Why Memes on Foreign Policy Annoy Me

I recently saw a couple of memes pop up on my feed, related to foreign policy. In fact, such memes regularly pop up, especially when news headlines mention  incidences or problems overseas. They all had one or two themes in common, why are we spending so much on other countries when we have so many problems at home or the US is an evil aggressor. On the surface, such memes, with their striking images and snappy phrases, can seem like powerful and profound statements of truth. The person who made them must be “woke”….”so woke”. But it’s often not that simple.  More often than not these images relay an incomplete and simplified picture at best, and a blatantly false one at their worst. I’d like to take this article to discuss some of the types of memes I see, and the problems with the way they simplify the issues we face. Let’s start with this one:

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For one, such statements assume that money is the answer to the woes veterans face. It isn’t always.  I can tell you that from first hand experience. I am a veteran with a disability rating from the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs). From the time I left the military to the time my claim was processed was just over 12 months. At the time, there was a nation-wide backlog of adjudication on disability claims. The plight of many veterans that resulted from long waits came to light and politicians (including the President) pushed the VA to fix the situation. I soon received a notice to see a physician to re-evaluate my case.

When I saw the physician, she told me “I don’t know why they’re bringing all these cases all of a sudden. We’ve been working regular days with barely any patients for the last year. All of a sudden, we’re working 12+ hour days because the higher-ups mandated clearing cases. I don’t see why we couldn’t just see a steady stream for the last year.” Now, there are several reasons for this. For one, the Department of Defense medical filing system does not connect with the VA medical filing system. So when Veterans are discharged, they literally have to have their entire file printed and it has to be manually entered into the VA system by administrators. As you can probably imagine, this placed a large administrative burden on the VA, and was a big part of what resulted in the backlog. That, least that was true as of 2011, which was around the time of the backlog that affected me. So was the problem more $$ or lack of foresight and judicial use of tax payer dollars by the government when they implemented two systems and didn’t plan to integrate them? I vote the latter.

Another issue is ethics. When demand for services increased and resulted in longer wait times, administrators lied about it. That caused suffering (and deaths) of many thousands of veterans, the exact number of the former being difficult to calculate.

Now again, this can be attributed to a couple of different factors. One, they didn’t want to own up to it because they were assholes. Two, there was a culture of punishment that discouraged accurate reporting by blaming the VA administrators instead of providing them accurate resources. But in either case the problem was that VA administrators and doctors lied about wait times, causing a delay in action.

There are many other examples like this on a much larger scale, not the least of which Medicare not being allowed to bargain for pricing with Pharma companies. That can save tens of millions of dollars that can go towards providing more care. Remember Pharma Bro Martin Shkreli who raised the price of Diaprim from $13.50 a pill to $750? He hiked prices because he knew Medicare would pay. And they still do. It’s literally against the law for Medicare to negotiate down drug prices.

Now, am I saying we don’t need money to help veterans and Medicare recipients? No. What I AM saying is that it wouldn’t necessarily solve the issues at hand. That has been as much an issue of poor government choices and the inability to effectively deal with the issues.

The “keep money at home” logic also implies that other countries take priority for funds over our own people. This is simply not true. Here’s a snapshot of the 2016 budget:

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As you can see, an OVERWHELMING majority of tax payer dollars go to programs that directly benefit US citizens. The rest go to things that indirectly benefit us. Part of that is Foreign Policy. Which brings me to the next meme I’d like to discuss.

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Let’s start with the definition of Foreign Policy:

A policy pursued by a nation in its dealings with other nations, designed to achieve national objectives.
— http://www.dictionary.com/browse/foreign-policy

Our national objectives aren’t just defined by some bureaucratic document in some storage cabinet in the state department. No, our national objectives are defined by your possessions - what YOU own and what YOU use. Those things are, in turn, defined/limited by what YOU can afford. In other words, they’re defined by consumers and their choices.  Yes, that smart phone in your pocket is as much a foreign policy objective as the car you drive or the house you live in, the clothes your wear, etc. It’s about YOU. We can blame “big companies” and “corrupt politicians” all we want. But at the end of the day they’re vying for your votes and your money. So we, as individuals, have a lot more power than we think.

In order to make things affordable, or make things in general, the government needs to create an environment in the world that’s conducive to American commerce. In fact, that’s every governments responsibility to its citizens. We don’t always get it right (think Iraq and Afghanistan, even Vietnam). But there ARE numerous successes; in fact more successes than failures. Rather than list our military victories and repeat the lectures and diatribes about "big company hiring practices" of so many other people, I’d like to talk about my own experience and how it relates to US foreign policy.

I work for a faucet and sink manufacturer. The company was started by 2 people. They purchased manufactured goods in China (a country Nixon opened for trade, and our largest trading partner) and sold them online in the US. It sold (and still sells) through many on-line retailers. One of them is Amazon, which has a million-square foot warehouse a few towns away from our hundred thousand square foot warehouse, that employs thousands of employees. That’s one of 52 of such warehouses that we ship our goods to across the country, when they buy our items for stock so they can sell them with 2-day shipping (using the post office to do so). A few years back, we expanded to purchasing from South Korea (which the US ensured was free in the Korean war and stayed free after by stationing 50k troops there) and also India (who, over the past 50 years has received more financial aid than Israel). We recently began to purchase products from Poland (where the US is increasing presence to protect from Russian aggression) and even evaluated production facilities in Italy, Israel and Vietnam. 

