The biggest problem with ‘Foreign Aid’

Note: I’m writing this as an American citizen to my fellow American citizens. I am not speaking in any official capacity or speaking on behalf of the US government.

Foreign aid is not popular in the US. It’s never been popular. Why does the US congress insist on passing budget appropriations to spend American taxpayer dollars in other countries? Don’t we have enough problems at home? Shouldn’t our money be spent in our own country? Those are good questions, and they deserve an answer.

First, let me clear up some misconceptions. The the Coronavirus relief portions of the bill passed by the House and Senate on December 22 don’t include foreign aid. They were passed as part of a Consolidated Appropriations Bill, along with the regular budgeted spending of the US Government for normal business. You can read that here: Consolidated Appropriations Bill, 2021 (.pdf). This consolidated appropriations bill (including most of our regular US annual budget, requested from Congress by the White House) contains other, non-COVID expenditures that count as ‘foreign aid’. The only section that contains COVID relief is Division M and Division N. It’s easy to see why there’s confusion because regular government spending was passed at the same time. This means that Coronavirus relief money isn’t being spent on ‘foreign aid’. You can see how the Coronavirus legislation actually spends money in the graphic below, courtesy of the Tax Foundation.

Takeaway 1: Coronavirus relief money isn’t being spent on foreign aid.

So why is US taxpayer money being spent overseas?

By now we know that Coronavirus relief money isn’t being sent overseas, but the older question remains: Why is US taxpayer money being spent in other countries at all? Why is it written into our annual budget? Don’t we have enough other things to spend money on within our own borders?

This brings us to my biggest problem with foreign aid: the name. When we talk about spending money in other countries, the term ‘foreign aid’ makes it sound like we’re giving money to other countries, charitably, because we have a bunch of extra money to spend. This couldn’t be further from reality.

The US engages in other countries because there are US interests at stake. We spend money in other countries for one of two reasons: to protect US interests, or to promote US values.

Takeaway 2: We spend money in other countries for one of two reasons: to protect US interests or to promote US values.

The definition of US interests and values is a matter of great debate, and I won’t address that here. Instead, I’ll show you where you, the American taxpayer, can see what we’ve defined as current US interests.

Your United States Department of State publishes, for all Americans to see, our strategy for engaging with each country where we have a mission. You can read our mission priorities by country here: Integrated Country Strategies.

Take the country of Malaysia as an example. Here is a direct link to the Integrated Country Strategy for Malaysia (.pdf). The US has three main priorities in Malaysia. The first is peace and mutual security. The second is good governance and the rule of law. The third is expanding and deepening commercial and economic interests. You can read the complete justification for these priorities in the document above. The first priority affects US security and the protection of American citizens. The second priority promotes US values. The third priority protects US jobs and the financial interests of US companies.

The modern city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, as seen from a Chinese temple.
Photo (c) 2018 by Andrew Shinn

As you can see from the Malaysia example above, the US isn’t just giving away money: everything we spend money on promotes US interests or US values. Politicians are driven by votes. Politicians in the executive and legislative branches don’t spend money in other countries because other countries are voting for them; they spend money because the folks back home depend on connections to other countries for their livelihoods.

California farmers want to be able to export cherries and wine to foreign markets. The money our government spends as (badly-named) foreign aid helps to make this possible. The folks in Columbus, Indiana who manufacture forklifts or the people in Midland, Texas who drill for shale oil depend on being able to export those products to other countries. The US spends money to ensure that they’ll have stable markets and stable societies to keep buying their products.

Are people in other countries helped by US spending? Certainly. Educating women in Pakistan makes for a more stable society; one where terrorism isn’t able to flourish as easily. But the ultimate point of that spending is to protect Americans or promote US values.

Another reason to spend money in other countries is that it’s part of great power competition. China’s One Belt, One Road initiative will spend between $4 and $8 trillion to create a network of trading partners in 65 countries. They’re planning to connect China to Malaysia, Mombasa, and Madrid. International trade isn’t a zero-sum game. But if the US wants to maintain a seat at the trading table, we need to be prepared to spend some amount of money.

Spending money in other countries, so-called ‘foreign aid’, is done to benefit Americans. That’s why, after all these years (and with no natural overseas contituency), our legislators keep doing it.

All Americans should be debating what our interests and value are. I encourage you to talk to your legislators about how they can best promote American interests and values in our spending priorities. But the fact that we have values to promote and interests to pursue in other countries is beyond dispute.

What’s the solution to income inequality?

