I read with interest Tyler Grant’s recent defense of taxpayer-funded cultural exchanges in National Review. I have no doubt that Mr. Grant did get a lot out of his experience with the Fulbright program, as do all participants. When I was a staffer on Capitol Hill, I met with groups from all sorts of places who were in town on some State Department-funded trip—high school students from Pakistan spending a year in Montana, an agricultural delegation from Tajikistan, etc.
I sincerely believe these programs were beneficial to those participating. But every single meeting I had with an interest group while on the Hill, whether an agriculture interest group or a State Department exchange program, had some justification for the program they wanted funded.
As obtuse and unresponsive as our legislative process can be, even Congress isn’t incompetent enough to fund programs that have absolutely no worth to anyone. Of course, the programs have some value. That isn’t the question. These groups almost always started their pitch with: we know we need to balance the budget, but we shouldn’t do so at the expense of: farmers, teachers, public diplomacy, you name it. So where do we balance it? No one ever had a good answer.
Given the state of our nation’s finances, I always wanted to propose this: in order to keep your funding, you need to nominate one other program that isn’t worthwhile, and advocate for its elimination. Then we’d see if they really cared about balancing the budget and about their favorite government program.
Travel Is Great, But Don’t Force Everyone to Pay For Yours
Like Mr. Grant, I’ve had the opportunity to live overseas, and I agree—it’s a very worthwhile experience, and can change your worldview entirely. It can and should positively affect the view that those you encounter have of the US, if you’re not a complete asshole, anyway. Then it’s probably a net negative, I would guess.
However, from what I saw of those doing cultural exchange programs, participants didn’t really need the government to fund them so they would stop hating Americans, Chinese, Europeans, or anybody else. They seemed like reasonably open-minded individuals with a broad perspective. No doubt they changed people’s views of America as they traveled overseas, or changed Americans’ views of their home countries as they traveled in the US, but so do movies and TV shows and the Kardashians, in much larger numbers.
And if mere interaction were enough to affect people’s views of each other positively, we would never have home-grown terrorists. That’s not to say don’t be a good representative of your country abroad—let’s just be realistic about the scale of the benefits.
The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs received $590 million in FY2016. With a $587 billion budget deficit that same year, it may seem like a drop in the bucket to eliminate or reduce that funding. But if a friend were broke, would you say, “Sure, let’s go out for a steak dinner tonight. You’ve defaulted on all your credit cards and loans, and owe thousands of dollars. What’s 50 more bucks?” It wouldn’t be great advice. You’d probably advise him to only spend on things that are absolute necessities, and most importantly, to develop good habits when it comes to spending.
This Should Be an Easy Cut for an Underwater Government
Mr. Grant says that it’s cheaper to send Peace Corps volunteers than go to war. True, if Peace Corps volunteers could indeed prevent war. Unfortunately, there were Peace Corps volunteers posted in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 70s, in Somalia in the 1960s, and in Iran in the 1960s and 70s. I’m sure a lot of those people did good work, but they didn’t prevent war or anti-American revolutions.
The argument brings to mind these meetings on Capitol Hill that every Congressional staffer is familiar with, when folks would make the rounds and say that for every dollar we spend on this program, we get seven dollars in return, or some equally ridiculous number. Holy smokes! Sign me up as an investor—screw the government funding. I can multiply my money by seven times through your program!? It truly is a miracle that the private sector hasn’t thought to fund it. Or maybe the math you’re doing is fishy…
Good to Mr. Grant for being an ambassador for the American people abroad. I try and do the same every day. But we’re going broke, and we’ve got to start saving somewhere. No longer taking money out of working families’ paychecks to send upper middle-class kids abroad seems like a good place to start.