Recently, the company decided to take advantage of the European Union’s standardized trade rules and began selling in Germany (think post WWII occupation and stabilization efforts along with bases today that protect from Russian aggression) and the UK (also a beneficiary of US policy in western Europe). The company now plans to begin sales in Australia, which has also been a beneficiary of US foreign policy efforts over the years. Last but not least, it sells in China. Yes, THAT China. The money we make from those sales funds our operations in the US, where a majority of our employees are located. The increased sales have, in turn, allowed to hire more people in the states. So goes the cycle. It isn’t a zero-sum game. In other words every dollar spent on Foreign policy IS NOT a dollar taken out of US citizen’s pocket. It might even be the contrary. Is it perfect? No. Is the job market changing? Yes. But it isn’t all doom and gloom.

The company now directly employs 60 people in the US – graphic designers, warehouse employees, office administrators, customer service agents and marketing professionals. It offers benefits packages including  health insurance, paid time off, and 401k. We use shipping carriers to ship 100% of our products in and around the country and to Canada. We also subcontract to a company that provides us with sales representatives all over the US. We use cleaning services, lease vans,  hire HVAC techs, electricians, phone and alarm companies.  All of these subcontractors hire employees in the US to do work. It isn’t just trickle-down economics (I hate that term). It’s fact. If you’ve ever seen an HVAC technician’s or an electrician’s bill for services on a commercial property, you’d know.

“But those fucking countries are taking jobs away from us”.  

Here’s a graph of unemployment data for the last 30 years.

Notice today’s unemployment is less than what it was in 1978, when Deng Xiaoping opened the door for foreign businesses to conduct business in China. Now, you may question the way unemployment rate is calculated by the DOL, but it’s a fairly consistent indicator of trends at the very least. If you insist on another source (which you rightfully should) here’s the graph for labor force participation for the same time period.

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So even though it dropped during the financial crisis, it’s on the rebound, and the numbers are STILL higher than they were in the seventies. The article includes various other measures of employment so you can compare and draw your own conclusions.

Be that as it may, employment statistics aren’t likely to console factory workers who’ve lost their jobs to Mexico as plants in the US have closed; or IT and Customer Service specialists who’ve lost jobs to India. There’s no denying that it puts people in a bad position, to say the least. They can’t just up and go to school for a year to learn a new trade. So they have to either take whatever job they can get in their hometown, move (not exactly a cheap option) or live off their savings (if they have any) and hope for the best. It’s incredibly unfortunate for them. But to say that we’re losing jobs as an overall trend because of globalization is simply not true. Instead, we’re changing the way jobs are created and the types of jobs available. Therefore, people who lose jobs to outsourcing would benefit more from career transition assistance from their government, rather than a closed door foreign policy.

Then there’s THIS meme, and others like it.

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First of all, it implies that we gave $100 billion to Saudi Arabia. That’s false. We allowed our corporations to sell arms to them, and to continue selling for 10 years. So Saudi Arabia is actually giving US money. Now, you may say “corporations are evil” and “the money will go to just a few rich people”. You can also make the argument that arms sales are immoral and a cynical way to produce job growth and stability. Sure. But think about this – the companies involved are Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and Boeing. They have manufacturing facilities all over the United States and employ several hundred thousand people – aircraft mechanics, engineers, office administrators etc. In fact, the largest manufacturing plant in the WORLD is located in Washington state and belongs to Boeing. That doesn’t even include the hundreds if not thousands of subcontractors these companies use (as opposed to the handful the company I work for uses) who also employ US workers. A lot of the manufacturing plants are in areas that wouldn’t otherwise have employment for the people living in them. So, the entire premise of meme’s like this are just wrong. The money definitely comes back to this country and benefits “every day” Americans in the way of supporting jobs.

Now to be clear, I’m not ignoring the economic issues facing our country:

  • Growing wealth gap
  • Wage stagnation
  • Cost of health care
  • Cost of education - this is a HUGE one because more and more jobs that ARE available require an education
  • Outsourcing of jobs that CAN be filled by US workers

Neither do I intend to ignore the moral implications of our foreign policy efforts.

  • We are selling weapons that are used to kill human beings  
  • We buy oil from Saudi Arabia, money of which has been traced to terrorist ties
  • Our trade imbalance with China and their increasing aggression on the world’s stage
  • European countries’ reluctance to pay for their own defense 
  • India and other developing countries we provide aid to suffer from debilitating poverty and employees are paid pennies on the dollar

I get it. I understand that these and a myriad of other challenges face us. I’m simply pointing out that international relations can’t be boiled down to of “fuck them, keep the money here”. US foreign policy, however imperfect, still benefits the average American a lot more than people realize. At the very least, it’s more complex than can be summed up in two selective phrases and a picture - that's propaganda at it's worst.