A friend was recently debating the question of whether or not the U.S. is generous with foreign aid. One of his colleagues pointed to data that show the U.S. giving less “official development assistance”, as a percentage of GDP, compared to other countries (various charts, most of which make the U.S. look stingy compared to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, et al). My friend commented that the U.S. is actually the most generous country because our enormous military efforts benefit many other nations. For example, we discourage wars and keep shipping lanes open (except off the coast of Somalia!). Our military also shows up in other nations when disaster strikes. This costs a huge percentage of our GDP but isn’t counted as foreign aid per se.
Some of the most valuable assistance that we provide to other nations is not accounted for either in military or foreign aid spending. For example, we have spent a high percentage of GDP on funding scientific research that is published and available to anyone worldwide who can afford the price of a journal subscription. We have spent our tax dollars on standards such as TCP/IP that can be used at no charge by people worldwide. A lot of free Web services, such as Wikipedia, Hotmail, Yahoo!, and Gmail, were built and are run by Americans. A foreigner who learns from Wikipedia and uses Gmail has received very useful aid.
Why not come up with an accounting measure for how our military, scientific research, and Internet offerings benefit people in other nations? Then we can feel good about ourselves without spending (i.e., borrowing) more money.
[I guess we’d have to make sure that we didn’t ask unhappy Iraqis or Afghanis contribute to this project because they would be likely to put in a negative column for a lot of the stuff that our military does!]