Monday, January 10, 2005

The Wages of Generousity

In a recent Prospect article Robert Kuttner argues, among other things, that corporate tax loopholes are bad policy, that the Bush administration likes tax cuts a little too much, and that the tsunami is a major disaster that requires a serious response from first-world nations. Bold points all, but what gets to me about this piece is the assumption that the US is unique as a miser among first world nations when it comes to humanitarian aid. Kuttner states that "The $350 million pledged by the Bush administration, some of which will be diverted from other relief needs, represents 0.003 percent of our national income. Europe, on average, is spending about triple that."

There are two points I think are worth noting here. The first is that the humanitarian aid Bush has pledged is by no means the extent of US government contributions (to say nothing of charitable contributions, although those are a bit harder to quantify). For over a week now the USS Abraham Lincoln's battle group - and the dozens of aircraft it brings - has been engaged in search and rescue missions off Sumatra. Seeing as how America spends far and away more on its naval capabilities than any other country, this seems like a pretty decent specialization of aid resources.

My second point is a little less specific. The argument Kuttner makes - that the US spends far less than other first world countries do on humanitarian aid, once size is taken into account - is not at all uncommon, and in my experience is taken as the conventional wisdom by the NYT editorial page, among other places. There's just one problem: it's not really true. As Daniel Drezner points out (taken from an OECD study), the only countries that substantially outspend the US per-capita on humanitarian aid are the Scandinavian states, Switzerland, and Holland. The US is a little behind Great Britain, a little ahead of France and Canada, and substantially ahead of many other first world countries (Germany and Japan, for instance). Here's the full chart, in per capita cents per day:

1. Norway 21.04
2. Sweden 11.81
3. Denmark 5.95
4. Switzerland 5.85
5. Netherlands 5.15
6. Belgium 2.94
7. United Kingdom 2.58
8. Finland 2.38
9. United States 2.34
10. France 2.17
11. Canada 2.10
12. Australia 1.93
13. Ireland 1.83
14. Austria 1.23
15. New Zealand 1.18
16. Spain 0.61
17. Germany 0.61
18. Italy 0.42
19. Greece 0.27
20. Japan 0.06
21. Portugal 0.03

In other types of (non-humanitarian relief) aid, the United States comes out looking a little more stingy. But that's only measuring direct monetary contributions. Studies which take into account the other ways in which the US contributes to third-world countries (as an immigration outlet, security provider, etc) tend to show the US performing quite respectably among other first world nations.

One last thing - speaking as a 2004 Kerry voter, I really hope Democratic writers trying to find "an idiom of values that plays in the heartland" can refrain from saying stuff like "The good heart of the American people, my eye." Just a thought.

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