In December, Lisa and I visited the palace of Versailles, the residence of French royalty from Louis XIV to Louis XVI, or 1682 – 1789. It was awesome – and terrifying. The opulence on display was truly breathtaking. Marie Antoinette, it turns out, had an entire village built in the garden out back so she could cosplay as a commoner. (No, I’m not joking.)

But the entire site exists as a monument to hubris.

You see, at the same time we started listening to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Written 80 years after the French Revolution, Dickens’s descriptions of the grinding poverty found elsewhere in France while the palace was occupied by Marie Antoinette are striking. They paint a picture of income inequality that should terrify anyone who might be considered an economic elite.

The French Revolution illustrates conditions that can be considered an upward boundary on income inequality. Once inequality hits this boundary, social contracts fail and the laws that govern society unravel (or dissolve entirely).

Effort to reduce income inequality (or at least mask it) aren’t only for the poor – they also serve to protect economic elites from the fate of Louis XVI. The rich kids of Instagram have the opposite effect.

So if income inequality has some sort of practical upper boundary, what about conditions below that threshold? Is there a solution to income inequality?

I think of income inequality as a description or measurement, a bit like temperature. Is it ever the wrong temperature? No, because temperature is descriptive; it doesn’t have a moral dimension. But can it be too hot or cold for survival? Absolutely.

The question in the title comes from a friend, who asked me about it on Facebook. I’m going to reframe it thus: “What sort of economic policies should we pursue?” I have a few reasons for this. First, a measurement or description can’t be ‘solved’, in the same way that you’d never try to solve a temperature reading. Second, the real world needs solutions that are directional instead of idealistic. We should be informed by ideals, but policy should be able to take the real world and move it in the direction of those ideals.

The wisest economic policy prescription I’ve read come from the book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. This book describes societies from colonial America to the Soviet Union to North and South Korea. It spends a lot of time talking about societal elites who create extractive, oppressive political systems that create the sorts of injustices that led to the French Revolution.

The antidote to this is to focus economic policies on inclusivity. When everyone is able to participate in an economy (start a business, own property, buy things and sell them at a profit), you have the conditions for a more just society. When some are excluded from full economic participation (for example, not being able to own property because of gender or tribal affiliation), injustice follows. Embedded in this is the idea that economic participation requires political participation. People who can’t vote will find themselves excluded from full economic participation pretty quickly.

This is both achievable and realistic. It avoids the pitfalls of forced income redistribution, which leads to a stifling of innovation and an overall lower standard of living. It also avoids the pitfalls of an elite-driven system of monopolistic capitalism, which keeps people trapped and unable to be economically mobile.

This, then, is the basis for any economic policy I consider: does this policy move us toward or away from economic inclusivity?

Help me out, dear readers. Add to this conversation. What books have you read that helped your thinking in this area? What am I missing?

Your Kingdom Come: The 4th of July

This 4th of July, I’m (as ever) torn between faith and patriotism. A friend said that freedom can never be won or maintained by any soldier or government, and that our true freedom only comes from Christ.  I have to agree, but I’m left questioning, “Then why government? And why our government?”

The answer, I believe, is that we were given stewardship of this world in the garden of Eden.  When God told us to multiply and fill the earth, to care for it and govern all that it contains, I believe that political government is part of that mandate.

The United States Government is not the answer to all things, nor the answer to ultimate freedom.  All things we have, freedom in its several types included, are ours because God has willed it so.  In the specific case of freedom, God sent his son, Jesus, to secure that freedom and redeem us for Himself.

But if we’re living out the redeemed lives we’ve been given, we can’t ignore the several mandates that political governance can  fulfill.  Far from ignoring the structures that order our communal lives, we’re to pay attention to those structures; to provide for justice and care for the oppressed.  If we call ourselves Christians, then our government should not be ignored, but attended to carefully.  We need to enter into dialogue with others, to seek optimal ordering of our communal life, to provide justice and order.  Even political freedom should be on our list of priorities if follow carefully God’s mandate to govern the earth.

You probably won’t hear me saying that our government is optimal, or that our nation is the only nation on earth with the truth.  For truth doesn’t reside in our political structures, but those structures should reflect truth if we’re obedient to the governance mandate.  You won’t hear me say that it’s the American Way to put a boot in anyone’s fundament, though that brand of overblown patriotic pride fascinates me in the same way that a car accident slows down traffic.

But you will hear me say that it’s our responsibility to craft and mold a government that reflects the character of God.  A nation with such an orientation wisely seeks justice on a national and global scale, and reflects the very good values of freedom and equanimity that we learn from our creator’s nature.  I seek to join in the crafting of such a government.  And to the extent that our government reflects this orientation, I will celebrate.  Indeed, we encourage what we celebrate, so I celebrate the political freedom that so many have worked and died to craft.  Though it’s only a reflection of true freedom from the tyranny of sin and death, it’s still a worthy reflection.

