The Closet Moderate: Exit, pursued by a pig

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Exit, pursued by a pig

Our new efficient, rational, and scientific government has recently passed an omnibus spending bill. According to our colleagues in the real news media, it contains some 8,500 earmarks. The folks at Taxpayers for Common Sense put the figure at 8,570, but they're still counting.* The Heritage Foundation calls it 9,287. Clearly, more funding needs to be appropriated just to pay someone to count them.

I'm not terribly surprised that the new boss is the same as the old boss, but pork spending does get to me. One of my fellow bloggards once wondered at the fixation on pork, since it is a relatively small part of the budget, compared with the massive spending on the welfare state and the defense department. He expressed this idea using math, and even scientific notation, which is history majors' kryptonite. Still, my understanding of his argument was that it was of a Benthamite bent. Maths aside, I thought it would be fun to mock some of the more egregious spending habits of our Dear Leader and his wacky band of Congress-people:

* $494,000 is appropriated for a "business incubator" at Arkansas State University. This is where investment bankers are kept in their larval stage.

* In Alabama, they're spending $819,000 to study the catfish genome. After that, they'll splice in some of the dogfish genome and see if it will chase itself up a tree.

* Alabama's also getting $800,000 for oyster rehabilitation. I'm not sure if that's rehab for addicted oysters, or for people addicted to oysters. In either case, it should be delicious.

* Michigan gets $3,800,000 for the Old Tiger Stadium Conservancy. Apparently, half-torn-down buildings are rare in Detroit, and need our care and attention.

These are all amusing, but my favorite has to be the $1,791,000 for swine odor research in Ames, Iowa. Seriously. It's almost as though Congress put their corrupt heads together and said "You know, they're on our backs about pork all the time, so fuck 'em, let's give 'em some real pork. Pig pork!"

Honestly, what can $1.7 million tell us about pig-stink that we don't already know? It would be better spent in some CCC-style program, giving $17.91 to 100,000 people and asking them to sniff a pig's ass and record their findings. I'd imagine the results will be somewhere on the mud-shit spectrum, but who knows? Maybe they smell like candy! At any rate, at least 100,000 folks would have seventeen bucks, which is more than the stimulus bill seems to be doing.

*A full break-down is available in a spreadsheet available on their site.


Harold Lasswell said...

First off, I'm not the math prone blogger to defend earmarks. And my comment is not meant as a full throated defense of the earmark. However... I'd bet that if you lived near a swine farm you'd be totally down with Uncle Sam spending cash on ways to keep that awful stench out of your smoking jacket and boat shoes. Most of the earmarks I've heard about end up having some basis in reality, they're not totally useless. In fact, many of these projects would probably fare well in some sort of peer-reviewed priority setting mechanism. But not all. The problem with earmarks is in their implementation... Too often mission-driven agencies are saddled with earmarks that have nothing to do with what they're paid to do. NASA pays for community college construction in Montana or DOD pays for cancer research. These earmarks really do end up eating into the budgets of programs that have real goals. Congress should create an agency just for earmarks. The Department of Shady Dealings could build water parks all over the country and Homeland Security could be spared from padding the pockets of eastern Kentucky hicks.

Calamity Jane said...

I'm fine with people having a problem with the idea of earmarks, but I find it odd how people love to pick out the science earmarks to make fun of. Regardless of how the money is allocated these are all useful applied science that will probably end up saving the government money in the long run. Check it out:

Fake Steve Hawking said...

Seriously. Just 'cause you don't understand what folks are studying, and why it is important, doesn't mean it's stupid. If I know Silent Cal, and I do, he is just doing this to piss us off. But some people, some senators who recently ran for president and now have twitter feeds god help us, are serious when they make these kinds of accusations. And they are IDIOTS.

If the money were larger, or the programs more ridiculous, then I would agree that this is an issue worth hanging Obama out to dry over. But the fact of the matter is, Obama, and the American people, have bigger fish to fry. In the end, that's one of the reasons they elected Obama. If they wanted the nitpicky details of pork worked over ad nauseum they would have elected old walnuts. They didn't. Sorry.

Silent Cal said...

The problem is in the relation of these programs to most people's
conception of government.  Government functions best when it does
things that people need, that benefits all or most of the population,
but that companies and individuals find difficult or impossible to do

An unnecessary military expenditure might raise eyebrows, but it's
more of a judgment call by the government on how to carry out a
program (the military) that most folks see as a reasonable government
function.  When we're sequencing the catfish genome, the specific
project still raises eyebrows, but so does the general application.
Who benefits from fish gene-decoding?  If anyone does benefit, why are
the rest of us paying for it?  I have no idea what a catfish's DNA
looks like, and I'm ok with that; I can still eat one.

Calamity Jane said...

