My idea of patriotism

Read Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column “More schools, Not Troops”.

“For the cost of a single additional soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year, we could build roughly 20 schools there.” This was the premise of Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column on Oct. 28, weighing in on the troop buildup story.

Like everyone else, I’ve heard, and uttered, variations on this guns vs. butter theme, but for some reason, this particular version startled me with its elegance. Perhaps it is because the region offers some stunning real-world examples of how the “guns” end of the equation not only is usually more expensive with questionable results, but that increasing troops actually increases the problem. It’s simple—people do not like being occupied, no matter who does it or why. We added 40,000 troops to Afghanistan over the past year and insurgency increased proportionately, democratic government becoming an ever-more distant fantasy as “elections” are riddled with corruption and fraud. Likewise, Kristof notes, the United States has spent $15 billion on military support for Pakistan, where again political and military instability increases and insurgency and support for the Taliban are on the rise. In contrast, Bangladesh (once a part of Pakistan) has invested heavily in education over the past 30 years, particularly for women, leading to a “virtuous spiral of development, jobs, lower birth rates, education and stability.” Partly because of this, Bangladesh is not a refuge for al-Qaeda and the Taliban the way Pakistan and Afghanistan continue to be, even after eight years of intense American-led intervention.

I know that it’s a little like comparing apples to oranges, but I can’t help thinking that this global issue echoes in our own neighborhood, as well. We spend over $20,000 per prison inmate—for roughly $30,000 we could hire a new teacher (to teach 20 kids). It is so well-known as to be cliché that the more educated a population is, the less inclined to criminality it is (although this cliché is countered in Freakonomics, where Steven Leavitt and Stephen Dubner make the case that the only determining factor in decreased criminality is access to abortion). The broader point is where do we apply our problem-solving energies—do we invest in prevention or retaliation?

Once upon a time, “The American Way,” in both domestic and international arenas, was to invest in education (some might say propaganda). We believed in our institutions of free press, free markets, democracy and guaranteed human rights. With successful programs like the post-WWII Marshall Plan in Germany and Japan, we earnestly promoted these ideologies abroad, convinced that other countries would overthrow their dictatorships and corrupt governments to adopt our civic institutions—and pave the way for more trade for our corporations. Without going into gory historical detail, suffice it to say that those ideals seem naïve, even infantile, by modern standards.

At least to us modern, sophisticated types. There are some out there who picked up on the American Way, even if we abandoned it long ago. That would be the Taliban and other Islamic extremists, who provide free schooling and often free meals for students (boys only, of course).

Fundamentalists educate, the free world sends troops. What’s up with that?

For a fraction of the cost of a “surge,” we could invest in long-term regional stability with a modern version of the Marshall Plan. For a fraction of the cost of more prisons here in Nevada, we could restore our own historic pride in educational excellence. These are truly “conservative” values—as in, conserve and protect what is best about our institutions and these investments will pay off mightily in future returns. That’s my idea of patriotism.