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Compassion for $500B

On Sunday, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama will participate in a “Compassion Forum.” I am reasonably certain this is for real and not a Saturday Night Live gag. John Edwards will grade each participant’s answers on a scale of Scrooge to Gandhi. (Okay, that part I made up.) The topics for the compassion fest will include poverty, global AIDS, climate change, and human rights. (No word on if Obama will be quizzed as to whether he agrees with Rev. Wright about the origins of AIDS.)

Why do I sneer? These are, after all, terribly serious and pressing issues. But the premise of the forum, and others like it, is ridiculously condescending. We are led to believe that the reason these problems exist is because we are insufficiently compassionate. What we need is to increase our collective “compassion footprint.” That would solve all these knotty problems. Compassion, of course, invariably means dollars and dollars means government dollars. And so the conversation dissolves into an auction with taxpayers money. (“Hillary pledges $300B for poverty!” “Obama says he’s in for $450B on global AIDS!”)

Not only does this simplify to the point of absurdity the critical issues we face, it distracts from very real solutions that would make a difference. Will one of the participants tell the crowd that surest way to avoid poverty in the U.S. is for young people to stay in school and off drugs, avoid law-breaking, and hold down a job? Probably not. Rarely in these settings does compassion entail taking a tough line with our adversaries. Will someone ask if we show compassion to Cuban political prisoners by meeting with their jailer? Probably not.

“Compassion” in a forum like this is a very special kind of compassion. It, of course, does not extend to Iraqi civilians or any discussion of the moral obligations we may have incurred there. And don’t dare bring up compassion for the struggling democracies around the world that would be helped by something as mutually beneficial as free trade. (Think trade with the U.S. might help alleviate poverty in the Third World? You must be crazy.) That would be off topic, you see. We’re talking about the kind of compassion that complacent liberals can get excited about.

Aside from all that, it’s worth asking whether, on a political level, this even helps voters decide between the two Democratic contenders. Given that both are utterly expert at pandering, especially when it involves spending taxpayer money, I would think not. But I bet they both mention John Edwards more than once (not in a hedge fund-McMansion way but in the little-girl-with-no-coat sense) in one last push to snare his endorsement. That, at least, would be productive.