From the link:

"The catfish industry is the major aquaculture industry in the U.S. accounting for over 60% of the US aquaculture production. Several important production and performance traits such as growth rate, feed conversion efficiency, disease resistance, body conformation and fillet yield must be improved in order to make the catfish industry profitable in the face of stiff global competition. Genome research holds great promise because it deciphers all the genetic material into a road map that shows genes important for growth, disease resistance, etc. "

The people who will benefit from catfish genome decoding are the people who are employed in that 60% of the US aquaculture industry (a 900 million, soon to be 5 billion dollar industry in the US - Those jobs will be here in American instead of in the dominant source of aquaculture: China. I don't know about you Mr. Cal but I'd rather get my catfish from the US.

Statler said...

To refute Cal's shotgun-and-rocking-chair lunacy, I present a pro-earmark article written by--DUN DUN DUN--a conservative!

Silent Cal said...

Knowing as I do that this blog is written by reasonable men, I'll take Statler's imputations in the best sense possible. I own neither shotgun nor rocking chair, but I aspire to have both before my three score and ten are run.

I don't know what that article is supposed to prove. Do you agree with the contentions of every leftist? Even those you've never heard of?

As to the specific value of the earmarks, I have know doubt that their recipients think they're the bee's knees. But their value to the whole nation is my problem. If it's good for the catfish industry, why don't they pay for it? And if it's not cost-effective for them, why should it be cost-effective for the American taxpayer, many of whom don't even eat that trayf.

Statler said...

The article's not supposed to prove anything, it's just something I ran across that's vaguely relevant to the debate. And I wanted to call you names.

My real problem is the way you happily wash your hands of defense spending, when in reality that's one of the most profound examples of what you're talking about. I'd argue that things like catfish genome probably provide a greater downstream (har) benefit to the American people than a lot of money we spend on defense. The USNI blog recently reprinted a Samuel Huntington article from the 50's that makes precisely this point in the second section. It's long, but worth the read.

Basically, if you've got a warship and no war (or a warship whose capabilities don't sync up with the war you're trying to fight), you've just spent billions of dollars on a useless thing that consumes resources and that most Americans will never use.

Statler said...

And I realize that you're talking about perception of defense spending, but I think that's a weak argument. Obviously, there are ways to evaluate the threat environment and the fitness of certain projects given that environment.

What you're talking about is the way Americans have been habituated to think about government, which is a statement that doesn't address the merits of those programs. It seems like you're basically saying "this is the way it has been, so this is the way it should stay" which is as much a defense of earmarks as it is an attack on them.

I understand that "providing for the national defense" is something only the government can do. But if you think that it's not subject to the vagaries of small-time politics, I have a country to sell you.

What's the difference between spending $2bn on pig-stink control and spending a $6bn ship that exists solely to justify Navy budget increases?

Answer: $4bn.

Silent Cal said...

You're speaking of utility, as though our federal government may do all things, and these things are just as useful as others, so where's the problem? I am speaking of right and wrong, of a limited government that has only been granted certain powers over those who grant it a right to exist - the people.

I agree that some defense spending is wasteful (indeed, much of it has little to do with national defense), but our Constitution grants the government the right to build an army and a navy. When a government does things the people did not empower it to do, that is tyranny, even if the form of the tyranny is only something as benign as scratching the back of some of your donors or constituents with a bit of delicious pork.

Actually, pork doesn't make a very good back-scratcher, but you get the idea.

And if you really think there's no connect between having a powerful navy and not having to use it, I have a pirate ship to sell you. It's as though I built a fence around my garden to keep out rabbits, and you came by the house, saw the lack of vermin in the yard and told me the fence was useless. You're welcome to your opinion, but you're not getting any tomatoes this summer.

Statler said...

This is officially the longest comment thread ever on TCM.

Re: the Navy. Yes, obviously. The thing is that "powerful" is a word that encompasses a great deal of terrain. As Huntington points out, there are questions of resource allocation and threat environment that have to be considered. "More battleships" isn't always the right answer. See previous rantings about the defense budget.

Re: Utility and tyranny. If "the American people" give their consent to actual, honest-to-God tyranny does it cease to be tyranny? And is that a better thing than the government exceeding its constitutional mandate by providing healthcare to all Americans? And how do you define/measure "consent?"

Silent Cal said...

The question of consent is an interesting one. During the initial round of constitution-making in the states during the Revolutionary War, this question came up a lot. Gordon Wood's The Creation of the American Republic explains it better than I could, but it's usually presumed to involve a higher level of consent than a legislature passing a law. When the people vote on a constitution, or for delegates to a constitutional convention, they know they're doing something greater, more permanent, than an ordinary referendum. Our federal process for amendment makes that clear -- there needs to be pretty broad consent to pass a constitutional amendment. I think things like Social Security and Medicare have that level of acceptance, but we'll never know because our elected representatives and courts chose to wink at illegality rather than even try to convince the people they represent.

Statler said...

One last article on earmarks from The National Journal.