Archive for January, 2005

Strong Conservative Government

Sunday, January 30th, 2005

The Libertarian sect of the Conservative faith devoutly believes in the power of free markets to generate wealth, efficiently allocate resources, reward merit, bridge social classes, and ameliorate all manner of social ills. However, Libertarians often fail to recognize or at least neglect to acknowledge that free markets to not arise out of nothing. Markets, with their reliance on the rule of law, a reliable common currency, and social stability, depend upon strong governments. Ron Chernow’s recent biography, Alexander Hamilton, reminds us just how much American capitalism relies upon the governmental structures created by the nation’s first treasury secretary.

After the American Revolution, the United States (plural intentional) remained a rather loose confederation of states lacking a strong central government not dependent on the largesse of the states. There was not even a common currency. States, like small principalities collected duties as products crossed state boundaries. In many cases, people thought of themselves primarily as Virginians or New Yorkers. The American identity was real, but still secondary. The Articles of Confederation were not working. Economic growth was limited by interstate trade restrictions and a lack of liquidity, and there remained a real potential for the American states to become pawns in the international competition between France and England.

The states convened a convention to make the appropriate modifications, but what emerged was the US Constitution that instituted a comparatively strong federal government with a strong executive. The ratification of the Constitution was not automatic and it required considerable lobbying by Hamilton in New York and James Madison in the Virginia to secure it. The Federalist Papers written primarily by Hamilton and Madison with contributions by John Jay laid out the intellectual case for the Constitution and played a pivotal role in New York’s crucial ratification. Even with the ratification, it took the presidency of George Washington to tie the country long enough for the Constitutional institutions to take tenuous root.

What is less appreciated is how Hamilton used the treasury department to bind the nation together. Hamilton arranged for the assumption of individual state debts by the federal government. This was opposed by southern states like Virginia that had already paid their debts and did not want to subsidize some northeastern states that still retained significant debt. Since the new constitution prohibited interstate customs duties, it was less possible for some states to pay their debts. Hamilton helped negotiate a compromise with Thomas Jefferson whereby the federal government would assume state debts and in return the new federal capital would be moved to the South. With this grand compromise, the economic fortunes of the states became strongly coupled.

The Republicans (later to become the present day Democrats) led by Jefferson still believed in a bucolic agrarian society dominated by patrician farmers like themselves. Manufacturing and financial services were suspect and somehow less ennobling. The Republicans represented a populist movement deeply distrustful of wealth not obtained from the fields. As one wit would have it, the Jeffersonian Republicans did not trust people who earned their income by the furrows, rather than the sweat, of their brows. This philosophy was buttressed by the nearly universal experience of plantation owners in the South. They were typically in debt to British creditors as they tried to simultaneously live the extravagant lives of country gentlemen, while managing not particularly efficient plantations. It is not surprising that those who were land-rich and cash-poor would nurture animosity against creditors and banks

Hamilton, the self-made hero of the Revolutionary War who immigrated to the colonies as an orphan from the West Indies, realized that only through robust commerce would the country become wealthy enough to maintain its political independence. Hamilton’s key contribution was the formation of a national bank and the creation of a national debt. Contrary to the deficit spending that the federal government engages in now, the national debt in post-Revolutionary War America was more akin to present day paper money. Hamilton believed that the debt should be repaid regularly through customs duties, but bank notes backed by the United States government provided necessary liquidity to finance commercial growth. It is additionally ironic that this increase in liquidity reduced interest rates and actually alleviated some of the debt burden born by plantation owners in the South.

Nonetheless, the fact that those in New York grew rich in commerce was resented and many believed that Hamilton must by privately benefiting from his forceful institution of the national bank. After Jefferson became president he had his treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin, carefully comb the US financial records looking for evidence of Hamilton’s perfidy or other fraud. To the disappointment of Jefferson, his treasury secretary found “the most perfect system ever formed. Any change that should be made in it would injure it. Hamilton made no blunders, committed no frauds.”

The country was prosperous and Jefferson wisely retained Hamilton’s bank and government financing structures, griping, “[I]t mortifies me to be strengthening principles I find vicious.” It was not until James Madison became president and allowed ideology to overwhelm prudence that the national bank was disestablished. General discontent from the resulting economic downturn may have contributed to the War of 1812 against the British.

