Poverty, The President And The Pest
Browsing the back pages of my morning paper the other day, I came across the following passionate pronouncement: "The growing divide between wealth and poverty, between opportunity and misery, is both a challenge to our compassion and a source of instability. We must confront it."
Quite true says I to myself. But who do you think made this stirring statement? Jesse Jackson? Ralph Nader? Noam Chomsky? Alec Baldwin?
No, no, no, and no. Difficult though it may be to believe, it was actually George W. Bush, who offered the ringing call to arms while announcing his plan to significantly increase U.S. aid to poor nations over the next three years -- boosting the total foreign aid package 50 percent from $10 billion to $15 billion a year by 2006.
"We cannot," said the president, "leave behind half of humanity as we seek a better future for ourselves. We cannot accept permanent poverty in a world of progress. There are no second-class citizens in the human race."
Pie in the sky speechifying? Maybe. But it nevertheless represents a major shift in the administration's stated public policy goals.
The first question is, what prompted the shift? According to Jim Wolfensohn, the warm and fuzzy president of that sinister instrument of U.S. global hegemony, the World Bank, it's a direct result of 9/11: "On Sept. 11 the imaginary wall that divided the rich world from the poor world came crashing down . There is no wall. There are not two worlds. There is only one."
But beyond Sept. 11th, this new international agenda represents a major victory for activists who have been battering their heads against that wall for years -- most memorably in Seattle, Davos, and Genoa. But not all activists are created equal. Your average barricade-storming protestor can't pick up the phone and arrange a little sit-down with the president. But musical superstar Bono's not your average activist. He can make that call -- and does. He's been such a persistent presidential prodder on the issue, he's earned the ultimate accolade, a White House nickname: "The Pest."
Passionate, committed, and armed with a policy wonk's command of the minutiae of global poverty, the Irish rocker has also been forging unlikely alliances with an all-star lineup of conservative power brokers that includes Paul O'Neill, Condoleezza Rice, Jesse Helms and the president. In fact, when Bush announced his new foreign aid initiative, Bono was standing by his side, no doubt with his cattle- prod at the ready.
"It's very unhip for both of us," says Bono. "But we have to take 'good guys' and 'bad guys' out of this and just have a dialogue." And although Bono claims that he's lost friends and rankled bandmates over his off-stage jam sessions with conservatives, it clearly hasn't adversely affected album sales or displeased Grammy voters. Breaking down walls, racking up awards and helping change the world -- talk about "Elevation."
But even with Bono as the opening act, the president's poverty proposal wasn't enough to knock the dog mauling trial off the top of the news. When it comes to grabbing the media spotlight, Bane trumps Bono.
What makes this surprising is that this is not just a story filled with millions of poor and starving people -- never a particular interest of our scandal-driven press -- but also a story filled with that longtime media favorite, political hypocrisy. Specifically the two-faced stance the administration takes on the question of waste.
When it comes to foreign aid, conservatives -- especially head waste watchdog Paul O'Neill -- are forever wringing their hands that too much of it is frittered away. "We've spent trillions of dollars on this subject," harrumphed O'Neill earlier this month, "and there's damn little to show for it."
It's funny, but it never seems to bother them that there isn't a lot of peace and harmony in the world to show for what we've spent on defense. Indeed, when the administration demanded a $48 billion increase in military spending, bringing the total to $379 billion, no one mentioned the need for the defense contractors who would be the recipients of that taxpayer bounty to run a tight ship.
The Pentagon itself isn't exactly a paragon of fiscal restraint either -- witness the $11 billion the president wants for the now outdated Crusader howitzer, the $63 billion for Raptor stealth fighters designed to take on a Soviet threat that no longer exists, and the $48 billion for Comanche helicopters that have long been plagued by design flaws. I guess if something is enough of a priority, a little waste -- or even a lot of it -- is no big deal.
The second question, of course, is: Now that the president has accurately articulated the problem of persistent global poverty, what precisely is he going to do about it? On Friday, speaking to the heads of state of some 50 countries at the U.N. conference in Monterrey, he emphasized the destabilizing impact of 1.2 billion people living in extreme deprivation: "We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terrorism," he said.
When it came to fighting terrorism after 9/11, however, Bush was eager to put his money where his mouth was. $30 billion was promptly poured into that effort. Now that he's offered up a noble vision of global economic justice, will he also step up to the plate and address the domestic injustice caused by his budget cuts in health care, education, and public housing programs?
In fact, the president has yet to acknowledge the destabilizing impact of poverty here at home, where the gulf between rich and poor continues to widen. The salaries of CEOs went up 442 percent during the last decade, with the average CEO earning 531 times more than the average worker. At the same time, one in five children -- that's 15 million of our kids -- lives at or below the poverty line. And 40 percent of our homeless are families with children.
So while the reeducation of George W. Bush on the immense challenge of poverty is welcome, it has yet to be matched by a commensurate, meaningful and across-the-board shift in policy abroad or at home. The president has made it clear that overcoming global poverty is not only a moral, but also a national security imperative. Now it's going to be up to all of us -- activists and average citizens alike -- to hold him to his lofty rhetoric.
"We are going to trust but verify," said Bono, quoting another Republican president. But even before we trust, we've got to keep the pressure on to ensure that Bush's rich language isn't followed by a poverty of action.