The Evils of Pork

February 13th, 2009

It's not just for dinner

Sorry, this isn’t about mamma cooking breakfast with no hog (today was a good day). I just didn’t want to completely monopolize kcmeesha’s comment section.

There has been a lot of talk going back and forth about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka “the stimulus bill”). On paper, having a public discussion of a bill before our representatives and senators vote on it is a good thing. A great thing. Precisely what the founding fathers were hoping would happen. Well, most of them (but that would be a subject for another time).

Alas, the quality of the public discussion has been exceedingly poor. Rather than actually hashing out what the mix and nature of tax cuts and government spending will be, we instead hear about honeybee insurance and tennis courts. This serves the double purpose of making the bill look wasteful and corrupt to anybody predisposed to think everything the government does is bad while making fiscal conservatives look small and mean.

So we get references to Chuck Schumer talking about the “chattering class” as though that were somehow incriminating. The “chattering class” would be people who make their living by chattering. The professionally-outraged. Just like the “working class” makes their living by working and the “investing class” make their living through investments. If you were Nancy Grace or Kieth Olbermann, you should be rather insulted by such a statement. He’s insulting you, and you deserve to be insulted.

Rather than speak to the substance of the bill, such professional crisis-identifiers pick out something that sounds silly (like subsidies for bee insurance) and rail against them without ever considering why somebody might have thought bee insurance was a good thing. Or even important. Or even critical to real people out there busting their asses for a living and helping keep our standard of living going. If you don’t rely on bees directly, it sounds stupid. Scientific studies are frequent scapegoats in these soft-shoe routines, dressed up as frivolous expenditure without any examination as to the merits of the programs themselves.

This isn’t to say that every government program is needed. Nor to say that every good government program is free of waste. Or even to say that very important government programs aren’t often bogged down by waste and corruption. I’m not that naive. The solution to government corruption and waste isn’t to cut off the funding, but to ramp up oversight and investigation. Shine a little sunlight on that crap.

CBO Summary since the actual bill is TL;DR

So rather than just bitch about it, let’s take a little peek under the hood:

  • Not all of the money gets spent immediately. This is a somewhat frequent complaint about the stimulus package: a great deal of it gets spent in 2010 or later, not Next Saturday. The thing is that even “shovel-ready” projects take time. After the engineering and zoning and such is all set and done, the various regulatory agencies have been satisfied that the project should be allowed to proceed, there are steps that take some time. We haven’t nationalized the construction industry, so there’s a bidding process. Somebody has to do the cost analysis and draft up bids. Some period of time must be allowed for this, as we can’t reasonably expect a bidding process to open up until there’s a commitment for funding. Once the bids are in, some jerk is going to demand that they be fairly evaluated, so that takes time. Once somebody’s selected, the work can actually start. Bridges don’t pop up overnight unless you’re talking about those chincy wartime things that the army will straddle a river with temporarily. If it’s going to take two years to finish a construction project, there’s no need to push all the money out up front.

    Other items like the supplemental nutrition money get split out over four years, in chunks of $4,859m, $6,056m, $4,317m, $3,115m, and $1,639m from 2009 through 2013. I don’t see anything unreasonable with that. Others include highway construction weighing in at $27.5 billion stretched over seven years. I also don’t think it’s unreasonable for highway projects to take about that long.

  • Not enough of it is tax cuts. OK. The CBO report linked above indicates that this bill reflects a $211.8 billion dollar reduction in revenue to the federal government. How big of a tax cut were you looking for, specifically? $250 billion? $300 billion? A five-year suspension of all taxes, fees, and tarrifs by the federal government? I really have no counter-argument to this other than a general impression that some people will never be satisfied. They want their big armies and highways and prisons and don’t want to pay for any of it. I understand it in the same way that I understand that children don’t want to eat their vegetables.
  • Too much pork! In regards to tax cuts, I ask “how much is enough,” so for pork I ask “how much is too much?” Can we get rid of those pork-barrel military bases dotting the midwest and deep south, where we have little to no credible need for military presence (nobody’s invading us through Kansas, so we probably don’t need forts there)? Do we really need separate naval facilities in New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia when we don’t have a single naval station between Monterey and Washington State? Pork is not the villain folks have made it out to be, it’s just easy to make somebody else’s targeted spending look wasteful.

So if you’re on board with the nay-sayers, what should have been removed? What vital clause was left out? Please be specific.

