A letter to the editor in today’s Washington Post (scroll down to the second letter on this page) infuriated me beyond words.  People have a right to offer their opinion, however ill-informed, in a democracy.  Nobody, however, has a right to basically lie outright.  Yet James L. Henry, chairman of USA Maritime managed to get a letter to the editor published that did just that.

Henry was responding to the column “5 Myths About Foreign Aid” in which the author, John Norris, the executive director of the sustainable security program at the Center for American Progress quite rightly noted:

Congress mandates that 75 percent of all U.S. international food aid be shipped aboard U.S. flagged vessels — ships registered in the United States. A study by several researchers at Cornell University concluded that this subsidy of elite U.S. shipping companies cost American taxpayers $140 million in unnecessary transportation costs during 2006 alone.

The Government Accountability Office noted that between 2006 and 2008, U.S. food aid funding increased by nearly 53 percent, but the amount of food delivered actually decreased by 5 percent. Why? Because our food aid policies are swayed by an agribusiness lobby that stresses buying American, not buying cheaply.

Both of these points are well-documented.  But Henry, chair of the interest group that protects the US shipping industry from competition in the delivery of food aid, really doesn’t want you to know this.  Instead, he argues:

The reality is that cargo preference adds no additional cost to foreign aid programs and should be credited with sustaining an essential national defense sealift capability.

Cargo preference does not divert one dollar away from food aid programs. To the extent that cargo preference increases costs, the difference has been reimbursed by the Transportation Department. For example, reimbursements resulted in a $128 million net increase in available food aid funding in 2006. The Transportation Department reimburses these costs because a reliable U.S.-flag commercial fleet provides essential sealift capacity in times of war or national emergencies.

The language here is very careful – technically, he is not lying.  But by no means is his explanation meant to help the reader understand what is going on.  In arguing that “cargo preference does not divert one dollar away from food aid programs,” he fails to point out that the cost of cargo preference is built into existing budgets . . . it is part of existing food aid programs, and therefore technically does not divert money from them.  But this, of course, is not what Norris meant in his “5 myths” piece, nor is it what most people care about.  The simple fact of the matter is that more of the food aid budget could go to procuring food if the cargo preference requirement was dropped.  Period.

Second, if we read these two paragraphs carefully, we find that Henry is engaged in one of the more carefully phrased but entertainingly contradictory bits of writing I have ever seen.  Pay attention, now: in the first paragraph, he argues that “cargo preference adds no additional cost to foreign aid programs.”  In the second, he notes “To the extent that cargo preference increases costs, the difference has been reimbursed by the Transportation Department.” OK, first, let’s note that he just admitted that cargo preference does increase costs.  Second, he is technically correct – the burden of those costs is shifted outside foreign aid programs . . . to the Transportation Department.  Which is funded by the same tax dollars as foreign aid.  Basically, he is arguing that their taxpayer-funded subsidy/reimbursement should not be seen as having any impact on taxpayer-funded foreign relief operations.  Even though these are the same tax dollars, in the end.

Technically all true.  Clearly intended to deceive.  So, WaPo, how do you feel about publishing letters from poverty/disaster profiteers?