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Israel and the 'T' Word

When it comes to Israel, certain matters cannot be discussed. And certain words cannot be uttered.

It seems this is the case with the latest “Explainer,” a short feature on Slate.com that explains complex things in the news for average readers.

“Explainer” is a good feature, illuminating the arcana of bureaucracy, why a bill stalled in Congress or how some machine works.

But the “Explainer” featured on Aug. 6, which answered the question, “What are Israel’s loan guarantees?” left out two important words: “American taxpayer.”

A Loan Guarantee

The short piece was published on the occasion of an apparent and likely empty threat to reduce Israel’s loan guarantees, but whatever happens on that count, they are easily understood. As “Explainer” explained it, “a loan guarantee is essentially the same thing whether you’re buying a car, an apartment, or housing materials for Soviet immigrants.

“A reliable financial entity (a bank, your parents, the United States) promises to pay off the balance of a loan if the borrower cannot. So when Congress promises Israel $9 billion in loan guarantees (as they did this year), that means the U.S. government accepts responsibility for up to $9 billion that Israel can then borrow from international creditors.”

Guarantees aren’t supposed to cost the United States “a cent,” Explainer reported, because Israel should pay off its loans. But Israel is so deeply indebted, these guarantees might actually leave the United States holding a $9 billion bag.

Throughout the explanation, you read about “the United States.”

The Missing Word

But never the American taxpayer. The “T” word is conspicuously missing.

It is missing from most discussions of government spending, and the Explainer, an assistant professor at Princeton, might likely reply that “taxpayer” is understood in context. Maybe so for the average Slate reader, who is probably quite bright and politically attuned.

But it’s doubtful the rabble understands that when the United States guarantees loans, taxpayers put up the money. If you explained loan guarantees the way Slate explained them, the average taxpayer mightn’t make the connection. “I’m on the hook for that?” he would ask. Even if he understood who paid the guarantees without being told, that loan guarantees even exist might be a revelation.

Ditto for the Export-Import Bank, a corporate welfare agency that “lends” money to foreign countries to buy American products.

Or the national endowment for the arts and humanities. “I’m paying for bullwhips and bean sprouts and novels?” a taxpayer would ask.

Maybe Jay Leno should make some inquiries on his hilarious “Jaywalking” feature, where he asks pedestrians easy questions about American history, or shows pictures of famous Americans his hapless and stupid victims cannot identify.

A Solid Guarantee

It is unsurprising we never hear “taxpayer” in discussions of government spending. The less they are reminded they are robbed, the better.

But if we want to know what kind of spending the average American wants, or what they think of Washington’s explanation for it, let’s put questions on the quadrennial national ballot:

“Should taxpayers guarantee new loans for Israel, given that Israel has borrowed money it has yet to repay?”

Another: “Should taxpayers guarantee loans for, lend money or give foreign aid to any country that defaults on loans, or even countries that don’t?

A third: “Should taxpayers subsidize artists and novelists, particularly those who produce pornography?”

Guaranteed, taxpayers would vote correctly: “No.”

August 9, 2003

Syndicated columnist R. Cort Kirkwood [send him mail] is managing editor of the Daily News-Record in Harrisonburg, Va.

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