Cost Cutting and the Israel Ricebowl

When Rand Paul made his highly controversial proposal to flatly end foreign aid spending across the board he raised a lot of eyebrows. But his plan might not have caused nearly as much of a ruckus had the media not immediately changed the conversation from one of fiscal probity to a hot button topic by asking, “Even to Israel?” For the record, Senator Paul obviously didn’t start out to launch an attack on all the Jews of world, but that’s the cliff which the conversation leaped off when he admitted that Israel would be included in that list.

On Friday, Rabbi Steve Gutow took to the pages of Politico seeking to lead Paul to the woodshed.

U.S. foreign aid is not a line to be cut — as though it were excessive spending on paper clips. This money is as much a part of our national security toolbox as our Foreign Service corps or military relationships — both of which would be sacrificed at the altar of cuts-for-cuts-sake as well, should Paul (R-Ky.) have his way.

So far, so good, at least in terms of general theory. Nearly every dime spent by the government will find supporters somewhere, and few honest analysts would argue that there is zero value gained from investing in foreign relationships, assuming we can afford it. But the Rabbi goes on from there to essentially ignore every other country on the lengthy list of those feeding at the US trough and focuses exclusively on the importance of funding Israel.

Israel receives just $3 billion in military aid — a paltry 5 percent of the foreign aid budget, which is, itself, only 1 percent of our overall spending. To think such a cut will move our economy forward is like suggesting that ordering a diet soda with your double bacon cheeseburger will help you lose weight.

That makes for a great sound bite, but it’s the paragraph which really deserves a closer look on two fronts. First, if you’re going to talk about any cuts to foreign aid at all it’s pretty difficult not to cast your eyes on Israel and Egypt. Looking at the rather eclectic list of countries cashing our checks, these are the only two which traditionally receive amounts in the billions rather than the hundreds of millions. Making cuts in foreign aid without touching those two would be akin to trying to meaningfully reduce the federal government’s budget without touching entitlement programs. (And who on Earth would ever consider that?)

And what of the other countries on the list? Would Rabbi Gutow be willing to lop off support for Jordan? (Roughly 1/2 billion, presumably for, well… not attacking Israel.) Shall we clip payments to Columbia? (Another 1/2 billion – I assume for not producing cocaine, which has clearly been a huge success.) Ethiopia? Kenya? Pakistan? Who should face the ax?

But it’s the second part of Gutow’s quote which requires the most attention, specifically the “diet soda and double bacon cheeseburger” line. He is correct. Just ordering the diet soda won’t make any difference. But if you make it a single burger instead of two, use only one slice of cheese, remove half of the bacon strips and put it on a smaller bun, suddenly you’re ingesting a lot less calories.

The point is, completely eliminating all foreign aid is probably a non-starter in Washington. But rushing to defend your own ricebowl while ignoring the rest isn’t going to solve anything. If we are going to make cuts to foreign aid (along with the myriad other areas where we must reduce spending) then everyone is going to have to share the burden and feel some of the pinch or there is no sense starting the process. And that would have to include Israel and Egypt.

The Rabbi seems to be presenting us with a false choice. Aid to Israel – and many of these other countries – doesn’t have to be entirely eliminated if we trim a proportional bit from each. It’s the same as the rest of the federal bureaucracy. Taking a nice bite out of each one may not seem like much, but if you take that chunk out of all of them, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

For a different perspective, though, Doug Mataconis tells us that the gravy train is over and it’s time to cut off welfare for the rest of the world.