nothing in the way of virtue – it’s all about the engrossing story, no matter how evil Frank Underwood and the other characters are.

The above shows have basically “cornered the market on snark” as this article in the Toronto Sun puts it. By contrast, Madam Secretary is merely edgy; it only dips its toe in the salacious waters, so to speak.

Conservatives may often find hints of conservatism in the snarkiness and cynicism about government and politicians, as in Veep or HoC. It can line up with conservative anti-government, anti-establishment impulses. We shouldn’t kid ourselves and think Hollywood liberals are producing an actual conservative show, however. (And I think it’s a little pathetic to find little hints of conservative principles in this or that show and proclaim that show to be “conservative”). This is a time of deep anti-institutional feeling across the political spectrum, so liberals also enjoy these shows; in fact, social liberalism is deeply anti-institutional, as they want to tear down old institutions and social mores in the name of progress. Now, as a conservative, I believe in limited government. But this is not the same as viewing all government (and all politicians) as evil (see Romans 13, for Christian readers). So I will suggest this: while an amount of cynicism and snark can reinforce a healthy skepticism of government, we also shouldn’t lose sight of the need for, and possibility of, leaders with integrity and ethics. Government is slow and inefficient, and there are lots of power-grabbers and toadies looking to advance their careers (and Madam Secretary certainly shows this). But there are also people like us: people with moral principles who are trying to do the right thing. You don’t have to be a liberal to think that the State Department, for instance, can be a force for good in the world. Like any branch of government, it carries potential for both good and evil.

Madam Secretary suggests that with a little more common sense, Washington could be better than it is now. It suggests that when faced with challenging issues, people in Washington should remember and apply their moral principles – and it suggests that it is possible for people to do that (instead of the black hole of evil and/or cluelessness that is Washington in other shows).

This is not to say that Secretary McCord is perfect. Even the best public officials have limited influence and don’t always do the right thing. And I think the show tries to get this right, as there are tough calls and tragic mistakes that the imperfect heroes face from time to time. The characters have to decide in every episode how to best exercise military power and apply diplomatic pressure, and in general use America’s influence for good in the world (although often, the chief of staff Russell Jackson is more interested in using it in a way that will aid the re-election of the President).

The show also shows the McCords struggling with the demands of work and their relationships with each other.

Madam Secretary isn’t a perfect show, and it isn’t a conservative show. But Hollywood is not conservative, and at this stage at least, no one in Hollywood is going to create a conservative political heroine – it’s just not a socially acceptable thing to do in Hollywood. So conservatives are going to disagree and roll their eyes at some of the conversations and decisions that get made in the moderate-to-liberal presidency. But often Elizabeth’s political leanings aren’t very clear, and in my opinion, they’re not especially alienating even when they are. The show also sometimes resolves conflicts too simplistically and occasionally can make McCord almost a diplomatic savior; but this impulse is generally restrained and these quibbles don’t stop me from enjoying and recommending the show.