And as I pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven, I will work in the space and time I occupy to make that prayer a reality.  Not that I seek to create a theistic government, but a government that reflects the goodness of God.

Why religion and politics shouldn’t mix

This is one of my favorite topics. I’ve been thinking about it and reading about it for some time now. I don’t have it figured out to my satisfaction, but I came to a new thought this morning, so I figured I should share.

I was pondering the nature of religion and the nature of politics, and I realized they have something inverse in common. The reason religion and politics should not mix is partly due to their relationship to compromise.

Religion in general and Protestant Christianity in particular should not compromise. The philosophical game of religion is played on the field of truth claims.  Negotiating or compromising on truth claims is like kicking field goals for your opponent.  It’s not a good idea.  This is the (very good) reason that people have died for their religious convictions throughout the centuries.

Politics, on the other hand, lives with an entirely different relationship to compromise.  For a politcian, compromise IS the game.  Legislature and governance is all about negotiating between competing interests.  If different interests didn’t exist, governments wouldn’t need to exist, either.  That’s why politics is so easy to criticize, fun to talk about (e.g. ‘Those idiots in [Washington, Sacramento, Madison, Dakar, etc.] wouldn’t know the right thing to do if it bit them on the hand!”), and so demanding of wisdom.  Compromise IS the task of government, and it’s not an easy one.

So every time a pastor asks his congregation to vote a particular way, he is speaking from one realm into another: he is speaking from a position that’s used to wielding divine authority to make absolute truth claims into a realm where issues always have different sides and a single voice bearing the best idea is not guaranteed to make headway.  In politics, strength of conviction falls subservient to the power of coalition.  That’s not a fault of politics; it’s just the nature of politics.  But this pastor is likely to create an unproductive voting bloc.  He’s likely to create or encourage a group of people to take a position they can’t back down from.  In the end, it makes for bad politics and bad blood.

And every time a governmental leader speaks toward the realm of religion, it’s natural (but altogether inappropritate) that he should ask for compromise and ecumenism.  He, who is used to compromise as a way of doing business, naturally expects this from the realm of religion.  And he’s dead wrong.  Religion thrives on truth claims, and asking religious people to deny what they know as truth for some greater good is like asking religion to drink poison.

There are many outworkings of this continued tension between church and state, and they’re likely to be messy.  I can’t claim any kind of special ability to negotiate such perilous waters just because I understand the larger principle.  But I can offer one guiding question for discussion: what can we do to build up a HEALTHY wall of separation ‘twixt the two very important areas?

Election’s Over

Comments?  Thoughts?  Did the good guys win? Or the bad guys?  Anyone want to speculate on why there was a democratic landslide?  I heard Rush Limbaugh today saying that it’s because public schools make kids dumb and dumb people vote for democrats.  Does anyone else subscribe to any such simple and inflammatory sound-byte-ish notions that they’d care to share with us?

Political research in the internet age

I’ve always been interested in politics.  As a young child, one of my main questions (that was never satisfactorily answered) was this: ‘How do you do political research?’  I come from a family that highly values informed civic participation.  But I knew that people make all kind of political claims.  I came to learn that you could find out about politics by reading the newspaper or by looking at voting guides put out by everyone from the California Teacher’s Associaton to the National Association of Evangelicals.  That last voting guide was distributed from time to time in our church bulletin.

But both of these sources of political information were filtered; they came from secondary sources: interest groups that focused heavily on this issue or that.  Of course, you could watch the presidential debates if you happened to have the television on for one of the several evenings they occurred.  Or you could hear the candidates speak once if you were lucky enough to be in a town on the campaign trail.  I still remember the hoopla when Dan Quayle visited my home town of Lodi, Calif.  But these were still limited, one-time opportunities.  Candidates, if they were slippery enough, could couple together a few area-relevant soundbytes and curry favor with voters everywhere they went.  The epitome of this was Hillary Clinton’s claim that she was both a lifelong New York Mets fan and a lifelong New York Yankees fan when she spoke at two different events.  But the ubiquity of today’s news media made that kind of campaign-trail stumping less effective, and Hillary (still a product of old-tyme politics) got burned.  24-hour news and a proliferation of news channels changed the world of politics.

The internet has further changed today’s political landscape.