Hamilton, who arguably is the person most responsible for the capitalist country we have grown into, was a champion of a broader interpretation of federal powers than Jeffersonian Republicans. When the Constitution granted the legislature or the executive a general power, Hamilton claimed that Congress retained an “implied powers … necessary and proper” for the exercise of the general power. Jefferson and the Republicans ineffectively argued that since the expressed power to create a national bank was not specifically written in the US Constitution, there was not such power. Hamilton’s interpretation prevailed. If it had not, it is doubtful whether the tiny band of 13 colonies would have remained cohesive enough to become a continental and eventually a world power.

Though rhetorically Jefferson always articulated a small government vision, he was not above the expansion of executive power when he became president. It was Hamilton’s doctrine of implied powers that made possible Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. Chernow cites John Quincy Adams apt description of the Louisiana Purchase as “an assumption of implied power greater in itself, and more comprehensive in its consequences, than all the assumptions of implied powers in the years of the Washington and Adams administrations.”

The past two hundred years have seen political parties turn upside down in other ways. Jeffersonian Republicans believed that will of the people as expressed through Congress was the ultimate authority. They did not subscribe to the concept of judicial review of the constitutionality of laws. While modern day liberals must resort to courts to win victories they cannot win at the ballot boxes, their erstwhile champion, Jefferson chafed a judicial review as just one more way the Federalists were thwarting the will of the people. He complained of the “original error of establishing a judiciary independent of the nation.” By contrast, Hamilton believed that the country could survive without an independent judiciary.

Perhaps the saddest part of Chernow’s book is the description of the death of Hamilton in a duel with Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice-president, who later hatched schemes to divide the United States. Sadly, Alexander’s death was presaged by the death of Hamilton’s oldest and most promising son, Philip, also in a duel.

As poignant as these parts are, Chernow’s greatest contribution is filling in the history of ideas that served to create US capitalism and the reminding us of the necessity of a strong vigorous government for capitalism. Sometimes, strong governments can enhance and protect liberty. Whereas, Jefferson may be perceived at the champion of the commoner against moneyed interests, it was his political adversary Hamilton that created economic structures that allowed the US to remain free and independent. It was the avidly abolitionist Hamilton who helped create an economic meritocracy, while Jefferson could not match his beautiful rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” by freeing his slaves.

Swinging for the Fences

Sunday, January 23rd, 2005

The power of oral rhetoric may lie in part upon the originality of formulation, carefully crafted phrases employing elements of alliteration and repetition tied together with the proper meter and timing. George W. Bush’s Second Inaugural Address was a competently delivered speech, but its real resonance lies not with its beautiful poetry of phrase but in the fact that its ideas are not original. The speech’s power, for those not gagging with political resentment, lies in the fact that its ideas grow organically out of our shared history and political culture. The speech is a masterful rephrasing and renewal of ideas over 200 hundred years old. Consider specific examples how Bush’s speech calls upon our shared political literature and speeches.

* Bush specifically evokes that nation’s founding documents when he asserts, “From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth.” This is a restatement of Jefferson’s phraseology in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

* The country is politically divided and Bush reached out in the speech to heal these divisions: “We have known divisions, which must be healed to move forward in great purposes — and I will strive in good faith to heal them.” This genuine call for reconciliation matches the intention but not quite the poetry of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”
* The central theme of Bush’s speech is the ascent of humanity towards the goal of freedom. Bush asserts that, “We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom.” This is no less confident than the pledge in John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural that, “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

* Bush modestly evokes hope that these efforts are consistent with the will of God, but modestly acknowledges no special or unique knowledge of that will. Bush’s admonition that, “God moves and chooses as He wills.” parallels the warning in Lincolns Second Inaugural Address that “the Almighty has His own purposes.”

Bush’s speech is essentially an affirmation that America’s central commitment is to freedom and liberty and the recognition that the US is most secure when freedom and liberty flourish throughout the world. Bush renews the American commitment to support the expansion of freedom, to the extent possible. It represents the merging of realism and idealism: “The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.”