10 Responses to “The Evils of Pork”

  1. meesha.v Says:

    My objections are more generic:
    1. There is no way any senator/congressman read this bill in its entirety and while I know it’s a common practice this is not an ordinary bill and deserves more scrutiny
    2. It’s being rushed a la last years Paulson’s standing on his knee begging for bank bailout or else and “or else” never happened and numbers were made up
    3. This bill is no different than if it was written by McCain. Amounts may have been different but it’s a usual spending bill, I expected better and/or different
    4. I don’t see a clear plan, just a hodgepodge of spending. Where is the big picture?
    5. Why does pork have to be there at all. The outsider’s view is that congressional majority stuck everything they could think of into this bill
    6. Schumer’s reference is incriminating not because he called someone chattering class, it’s a second part where he said:we stuck this into the bill, so what? What does he mean “so what”, it’s his job to be prudent with money,not to tell people to shut up.
    7. Pork is not having an extra military base, it probably comes out from a different budget. It’s a project that’s most likely a result of campaign contribution payback or lobbying and is not related to anything. Bees are cool but this bill is probably one of the most important ones since the Iraq war, can we do without the bees for once.
    OK.My break is over, discuss.

  2. Burrowowl Says:

    1 – I don’t actually expect our congress-critters to do their jobs, but it’s quite reasonable for all of them to have read the bill. We’re not talking about 800 pages of densely-written prose here, but fairly boiler-plate appropriations text that everybody had access to while they were stitched together.
    2 – Paulson got his “give me this or else” bill, so we’ll never know what would have happened if he hadn’t.
    3 – It’s a spending bill. Yes.
    4 – A massive hodgepodge of spending is exactly what the plan is: inject a fuckton of money into a broad subsection of the economy and try to get some reasonably-useful projects out of it.
    5 – If you want people to vote for a bill they’re hesitant about, you sweeten it up for them. How can they vote “no” on a bill that gets them something their district really needs?
    6 – The “so what” isn’t what you had decried earlier today when replying to me on your site. You quite clearly were trying to paint Schumer as some kind of wicked elitist that doesn’t want the people to know what’s in their sausage. That said: so what?
    7 – Extra military bases absolutely is pork. The term “earmarks” has a fairly specific meaning, referring to appropriations made outside the budget and appropriations process (such as jamming a $25 million museum project into an educations standards bill) anonymously, but pork is more broadly the practice of specifying funds to be spent in one’s own district. Like having army bases in Kansas.

  3. meesha.v Says:

    I guess I was unclear on Schumer +I never use the word or concept of elitism. asshole, maybe. in all honesty, I expected better from obama, but it’s not, so I was right when I said he was no different. name one part of the bill that would be different if mccain was president. maybe aids research, otherwise it’s more of the same.

  4. Burrowowl Says:

    No idea why you’d have phrased it that way unless you were trying to heap a load of implication onto Schumer. And Schumer’s definitely an asshole. You’ll get no argument from me on that point.

    As for the bill not looking like it came from Barack Obama’s desk, that’s because it didn’t. The US House of Representatives wrote it, the Senate amended it, and they resolved the differences in conference. That’s the way Article 1, section 7 says it’s supposed to be done, and for once the executive branch mostly butted the heck out. I know that the whole separation of powers thing is hopelessly old-fashioned, but hey.

  5. meesha.v Says:

    I went and reread my references to schumer, not sure what wasn’t phrased right. I know who wrote the bill but obama doesn’t have to sign it if he doesn’t want to. right? so he could say (i never read the constitution, so no articles here) this bill is crap, you are scumbags, i am not signing it until you do it right. then both chambers will have to vote with 2/3 majority. they don’t have 67 votes in senate and then boom! obama saves the day! can be done

  6. Burrowowl Says:

    You didn’t read the constitution? They make Mexicans learn all kinds of stuff before they’re allowed to be citizens. Maybe they’ve got different rules for you Rooskies. Probably some cold-war era easy-defection clause somewhere.

    Anyhow, Obama could certainly veto the bill (return it to the congress with is objections), but he’s been cheerleading it all along, so he’d pretty much be shooting himself in the foot.

  7. meesha.v Says:

    I had the test but I was given a list of 100 questions with answers, like cliff’s notes of the citizenship exam.

  8. Burrowowl Says:

    Just noticed a few minutes ago that FactCheck.org did a write-up on some of the jobs and pork claims regarding this bill: http://www.factcheck.org/politics/stimulus_bill_bravado.html

    Guess there was less pork than I had thought, which doesn’t strike against my claim that pork isn’t necessarily bad.

  9. chunkbot Says:

    Speaking of bacon:

    http://thisiswhyyourefat.com is fucking awesome.

  10. Who Is Racist Now | Kansas City with the Russian Accent Says:

    [...] knows that Obama did not write the stimulus bill. But don’t take my word for it, here is a quote from my blog-friend Burrowowl: As for the bill not looking like it came from Barack Obama’s desk, that’s because it didn’t. [...]

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