USA Spends 5x More on Snacks and Beer than on Ukraine

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Persistent Foreign-Aid Myths Man in a diner (Robert Nickelsberg / Getty)

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The Washington Post sent a reporter to a diner in Shreveport, Louisiana, last week to talk with voters in the district represented by the new speaker of the House, Mike Johnson. And wouldn’t you know it, they were very happy to see him become speaker, including one voter in the diner who—imagine the luck—just happened to be Mike Johnson’s mother. “God did this,” Jeanne Johnson said of her son’s ascension to the speakership.

I have my doubts about God’s participation in American elections, but she’s a proud mom, and understandably so. She told the reporter that Johnson “began leading as a child,” stepping up at a young age to help the family. That’s nice; my mom, God rest her soul, used to say nice things about me too.

The rest of the article included predictable discussions with the local burghers who hope we can finally overcome all this nastiness in our politics—there is no apparent awareness of how all that unpleasantness got started—and get to work and solve problems under the leadership of an obviously swell guy. (In fact, we are told he even calmed an angry voter at a town hall. Amazing.) Johnson, of course, also voted to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and has many views that would have been considered retrograde by most Americans even 30 years ago, but gosh darn it, people in Shreveport sure seem to like him.

I remain astonished that so much of the media remain committed to covering Donald Trump and sedition-adjacent extremists such as Johnson as if they are normal American politicians. But while Americans pretend that all is well, the rest of the world is busily going about its terrifying business, which is why one comment in the Post article jumped out at me.

“Politics here is personal,” according to Celeste Gauthier, 45. (The Post, for some reason, notes that Gauthier attended Middlebury College for a time—perhaps as a clumsy way of trying to tell us she’s not merely some rough local, and that she returned from Vermont to help run her family’s three restaurants.) She is concerned:

“People really do look at the funding we’re sending to Israel and Ukraine and say, ‘I can’t afford to go to Kroger,’” Gauthier said as she sat amid the lunchtime crowd, some of whom she said had stopped buying beverages because of the cost. “A lot of these customers know Mike Johnson and think we often get overlooked and maybe we won’t anymore,” she said.

I’m not sure what it means to be “overlooked” in a cherry-red district in a state where, as the Post notes, Republicans will control all three branches of state government once the conservative governor-elect is sworn in, but the comment about foreign aid is a classic expression of how little people understand about the subject.

Perhaps Gauthier or others believe that the new speaker—who has been opposed to sending aid to Ukraine—would redirect the money back to “overlooked” Louisianans, maybe as increased aid to the poor. He wouldn’t, of course, as he has already proposed huge cuts in social spending. As for Israel, evangelical Christians such as Johnson have a special interest in Israel for their own eschatological reasons, and Johnson has already decided to decouple aid to Israel from aid to Ukraine. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—whose understanding of foreign policy is practically Churchillian compared with Johnson’s—is none too happy about that.

Let’s review some important realities.

First, foreign aid is about 1 percent of the U.S. budget, roughly $60 billion. Special appropriations to Ukraine have, over the course of 18 months, added up to about $75 billion, including both humanitarian aid and weapons. Israel—a far smaller country that has, over the past 70 years, cumulatively received more foreign aid from the United States than from any other country—usually gets about $3 billion, but Joe Biden now wants to add about $14 billion to that.

That’s a lot of money. To put it in perspective, however, Americans forked over about $181 billion annually on snacks, and $115 billion for beer last year. (They also shell out about $7 billion annually just for potato chips. The snack spending is increasing, perhaps because Americans now spend about $30 billion on legal marijuana every year.) Americans also ante up a few bucks here and there on legal sports gambling, and by “a few” I mean more than $220 billion over the past five years.

I know suds and weed and sports books and pretzels are more fun than helping Ukrainians stay alive. And I know, too, that supposedly small-government conservatives will answer: It’s none of your damn business what Americans are spending their money on.

They’re right—up to a point. But we are, in theory, adults who can establish sensible priorities. We pay taxes so that the federal government can do things that no other level of government can achieve, and national security is one of them. Right now, the Russian army—the greatest threat to NATO in Europe—is taking immense losses on a foreign battlefield for a total investment that (as of this moment) is less than one-tenth of the amount we spend on defense in a single year. This is the spending Mike Johnson is so worried about?

Of course, we might repeat one more time that much of the food and weapons and other goods America sends to places like Israel and Ukraine are actually made by Americans. And yet many Republican leaders (and their propaganda arm at Fox and other outlets) continue to talk about aid as if some State Department phantom in a trench coat meets the president of Ukraine or the prime minister of Israel in an alley and hands over a metal briefcase filled with neatly wrapped stacks of bills.

We need to stop asking people in diners about foreign aid. (Populists who demand that we rely on guidance from The People should remember that most Americans think foreign aid should be about 10 percent of the budget—a percentage those voters think would be a reduction but would actually be a massive increase.) Instead, put our national leaders on the spot to explain what they think foreign aid is, where it goes, and what it does, and then call them out, every time, when they spin fantasies about it. Otherwise, legislators such as Johnson will be able to sit back and let the folks at the pie counter believe that he’s going to round up $75 billion and send it back home.

That’s an old and dumb trope, but it works. If you’re a Republican in Congress, and if you can stay in Washington by convincing people at the diner that you’re going to take cash from Ukrainians (wherever they are) and give it back to the hardworking waitress pouring your coffee, then you do it—because in this new GOP, your continued presence in Washington is more important than anything, including the security of the United States.