Should Obama cut $8 billion in foreign aid to protect 20 American schoolchildren?

I don't have much to say about NRA chief Wayne LaPierre's remarks about the Newtown shooting. I'll leave that to the domestic guys. But my ears did perk up at this bit:

With all the foreign aid, with all the money in the federal budget, we can't afford to put a police officer in every school? Even if they did that, politicians have no business -- and no authority -- denying us the right, the ability, or the moral imperative to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm.

Grousing about how much taxpayer money goes to foreign aid is one of America's great traditions. But Americans tend to have a wildly exaggerated sense of how much they spend on foreign aid each year. There are many different ways to count, but $50 billion is a good ballpark estimate, when you include military aid and various programs spread across the U.S. federal government. You could also exclude the military stuff and just count the State Department and USAID budgets, which works out to around the same amount. Either way, it's roughly 1 percent of the budget -- not 25 percent, as Americans routinely tell pollsters.

How much would it cost to put "a police officer in every school?" According to economist Justin Wolfers, about $8 billion annually. On average, he says, around 20 kids are killed in schools each year. "Implies: $400m per *potential* kid saved," he tweets.

So, would Americans be willing to take $8 billion out of the annual foreign aid budget and devote it to possibly saving 20 kids per year? I suspect many parents will take that trade, but to a policymaker, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

Oh, and one more thing: Columbine High School had armed guards.


Get up to speed on John Kerry

It seems to be official -- President Barack Obama will nominate Massachusetts senator and fomer presidential candidate John Kerry to be the 68th U.S. secretary of state. We'll have plenty more coverage of Kerry in the days to come, but here are a few pieces to get you started:

James Traub looks at why the administration settled on Kerry to fill Hillary Clinton's shoes.

Historian Douglas Brinkley, who has written extensively on Kerry's Vietnam years, looks at Kerry's very diplomatic upbringing. (For a more critical take, see Gordon Adams on why senators shouldn't run Foggy Bottom.) 

Back in September, Kerry weighed in at FP with his thoughts on the GOP's foreign policy. The article previewed his own pugnacious address at the Democratic convention in Charlotte.

If you're interested in what Kerry's been up to in recent years, see Traub's July 2011 New York Times Magazine profile, which follows the senator on a trip to Afghanistan in Pakistan. In 2010, the National Journal's Michael Hirsh looked at Kerry's growing skepticism on the war in Afghanistan.

As a longtime senator, Kerry obviously has friends on Capitol Hill, but if Republicans are planning attacks on him, they may choose to focus on his work as the Obama administration's point man on engaging Bashar al-Assad's regime -- albeit before the Syrian strongman's brutal response the current uprising. You're likely to hear reference to a March 16, 2011 appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, in which Kerry avoided discussion of Syria entirely during his prepared remarks, then told a questioner, “President Assad has been very generous with me in terms of the discussions we have had."

For general information about Kerry's rise to power, see the seven-part biography prepared by the Boston Globe staff during his 2004 presidential run. Joe Klein's 2002 New Yorker profile also still holds up for its analysis of how Kerry developed his foreign-policy views. 

As Kerry takes on what will almost certainly be the highest position in a remarkable political career, it's also worth taking a look back at how that career began, with his 1971 testimony to Congress on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. It was in that speech that he famously asked, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to dies in Vietnam? How do ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"  

Forty years later, he will be one of the ones tasked with making those decisions, and hopefully, avoiding those mistakes.

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