Specifically, Bush pledges that the US will support and aid in the goal, but ultimately the acceptance of freedom must be a choice made by each people: “America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal, instead, is to help others find their own voice, attain their own freedom, and make their own way.”

The response to the Inaugural Address has been illuminating. The Europeans were generally cool, perhaps a little apprehensive as to what a commitment to freedom really means. Despite the fact that the entire speech explained the moral and historical underpinning for a US foreign policy that nurtures freedom, the News Telegraph telegraphed that it really did not understand the speech when its headline shouted “Defiant Bush Doesn’t Mention the War.” [1]

Most surprising was the reaction of Peggy Noonan, former speech writer for President Ronald Reagan. She generally has a well-tuned ear for rhetoric, but was upset with the speech complaining that it was a “rather heavenish” and “God-drenched speech.” Noonan forgets, and will surely be reminded by her Conservative friends, that the country’s founding and ideals are deeply routed in a spiritually-informed view of the nature of man. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address unselfconsciously invokes God at least 13 times, where Bush made a comparatively modest six references. The speech may seem “God-drenched” to a modern sensibility that is far too “God-dry.”

If you believe that the nature of man is transcendent, the belief has consequences. One of these consequences is a commitment to freedom as an inherent right. After all we cannot, in the words of Lincoln, call forth the “better angels” of our nature if there are no angels in our nature.

For those who complain that Bush is too ambitious, they are also implicitly uncomfortable that the country’s temperament is too hopeful and imbued with too much confidence. Their complaint is more with our collective history than with Bush in particular. It is clear that Bush is not inclined to “small-ball.” His Second Inaugural Address suggests that he is “swinging for the fences.” It is sometimes difficult for those who are incredibly small to acknowledge that we currently enjoy a president who is large and consequential.

[1] If one reads European papers one is likely to begin to believe that “Defiant” is Bush’s first name.

Better Angels of Our Nature

Tuesday, January 18th, 2005

With the following words in late in 2001, John Ashcroft strongly criticized those he believed were exaggerating civil libertarian concerns about the Bush Administration’s efforts to protect us from terrorism:

“We need honest, reasoned debate; not fear mongering. To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists — for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.”

Never a favorite of the Left, John Ashcroft immediately became to de facto poster boy for the rabid anti-Bush Left. The paragraph was seized upon as one more piece of evidence that Ashcroft seeks to crush dissent and paint anyone who disagrees with the Bush Administration as “unpatriotic.” Though the Bush Administration has been careful never to use these terms, we constantly hear and read the faux concern for stifling of honest dissent.

Indeed, the statement does suggest that we need “unity” and some people who disagree with the Administration must be aligning themselves with the interests of terrorists. To then extent that such suggestions are conveyed they are grossly unfair. The judicious use of a single word would have rendered the entire paragraph far less controversial. One need change, “Your tactics only aid terrorists…” to “Your tactics only unintentionally aid terrorists…” The use of the word “unintentionally” concedes that critics retain the same goals with perhaps different approaches.

Now suppose someone on the Left has used the same rhetorical logic and argued:

“We need honest, reasoned debate; not fear mongering. To those who pit Americans against immigrants, and citizens against non-citizens; to those who scare peace-loving into yielding personal liberty; my message is this: Your tactics only aid terrorists — for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America’s enemies, and pause to America’s friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.”

Would there have been calls on the Left to tone down the rhetoric and not depict opposition as mean spirited? The evidence suggests not. There have been far more egregious statements than Ashcroft’s by serious people on the Left with nary a yawn of concern and usually accompanied by smiles of support. The Left has been exquisitely and deliberately sensitive to even subtle indirect implications that they are less than patriotic, though they seem to have few qualms about making such direct charges themselves.

Senator Edward Kennedy rightly suggests that “In this serious time for America and many American families, no one should poison the public square by attacking the patriotism of opponents.” However, with little evidence he then asserts that “Republican leaders are avoiding key questions about the Administration’s policies by attacking the patriotism of those who question them.” Democratic hopeful General Wesley Clark whines, “How dare this administration make the charge that if you disagree with its policies, you are somewhat unpatriotic!”

