Bush and the Tsunami
The transcript of President George W. Bush’s remarks on the Tsunami is now available. After days of silence and invisibility, Bush finally came out on Wednesday to address perhaps the greatest natural disaster of our times.
He said he had called four heads of state to express his condolences and was coordinating with other countries, and was sending some military logistical help, along with the $35 million in aid now promised (initially it was $15).
QUESTION: Mr. President, were you offended by the suggestion that rich nations have been stingy in the aid over the tsunami? Is this a sign of another rift with the U.N.?
BUSH: Well, I felt like the person who made that statement was very misguided and ill-informed.
Take, for example, in the year 2004, our government provided $2.4 billion in food, in cash, in humanitarian relief to cover the disasters for last year. That’s $2.4 billion. That’s 40 percent of all the relief aid given in the world last year was provided by the United States government. We’re a very generous, kind-hearted nation, and, you know, what you’re beginning to see is a typical response from America.
First of all, we provide immediate cash relief to the tune of about $35 million. And then there will be an assessment of the damage so that the next tranche of relief will be spent wisely. That’s what’s happening now.
Just got off the phone with the president of Sri Lanka. She asked for help to assess the damage. In other words, not only did they want immediate help, but they wanted help to assess damage so that we can better direct resources. And so our government is fully prepared to continue to provide assistance and help.
It takes money, by the way, to move an expeditionary force into the region. We’re diverting assets, which is part of our overall aid package. We’ll continue to provide assets. Plus the American people will be very generous themselves. I mean, the $2.4 billion was public money, of course provided by the taxpayers.
But there is also a lot of individual giving in America . . .
This entire spiel was very well rehearsed and mostly wrong.
Jan Egeland – the United Nations’ emergency relief coordinator and former head of the Norwegian Red Cross . . . question[ed] the generosity of rich nations. “We were more generous when we were less rich, many of the rich countries,” Egeland said Monday. “And it is beyond me, why are we so stingy, really. … Even Christmas time should remind many Western countries at least how rich we have become.” Egeland told reporters the next day that his complaint wasn’t directed at any one nation.
So Egeland had not in fact singled out the United States. He was talking about the 30 richest countries generally.
Second, Bush is an MBA, so he knows very well the difference between absolute numbers and per capita ones. Let’s see, Australia offered US $27 million in aid for victims of the tsunami. Australia’s population is about 20 million. Its gross domestic product is about $500 billion per year. Surely anyone can see that Australia’s $27 million is far more per person than Bush’s $35 million. Australia’s works out to $1.35 per person. The US contribution as it now stands is about 9 cents per person. So, yes, the US is giving more in absolute terms. But on a per person basis, it is being far more stingy so far. And Australians are less wealthy than Americans, making on average US $25,000 per year per person, whereas Americans make $38,000 per year per person. So even if Australians and Americans were both giving $1.35 per person, the Australians would be making the bigger sacrifice. But they aren’t both giving $1.35; the Bush administration is so far giving an American contribution of nine cents a person.
The apparent inability of the American public to do basic math or to understand the difference between absolute numbers and proportional ones helps account for why Bush’s crazy tax cut schemes have been so popular. Americans don’t seem to realize that Bush gave ordinary people checks for $300 or $600, but is giving billionnaires checks for millions. A percentage cut across the board results in far higher absolute numbers for the super-wealthy than for the fast food workers. But, well, if people like being screwed over, then that is their democratic right.
Bush’s underlining of the $2.5 billion he says the United States gave in emergency humanitarian aid last year annoyed the hell out of me. He said it was 40% of such monies given by the industrialized world. But the US is the world’s largest economy, and neither on a per capita basis nor as a percentage of GDP is that very much money. Bush said “billion” as though it were an astronomical sum. But he spends a billion dollars a week in Iraq, without batting an eye. That’s right. Two weeks of his post-war war in Iraq costs as much as everything the US spent on emergency humanitarian assistance in 2003 for all the countries in the world.
One reader wrote in,
If the US didn’t have 150,000 troops bogged down in Iraq with hundreds of thousands more either winding down from or preparing for deployment, just think of how many lives we could be saving right this instant by putting hundreds of thousands of the most mobile and most efficient airlift, sealift, rapid emergency management, and medical forces in the world to work throughout the Indian Ocean Basin (and for a fraction of the cost of the war). Instead we’re barely managing a couple warships and 15,000 or so troops, a fraction of what we might have done if the Administration had their priorities straight. Opportunity cost may seem like an abstract economic principle, but it seems there’s nothing quite like the most devastating tidal wave in human history to make it crystal clear. Bush’s War is now costing lives in Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, the Maldives, etc, etc, etc.
The US Federal budget in 2004 consists of about $1.8 trillion in receipts and $2.3 trillion in expenditures. The 2003 official development assistance budget was $15 billion (a very large portion of which goes to countries that don’t need the assistance, and is given for strategic reasons). That is about 0.14 percent of the US GDP. Norway, in contrast, spends $2 billion a year on humanitarian assistance, which comes to almost a full 1.0 percent of its GDP. This is the sort of thing that drove Egeland to make his remark. He was even complaining about Norway, which is several times more virtuous than the US on a per capita basis in this regard.
Bush fears the tsunami for two big reasons. If the US government really stepped up to the plate, Bush would not be able to argue for making his tax cuts for the rich permanent.
And, the world public has just seen on its television screens the sort of disasters we can expect if Bush’s denial of global warming continues as US policy. So he has to fall back on silly arguments from meaningless absolute numbers and on vague hopes for private giving. The tsunami says that government is needed to help people. That’s not what Bush wants the US public to believe. But the tsunami is bigger than Bush.