Did you happen to miss the presidential debates (or are you part of the increasingly large population that doesn’t watch television anymore in favor of internet-delivered content)?  No problem.  You can still watch the debates on Youtube (, who co-sponsored the debates this year.  Incidentally, those videos will still be available after the election is over.  If a candidate made a campaign promise, the world will be able to look back at that promise and hold the candidate accountable after he (or she) is elected.

Would you like to know about a candidate’s stance on a particular issue?  Go to John McCain’s Issues page: or Barack Obama’s analogue:  There’s a lot of information there; more than you can shake a stick at.  Not that you’re the type to shake sticks at web pages, but you get my drift.

Would you like to read comprehensive campaign coverage?  No problem.  Go to everyone’s favorite news aggregator, Google News, at  In my opinion, there’s a pretty high signal-to-noise ratio there, but it’s still a legitimate source of coverage.

Blogging took off first in two worlds: the technology world, where every geek seems to be publishing stuff (…ahem…) and the political world, where every wonk (and Wonkette) has their own lane in the information superhighway.  Here’s a search on Google blog searches for ‘2008 presidential election‘.

With so much information out there, it’s more important than ever that you trust your information gatekeepers.  That’s why we here at are running for ….. um ….nothing.  Sorry, I guess I got a little carried away with all the political commentary.

But seriously, folks, in today’s internet age, where it easier than ever to be informed and easier than ever to engage in thoughtful dialogue, we should be using the internet to make us more informed citizens.  Maybe, just maybe, we’ll see a more informed race.  I think the quality, peculiarity and non-polarity of our two presidential candidates is already a result of and testament to this great world-changing new media.

Book Report: Mexifornia

What a book!  This one, written by Victor Davis Hanson, was alternately hard to read and fascinating.  It wasn’t hard to read in terms of reading level, though that may make the ideas in the book accessible to fewer people.  it was hard to read because of the raw honesty with which Hanson talks about issues of race and immigration.

As a small-town farmer and now university professor, he blasts what he terms the race industry for their tactics, which he claims serve only to further alienate those who are already aliens in California.  He waxes a bit nostalgic about his growing-up years and the approach to racial integration demonstrated by his early teachers.  But he also claims that the usually-ugly specter of modern lowest-common-denominator culture holds much promise for racial integration, even despite it’s otherwise putrid pallor.

As a classicist, Hanson offers a fascinating solution set, complete with alternate futures.  He’s wise enough to predict several outcomes, and because of this will probably be seen by history as prescient.

I highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to debate or understand our public policy options with regard to illegal immigration.  At 150 pages, it’s almost short enough to be considered a long pamphlet.

Even if you judge this book by its cover, it still garners high marks.  The presentation and cover art are visually pleasing.

My two critiques:

  1. I think the writing style puts this book and its important message out of the grasp of some people.  The issues to debate will need all our minds and wills, and I’d hate to see these important thoughts lost because of the form they take.
  2. I’d like to see the author’s preferred solution set fleshed out a little more.  I guess this isn’t a policy platform, but a powerful discussion-starter.  I know that it goes a long way toward giving my future policy stance on illegal immigration a firm footing.

Hijacked primaries?

This post is courtesy of Jon Shinn. The experience was his, and the letter below was sent to the National Voter Protection Center and the LA County Registrar of Voters. As an educated, influential bunch, I trust that all you Shinnfans will be aware of such cases, raise a stink with your registrars of voters, and try to keep our representative democracy on track. Please help raise awareness of this issue and take action! From Jon:

I feel very passionately about my right and duty to vote. In the weeks leading up to the election, I confirmed via phone (LA County Registrar of Voters), internet (, and by way of receipt of a voter registration card received in the mail (voter ID ******708) that I was, in fact registered to vote. I verified my polling place via the same methods mentioned above. Upon appearing at my polling place, I was notified that I was not on the roster, and would need to fill out a provisional ballot. I have been left feeling disenfranchised and like my vote does not matter for tonight’s returns. The same was true for my wife. We are both registered as “Decline to State” voters (i.e. independents), and both of our votes were for Barack Obama. We are extremely upset, and feel that if we, as conscientious, meticulous, highly educated, highly aware voters were left out of the process, it stands to reason that there were many others who were excluded as well. The precinct worker mentioned that ours was the “story of the day.” This does NOT inspire confidence in our voting process. A confirmation or acknowledgment of this message would be greatly appreciated.
Sincerely and Regretfully,
Jonathan Shinn
Long Beach, California

Did you have this same experience? Know someone who did? Want to suggest a course of action we can all take? Sound off in the comments.

Ed. note: The exact same scenario played out for Rachel Shinn, Ricky Newton, and Sarah Newton.