Yet, it is the Left who has done the most lately to foster and nurture an us-against-them attitude. We can forgive the easy way that all candidates wrap themselves in values we all embrace. Although the web site for Presidential aspirant Howard Dean is called “Dean for America,” it would far too obsessive to believe that he is suggesting that those who do not agree with him are not for America. It is Nixon-level paranoia to suggest that naming the Liberal advocacy group “People for the American Way” suggests that others are not for the American Way. It is hard to even be upset with the Dean’s purile projection, “This president [Bush] is not interested in being a good president. He’s interested in some complicated psychological situation that he has with his father.” Such statements by Dean are more self revelatory than credible.

What coarsens the public discourse is the reference by Dean to Bush as the “enemy” or the assertion that “John Ashcroft is not a patriot.” What serves to “poison the public square” are remarks by Clark such as “I don’t think it was a patriotic war. I think it was a mistake, a strategic mistake, and I think that the president of the United States wasn’t patriotic in going after Saddam Hussein. He simply misled America and cost us casualties and killed and injured America’s reputation around the world without valid reason for doing so. It’s not patriotic; it’s wrong.”

For the Democratic Party who beats its breasts about keeping religion and politics separate and sometimes ridicules Bush’s conspicuous faith, it is particularly disheartening to hear Clark suggest that as far as Christianity goes, “there’s only one party that lives that faith in America, and that’s our party, the Democratic party.” That’s a pretty amazing assertion from someone who admits voting for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. If the difference between parties is so morally stark, what took Clark so long to declare as a Democrat?

It is not clear how much such rhetoric Dean and Clark really believe. Certainly candidates like Senator Joe Lieberman, Richard Gephardt, or John Edwards have not seen the need to resort to such tactics. Such flame-throwing rhetoric ignites the dry-tinder partisans who populate the halls and auditoriums of pre-primary America. However, people who wish to lead have an obligation to eschew such anger. As Lincoln enjoined in a far more contentious and dangerous time, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” Rather than rally around anger, we must summon forth “the better angels of our nature.”

Foolish Consistency

Sunday, January 16th, 2005

In his essay on “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a now oft-quoted admonition that, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” It is, alas, far too easy to recognize inconsistencies in others, while forgiving our own lapses. Moreover, some inconsistency is to be preferred. It is certainly true that without inconsistencies, without changes in outlook, without the introduction of new ideas, there is no growth and no change. The addition of more information and more expansive considerations can result in different conclusions that do not reflect desultory mental processes, but rather an active, engaged, and inquisitive mind.

Lest one wishes to fall into Emerson’s dreadful category of “little statesmen and philosophers and divines,” there should be a natural reticence to make too much of the inconsistencies of others. Nonetheless, new conclusions ought to be organic outgrowths of old ideas and part of this growth is an understanding of how and why our ideas have changed. Honesty requires an accounting for reasons behind changes in opinion, an explanation of the evolution of new ideas. Robert Scheer, is a contributing editor at the influential Left-leaning, some would say far-Left, publication, The Nation. He recently seems to have swung himself around completely on his assessment of the true threat of Al Qaeda and he needs to provide a more complete accounting this reversal.

Exactly a year after the devastating attacks by Al Qaeda, that killed thousands on September 11, 2001, Scheer wrote critically of both the Bush and Clinton Administrations for not being quick and vigorous enough in dealing with the obvious threat posed by Al Qaeda. In an article entitled “Bin Laden: A Known Monster Before 9/11,” Scheer wrote,

“The uniquely clear and overt terrorist threat of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization to the United States, its bloody track record in attacking US targets overseas and even the exact location of its base of operations were all known by both the Clinton and George W. Bush Administrations.”

Not only did the US Government know about the threat, but Scheer claims, “…for embarrassingly petty bureaucratic and political reasons, both Presidents were unwilling or unable to take the monster out.”

