In Tuesday night’s Republican presidential candidates debate, Rick Perry defended spending money to build infrastructure in Afghanistan. But not in the U.S. (More)

In response to an audience question, Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) said the U.S. should remain in Afghanistan, so we can “continue to help them build the infrastructure that they need, whether it’s schools for young women like yourself, or otherwise.”

This is the same Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) who said in response to President Obama’s proposed American Jobs Act:

President Obama’s call for nearly a half-trillion dollars in more government stimulus when America has more than $14 trillion in debt is guided by his mistaken belief that we can spend our way to prosperity.

Like the president’s earlier $800 billion stimulus program, this proposal offers little hope for millions of Americans who have lost jobs on his watch, and taxpayers who are rightly concerned that their children will inherit a mountain of debt.

America needs jobs, smaller government, less spending and a president with the courage to offer more than yet another speech.

Those statements sound hypocritical, and they are. But not in the obvious way that leaps to mind. In fact those two statements are entirely consistent … if your objectives are building U.S. approval in Afghanistan and building GOP approval in the U.S.

We’ll discuss Dr. Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy starting tomorrow in Morning Feature but a key to Dr. Frank’s thesis is the concept of positional spending: spending to advance the relative status of an individual or group. Dr. Frank uses the example of arms races, where countries spend huge sums of money to build or buy better weapons, but not better toasters. Having better weapons greatly advances a country’s status relative to rivals, while having better toasters advances a country’s relative status very little, if at all.

Likewise with better infrastructure. Helping build another country’s infrastructure can greatly advance your status, relative to rivals, in that other country. The Marshall Plan was more about advancing U.S. status, relative to the Soviet Union, than about humanitarian concern for war-torn Europe. China’s current investments in Africa are more about advancing China’s status, relative to the U.S. and Europe, than about humanitarian concern for impoverished Africans.

Governor Perry supports spending federal money to build schools and roads in Afghanistan because he hopes that will advance U.S. status in Afghanistan, relative to the Taliban and other regional and global rivals. But spending federal money to build better schools and roads in the U.S. advances our status much less, relative to other nations. We may gain some advantage in making our economy more efficient and competitive, and that may advance our relative status somewhat. But the Chinese, Germans, Indians, or Brazilians are not likely to say “Americans have such great schools and roads, we should follow their lead.”

Even worse – from a Republican perspective – spending federal money to build better schools and roads here in the U.S. would advance the institutional status of government, relative to private enterprise. More Americans might think “Y’know, government actually can make our lives better,” and that flies in the face of current Republican ideology.

As we’ll discuss starting tomorrow, Dr. Frank’s research suggests people and groups will spend lavishly on goods and services that advance their relative status, at the expense of goods and services that do not advance relative status. That’s why we as individuals spend tens of thousands on a Prius or Leaf, yet put off upgrading the insulation in our attics. That’s why we as a nation spend billions for bombs, yet hold bake sales for schools.

And that’s why Gov. Perry wants to spend federal money to build schools and roads in Afghanistan … but worries about a “mountain of debt” if President Obama proposes to do that here at home.