Monday, September 22, 2008

How About a Different Kind of Rescue Plan?

By William Fisher

I know, I know. I’m supposed to be writing about Hank Paulson’s “rescue” plan, or the wisdom of sending more troops to Afghanistan, or the first presidential debate, or fact-checking the misstatements of the candidates.

But sometimes, less is more. The story that goes un-noticed and under-reported can often illuminate a much broader issue and provide insights at multiple levels.

Such a story appeared a couple of weeks ago in the online edition of the Los Angeles Times – and, to the best knowledge of me and Google – in less than a handful of other publications.

It caught my attention because it came on the heels of the “ServiceNation Summit” at Columbia University, where Senators McCain and Obama – appearing separately – presented their views on public service and civic engagement in post-9/11 America.

No surprises here. Predictably, both declared they were all in favor of more public service and more civic engagement.

Good. Now suppose you were motivated to actually do something to show your commitment to public service? Like joining the Peace Corps, for example.

Well, you would discover that the Peace Corps is planning to cut 400 volunteer positions. You would discover that Corps missions in many under-developed countries were being forced to assign one person to do the work of two. And you would further discover that, with fewer spots, an increasing number of Corps volunteers who were expecting to begin service this fall were seeing their deployments delayed at least until next year -- and in some cases indefinitely.

The reason is the agency’s $18 million budget shortfall. That shortfall, according to the LA times, is the declining value of the dollar and increased food and fuel costs worldwide. The Corps, which has a budget of $330.8 million, estimates its foreign-currency losses from 2008 alone to be $9.2 million.

Worse, the Corps’ budget for fiscal 2009 has not yet been passed. The House Appropriations subcommittee that sets Peace Corps funding has supported the Bush Administration’s request for $343.5 million, and its Senate counterpart has approved $337 million. But until Congress passes that budget -- which could be delayed until after the presidential inauguration in January -- the agency must operate at its existing funding levels.

Now, why do I think this is important? Surely, when we’re spending $10 billion a month in Iraq, we shouldn’t get apoplectic over an amount that our elected officials in Washington would regard as chump change!

This missing $18 million is important because yet again it reminds us that the fiscal policies of the Bush Administration have immediate and practical consequences. Like when the dollar – once considered the world’s preeminent currency – finds itself in continuous and sustained decline, as it has over these past seven-plus years. The reasons behind our shrinking dollar are numerous and complex, but most economists agree that a major contributor is the world’s expectations of weaker U.S. growth and stronger overseas economies. And since most of the world’s commodities – including oil – are denominated in U.S. dollars, the dollar’s declining value pushes up the prices of these essentials. For all of us, including the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps’ budget shortfall is also important because of what it tells us about the priorities of the White House and of Congress. There is no way I can be persuaded that our elected officials have to wait until the next Administration takes over to find $18 million. This is not a matter of budgetary procedures or of Congressional rules. And it’s not related to our current financial sector meltdown.

This is a simple matter of political will. If today’s Peace Corps had anything close to the powerful Beltway “rabbis” it once had, the missing $18 million could be found tomorrow – no, this afternoon. Maybe the solution would be to build just one less bridge to nowhere.

But there is a third, and arguably the most compelling, argument for fully funding the Peace Corps: It is one of our pitifully few foreign policy success stories. There could be no more powerful message about America than volunteers flying off to work in often hostile and dangerous places with no agenda other than helping the less fortunate.

When John F. Kennedy launched the Peace Corps in 1961, I was a very junior member of his administration. I was perhaps too inexperienced to fully appreciate the enormous potency of low-profile person-to-person public diplomacy. Back then, I had never heard of “soft power,” but nonetheless I had the sense that this was an initiative whose impact would far exceed its cost. And a program our country would come to be proud of.

The Peace Corps began in the heady Camelot days of JFK’s presidency. But, unlike Camelot, it was never about mythology. It was real. It was as practical and down-in-the-weeds as any government program can get. It fed on and brought out the best values of Americans and America.

Since then, the Corps hasn’t disappointed. Over its forty-seven years, some 190,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries. Today, there are 8,079 volunteers working in 74 countries. They still dig wells to bring fresh water to poor villages in the middle of nowhere. They still work with subsistence farmers to improve crop yields and stave off famines. They still advise expectant mothers about pre- and post-natal care. They still teach kids in one-room schools with dirt floors. And, more recently, they work to transfer entrepreneurial skills to microbusiness ideas the local banks don’t want to hear about.

In a world in which the United States finds itself with ever-fewer friends, the Peace Corps continues to forge bonds that last for decades and strengthen over time. It presents an alternative image of America to its recipients and to the countries they live in. It creates friends. And friends become allies.

So when Messrs. McCain and Obama extol the merits of public service and exhort us to become participants, they and we ought to be sure that $18 million doesn’t stand between our best instincts and the opportunity to serve.