In 2002, Scheer saw the threat from Al Qaeda as “clear” and criticized the US government for recognizing the threat and still not managing to thwart the attacks of September 11, 2001. Three years since then and two years since Scheer’s original complaint that the US did not respond vigorously enough to threats posed by Al Qaeda, there have been no attacks on US soil. It can not be known with certainty whether Al Qaeda is just biding its time in preparation of a more devastating attack, whether US attacks against Al Qaeda and the elimination of their sanctuaries have constrained Al Qaeda’s ability launch to such attack, or whether internal security measures have made such attacks more difficult to implement.

Scheer chooses a fourth alternative. Scheer, contrary to his old position, now asks in The Nation whether “Al Qaeda is Just a Bush Boogeyman?” A boogeyman is defined as an “imaginary monster used to frighten children” and by analogy Scheer suggests that the Al Qaeda is an overblown and exaggerated threat serving as just one more opportunity for Bush to curtail civil liberties. Of course, the suggestion that perhaps Bush’s policies may have significantly neutralized the Al Qaeda threat is not considered as a potential explanation.

No serious person can consider Al Qaeda simply a “boogeyman.” One is forced to wonder if Scheer has been blind to the work of Al Qaeda over the last couple of years when he asks, “If Osama bin Laden does, in fact, head a vast international terrorist organization with trained operatives in more than forty countries, as claimed by Bush, why, despite torture of prisoners, has this Administration failed to produce hard evidence of it?”

Perhaps he should ask the relatives of the over 180 people killed in a blast set off in Bali what evidence exists of the organization. Perhaps Scheer should inform the relatives of the 200 people killed by a series of bombings in Madrid Spain that the Al Qaeda threat has been exaggerated. Surely, these attacks constitute warnings just as dire and grave as the strike on the USS Cole on October 12, 2001 that presaged the ghastly events of September 11 — warnings Scheer claimed in 2002 we should have recognized and acted upon.

In “Self Reliance,” Emerson also averred that “no man can violate his nature.” It is apparently in Scheer’s nature to criticize the US government in general and George W. Bush in particular, to believe the worst about the US and especially about Bush, and to use whatever evidence available to draw the most negative conclusions possible. This is the fundamental conviction that animates Scheer and reconciles the arguments of the Scheer of 2002 with those of the Scheer of 2005. When viewed in this context, there is no inconsistency Scheer’s different positions.

No doubt, when and if, an Al Qaeda attack occurs here in the next four years, Scheer and The Nation will explain to us, with the same sincerity and certainty — and consistency — that they now dismiss the threat from Al Qaeda, how Bush’s failure to understand the severity of the threat led to attack.

Vincible Ignorance

Sunday, January 9th, 2005

The Catholic Church defines “invincible ignorance” as ignorance that cannot be remedied by diligent application of all the information and reasoning capacity available. One is not morally responsible for errors arising from invincible ignorance. By contrast, “vincible ignorance” is remedial; it can be overcome through honest effort. The present ignorance of the political Left on many matters is seemingly calculated and more aptly described, in a context far different than that originally intended by the Church, as “affected” ignorance, ignorance that is “deliberate and fostered.” One cannot escape moral culpability for errors arising out of affected ignorance.

Examples of affected ignorance that have grown into articles of faith on the Left abound. A non-comprehensive list might include the following:

  • Senator John Kerry really won the vote in Ohio and therefore the election in 2004 despite a recount and a 2% vote margin comparable to the 3% margin President George Bush enjoyed country-wide.
  • Vice-President Al Gore would have won the 2000 election if the votes had only been counted. They were and he didn’t.
  • Bush allowed guilty Saudi nationals to sneak out of the country just after the September 11 attacks. According the 9/11 Commission Report, everyone who left was appropriately vetted by the FBI.
  • The Saudis were going to keep oil prices down to help their friend George Bush win re-election. Prices actually rose and did not come down significantly until after the election. You do not find those who uttered such a belief now concede that they were wrong, lest the whole sand castle of conspiracy be washed away by a flood of reality.
  • “Karl Rove, the political manager at the White House, who is a very clever man, he probably set up bin Laden to this thing [the Bin Laden tape released less than a week before the election].” OK, only Walter Cronkite was making this unfounded assertion, but few on the Left were repudiating the remark. It fit so pleasantly and conveniently into the world view of the Left.

