President Trump has proposed $50 billion in aid to Palestinians as part of what his administration has called “the deal of the century” peace plan.

The Palestinians don’t seem much interested.

The plan — overseen by son-in-law Jared Kushner — calls for ten years of spending to build a new Palestinian economy.

The Associated Press reports: “The plan foresees more than doubling the Palestinian gross domestic product, reducing the Palestinian poverty rate by 50 percent and cutting the sky-high Palestinian unemployment rate to nearly single digits.”

The plan says it would fund 179 economic development projects, only a few of which are described specifically, but which generally fall in the “healthcare, education, power, water, high-tech, tourism and agriculture sectors.” Among those identified are upgrading power lines from Egypt into Gaza and a high-speed rail system linking the West Bank and Gaza.

None of this may matter because the Palestinians have rejected the plan. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says there’s no point talking about economic issues as long as political issues remain unresolved. The Washington Post editorial page indelicately called the proposal a “bribe.”

A few observations from afar — and eventually a connection between the West Bank and Southwest Virginia.

First, $50 billion is a lot of money, especially coming from an administration that hasn’t been keen on foreign aid. However, if $50 billion could buy peace in that troubled part of the world, it might well be worth it.

Second, it’s odd that the Trump administration would want to spend money on a high-speed rail system in the Mideast since the president has been very down on high-speed rail in this country.

Third, if that $50 billion isn’t going to the Mideast, where else could it go?

Here’s where we engage in a thought experiment. Now, there’s always a danger with these kinds of experiments. After all, we can realistically say if this money doesn’t go to the Palestinians it’ll go somewhere else. The fine print of this proposal shows that not all of it would be coming from the American government. Instead, $11 billion would come from “private capital.” This seems more aspirational than actual. Just because those theoretical investors have an interest in Mideast peace doesn’t necessarily mean they’d have an interest in Alternative Project A.

Let’s not quibble over details, though. Let’s just look at it this way: If $50 billion of economic development projects in the Mideast could build a new economy and buy peace, what would $50 billion in economic development investment buy elsewhere?

Well, it might go a long way toward rebuilding three failed states in Central America whose collapse has prompted mass migration to United States — El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Building a wall won’t change the fundamental dynamics behind migration; restoring civil order to those states would.

It could certainly pay for a new energy grid and new schools in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, and still have money left over — although not for long. Puerto Rico catches our eye because of the Trump plan’s intention to upgrade the Palestinian electric grid. Puerto Rico needs that, too. The governor there estimates the cost at $26 billion, with another $15 billion for new school construction. That’s not all Puerto Rico needs, though. Last year, Gov. Ricardo Rossello estimated the total cost of rebuilding the island at $139 billion. Instead, it’s gotten $11 billion and Trump has called some of that “excessive.”

All politics is local, though, and ultimately here’s the question we’re curious about: What if the U.S. spent $50 billion on building a new economy in a part of the country that’s been left behind for generations? What if the U.S. spent $50 billion on Appalachia?

The $50 billion figure is curious because a few years ago — three years ago, to be precise — there was a proposal to spend $30 billion on Appalachia. It came from a certain Hillary Clinton, who issued a 14-point plan to “make coal communities an engine of U.S. economic growth in the 21st century.” It was also a plan she never talked about except for her mangled line about putting a lot of miners out of work, but let’s not get into all that.

When we wrote about it at the time, we asked U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, what he thought and got an interesting answer: “If it’s a plan I thought would work, I might endorse the plan,” he said. He also said the $30 billion figured sounded realistic if the goal was to build a new economy in Appalachia. He also warned: “I’m afraid they want to make it look like they’re helping, but if they haven’t figured out how to get big manufacturing in there . . . it’s not a plan.” It wasn’t a plan, by the way; it read like what it was — a vague campaign wish list.

Still, if a Republican congressman thought in 2016 that $30 billion was realistic, well, maybe our $50 billion thought experiment isn’t completely crazy. Now consider this: $50 billion would be more than double what’s already been spent on Appalachia. Since its founding in 1965, the Appalachian Regional Commission has spent $23 billion. It’s been an unheralded success, too: The number of high-poverty counties has been cut from 295 to 90. The percentage of high school graduates has doubled; Appalachian students now graduate at the same rate as the rest of the nation. The infant mortality rate has been cut by two-thirds. But the region’s economy remains out of sync with the new information-based economy. What could $50 billion do? Well, it depends on how these dollars were spent, of course. What if we wired Appalachian with $50 billion of the fastest broadband possible? What if we spent $50 billion on making community college or even four-year college free for every resident of the Appalachian region – provided they agreed to stay for, say, at least four years? Or, heck, eight years? That might give Appalachian the best-educated rural workforce in the country. Would that make the region more attractive to tech companies? What if . . . well, there are lots of things we could do. The reality, of course, is we’ll never see that $50 billion. Still, this seems a worthwhile thought experiment for this reason: What could we do, that we could actually afford, that would fundamentally transform the region’s economy? That, some might say, is the $50 billion question.

Load comments