“Would You Like To Buy A Pen?” She Asked Me

As we approach the self-immolation known as “The Sequester,” I find myself thinking about a woman in West Africa, asking people, “Would you like to buy a pen?”

She was a middle-aged woman, wearing a bright-colored dress. Judging by wear and tear, it may have been the only dress she owned.

She was standing on the steps in front of a small department store, which was selling pens by the dozen. She repeated softly, in French, to passers-by, “Voulez-vous acheter une plume?” And she held up a pen.

I didn’t need a pen, but I did need to know what she was up to. I asked her how much her pen cost. She quoted a fair price. I gave her that much, plus some more. She gave me a pen that I didn’t need. And she had enough money to eat something that day. Or so she said, en francais.

Back to “The Sequester,” the 12% budget cut for the military (leaving aside soldier pay and benefits), and the 9% budget cut for other federal programs (leaving aside Medicare and Social Security). Opponents of The Sequester are focusing on the military cuts. Their theory seems to be that the American public has been signing blank checks made out to “DoD” for so long that there is no way that we’ll stop now. Or maybe they think that we will subliminally translate the words “defense cuts” into “some crazy Arab is going to blow me up” without anyone actually having to say that, much less make the case for it.

I have a nodding acquaintance with polling, so I understand that foreign aid might be the least popular federal program right now, second only to black helicopters. But our immunization program alone saves three million lives each year. Our emergency food assistance program fed more than 66 million starving people last year. Possibly including the lady who sold me that pen.

And the total cost of all that food was equal to one-sixteenth of a new aircraft carrier. In fact, for the cost of one aircraft carrier, we could feed every hungry person in the entire world.

So let’s see. A nine percent cut in the foreign aid budget means that six million more people go hungry. And American taxpayers save 44 cents a month. Not even enough to buy one hamburger.

Further translating this into Americanese, give some thought as to what The Sequester will do to the food stamp program, or the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program. A lot of Americans will be going to bed cold and hungry.

I know that I will never see that lady with the pen again. Even though I remember her, she probably doesn’t remember me – if she is still alive. She is not going to vote for me, and she is not going to contribute to my next campaign. Nor will her relatives, nor will her friends. I’m not sure why I cared whether or not she was hungry, but I did, and I do. It’s just part of being human, I guess.

So here is one argument against The Sequester that you’re not hearing elsewhere – it will cause a lot of pain. A lot of hunger, a lot of disease, a lot of death. I understand that this argument is hopelessly unfashionable, and completely contrary to the zeitgeist of fear and hatred that dominates our political discourse. But there it is, nevertheless. I sure see it. Maybe you do, too.