Add to this growing list, a new assertion. Corey Pein in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) disputes the conventional wisdom that the documents presented by CBS News and Dan Rather and used on 60 Minutes to discredit George Bush’s service in the National Guard were forgeries. He claims that the evidence is not conclusive. Pein is pained by the fact that uncontrolled blogs first called attention to inconsistencies in the documents and believes that the entire episode “looks less like a victory for democracy than a case of mob rule.”

Pein starts off by getting the burden of proof wrong. It is not up to bloggers to provide conclusive evidence that the documents are forgeries. After spending five years on the investigation, it was the duty of a large news organization like CBS, with its economic resources, to authenticate to a certainty the explosive anti-Bush documents released close to an election. Once the questionable documents are released, this burden of proof on CBS is not relieved.

At this point, not the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, or even CBS News will stand by the documents used in the 60 Minutes broadcast, but Pein still pleads to sympathetic readers of the CJR that, “We don’t know whether the memos were forged, authentic, or some combination thereof…” Of course, if we don’t know, the documents should not have been used.

Pein’s primary assault on the conventional wisdom about the “forged” documents is to criticize Joseph Newcomer, a “blogger” who earned a PhD in computer science and was one of the earlier pioneers in desktop publishing. Dr. Newcomer was able to duplicate the form of the CBS documents in just a few minutes using Microsoft Word. Unimpressed, Pein argues that “this proves nothing — you could make a replica of almost any document using Word.” However, the power of Newcomer’s initial case was the he was able to quickly duplicate the document using common Word settings. As Necomer explained, “The probability that any technology in existence in 1972 would be capable of producing a document that is nearly pixel-compatible with Microsoft’s Times New Roman font and the formatting of Microsoft Word, and that such technology was in casual use at the Texas Air National Guard, is so vanishingly small as to be indistinguishable from zero.”

Pein does not even attempt to refute or even acknowledge the far more complex analysis performed by Newcomer. If the case against Newcomer analysis was so strong, debunking Newcomer should have been straightforward.

What the CJR and Pein ought to concern themselves with is identifying the structural or cultural defects at CBS News that allowed this striking oversight? Could changes in protocols of professional journalism serve to prevent similar problems in the future? Instead Pein and CJR are wringing their hands about the most democratic of forums: web logs or “blogs.” If CBS’s evidence for document authenticity had been strong, there is little blogging would have done to discredit the 60 Minutes report. One can easily imagine that there might have been quite a different response by the CJR had Fox News been the news organization caught by bloggers using forged documents to discredit Kerry during the last election. In such case, bloggers would have been heralded as the vanguard of a new, more democratic journalism fighting the partisanship of corporation-backed journalism.

No doubt those who cannot help but believe the worst about George W. Bush will latch on to Pein’s piece as a yet another article of faith in the catechism of the Left: Bush did not serve honorably in the National Guard. In reality, Pien’s writing in the CJR provides one more piece of evidence for the case that in some quarters modern journalism has been hijacked in the service of Left-wing partisanship. More reasonable Liberals will undoubtedly be dreadfully concerned that the fanatic adherence by some of their political cohorts to political fictions will serve to discredit the Left generally.

Shaper than a Serpent’s Tooth

Sunday, January 2nd, 2005

There is probably no coincidence in the observation that genuine humanitarians lead by example and by addressing the “better angles of our nature,” rather than by perpetual harangue. A Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, or Dali Lama might on occasion chide the rest of us by appealing to our conscience. However, they would rarely resort to the sort of whining and shameless exploitation of the tragedy of thousands (over a 120,000 now and growing) of tsunami deaths in southern Asia as did United Nations Undersecretary Jan Egeland.

According to news reports, Egeland said, “It is beyond me why are we so stingy, really.” He went on to criticize western politicians who “believe that they are really burdening the taxpayers too much, and the taxpayers want to give less. It’s not true. They want to give more.” I guess Mr. Egeland needs to learn the difference between the verbs “give” and “take.”

Egeland’s argument carries with it the seeds of its own refutation. Anyone eager to “give” more to the government or any relief organization can. Moreover, in democratic societies people control the level of taxation. Egeland’s not so hidden conviction is that governments ought “take” more and ”give” it to people like himself to dispense according to the judgment of his finely-tune humanitarian discretion.

Egeland later had to back track on his statement, but not before damage was done. While US military planes were dispatched for search and rescue operations and US Navy ships diverted to affected areas to provide fresh water and helicopters to deliver supplies to victims of the tsunami, Egeland managed to divide rather than unite the world’s humanitarian efforts. His complaint was a classic example of the difference between doing something constructive and incessant complaining.

This critique is especially misplaced coming from a UN official. The UN’s bumbling efforts in managing the Iraq sanctions squandered $20 billion in humanitarian aid. This amount is several times the amount necessary to deal with the tsunami tragedy.

What about the merits of the assertion that the West and the US in particular is stingy? Ever anxious to criticize the United States, especially if it rebounds on Bush Administration, the NY Times concluded that the US is indeed “stingy” with foreign aid. The damage to the US’s reputation for generosity from this critique was magnified as it was cited by the foreign press, particularly in affected areas. For example, The Express India headline ran, “Tsuanmi disaster: NY Times say US is `stingy.”’

The United States gives more foreign aid than any other country, about $16.2 billion a year (year 2003) and 40% of the entire world’s emergency relief aid, but some argue that this is insufficient. The argument is that the US’s parsimony is revealed be that the fact it gives a smaller fraction of its Gross National Product (GNP) than do other industrialized countries. However, a key omission in this computation is that it only includes “official development assistance” and not all US aid. Even more importantly, a large fraction of US foreign aid is not dispensed through the government at all but through private agencies. The NY Times ignored private giving in its editorial. They did not mention that according to US AID, yearly private foreign aid amounts to $33 billion dollars (year 2000), many times that funneled through official development assistance and given by other countries. Though the table below, reproduced from US AID, is for the year 2000, it shows a more complete picture of US foreign aid. Not only does the US give more, it is almost certainly the case that its private donations are allocated more efficiently and consequently do more good.

US Foreign Aid in 2000.

US$ billions Share of total (%)
US official development assistance 9.9 18
All other U.S. government assistance 12.7 22
U.S. private assistance 33.6 60
Foundations 1.5
Corporations 2.8
Private and voluntary organizations 6.6
Universities and colleges 1.3
Religious congregations 3.4
Individual remittances 18.0
Total U.S. international assistance 56.2 100

Given that the supplemental foreign aid outside of the official development assistance is so large, it is difficult to explain why the NY Times did not provide through a more complete assessment of total giving before arriving at the conclusion of stinginess. Is the NY Times simply not competent enough to check with US AID to get the complete number, or did it simply cease searching for more information when it found some evidence consistent with its own preconceived notions?

The squabble at the UN was a distraction. The more disgraceful event of the week was the rejection of aid from Israel by the Sri Lanka government. The Israeli army had planned to send medical staff to aid in the recovery, but the Sri Lanka government would apparently rather see more of its own citizens die than accept help from Jews.

At the end of this week, when governments were beginning to implement relief efforts, the former UN International Development Secretary Clare Short provided yet another distraction by complaining that the US was bypassing the UN and joining directly with Japan, India, and Australia to coordinate relief efforts. Clare believes that only the “UN can do that job” and it is “the only body that has the moral authority.” Ms. Short should realize that this is not about the United Nations, but it is about getting relief to people in the most efficient way possible. It is not about making the UN feel good about itself. Given the billion dollar bungle of the United Nations in the Iraq Oil-for-Food Program, the acknowledged sexual exploitation and abuse of refugees in the Democratic Republic of the Congo by UN peacekeepers and staff, the inability to stop the genocides in Rwanda and Sudan, the abandonment of 5,000 Muslims under UN protection in Srebrenica, and the inability of the UN to contribute in a meaningful way to elections in Iraq, one is hard pressed to discern what moral authority Ms. Short is referring to.

The question of providing aid directly to tsunami victims rather than going through the United Nations can be answered in a simple way. If you were to write a check to help in Tsunami relief efforts would your first choice be to write it in care of the United Nations? Would one rather send money to the United Nations or to the Salvation Army?

Here is your choice:
UNICEF Relief | Salvation Army