Culture War Dispatches

from a Progressive People's Republic

Friday, February 20, 2009

One Man’s Pork is Another’s Economic Stimulus

Cambridge Chronicle:
The authors of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a., the Stimulus Bill, neglected to affix one of those nutritional breakdown stickers, leaving its pork percentage in dispute. The manufacturer, Pelosi-Reid & Co., insists that their product contains no more than 1% pork – a mere $8.38 billion of unnecessary spending, or the equivalent of the GDP of Burkina Faso. Conservatives have suggested that the breakdown of the “porkulus” bill is closer to 95% pork, 5% stimulus spending.
It seems that the bipartisan era President Obama was going to usher in never quite got off the ground. Conservatives maintain that big government by definition is full of inefficiency, corruption, metastasizing bureaucracy, special interest earmarks, sweetheart pension deals and funding for bridges to nowhere. President Obama on the other hand introduced a new definition of pork, declaring to an audience of Virginia Democrats that stimulus and government spending are one and the same. In other words, all pork is good pork. Which would mean there’s no such thing as pork. “That’s the whole point,” the President remarked peevishly to those who might differ.
Republicans who attempt to contain the spending forest fire are criticized as if they are anarchists. Paul Krugman, for one, claims that we need to expand government from its current 36% of GDP because if we didn’t have air traffic controllers, our airplanes would crash into each other. This is a straw man argument; not even the most libertarian-minded conservative wants to eliminate air traffic control, police or firefighting.
In theory, good government should provide only services that “promote the general welfare,” in the phrase of the Preamble to our Constitution. It turns that the general welfare is not always easily defined, since no public spending benefits every member of the public. People without children might ask how public schools benefit them. Essential national defense projects become labeled as pork when they benefit the Congressional district of defense contractors who make big campaign contributions.
Some examples clearly violate the general welfare standard. The Chronicle recently reported that our taxes paid for Mayor Denise Simmons to travel to a black lesbian conference in Las Vegas. How exactly did this benefit the general welfare of Cambridge taxpayers as opposed to the special interests of the black lesbian population?
My Republican colleague Salim Kawabat recently published a Right View column proposing that Cambridge do more to improve biking in our fair city. I found the idea sensible. I ride a bicycle and I have often wondered why it’s so difficult to get from the Minuteman Bikeway to the bike paths on the Charles River. Why doesn’t someone fix this? But is this just another example of big government earmark spending? One might argue that this would benefit only the special interest group of bicyclists. But one could make just as sound a case for the benefits to the general welfare. If commuters switch from cars to bicycles, traffic congestion is eased. Fewer cars means less noise and air pollution, which improves the general welfare of pedestrians. Furthermore, quality of life improvements to a city serve to attract people (i.e., taxpayers) to shop, dine or move here.
Similarly Vince Dixon’s recent Right View column was enthusiastic about the revitalization that would come from rebuilding local infrastructure like the Charles River bridges. Roads and bridges clearly benefit the general welfare, and you don’t save money by not maintaining them. I’m not as convinced as Vince that maintenance work on existing assets will stimulate economic growth, but that question divides the world’s best economists.
In his inaugural address, the President’s first criterion of government that “works” was “whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage.” A month later at a town hall meeting in Fort Myers, a young man took him at his word and asked the President what he was going to do about his crummy job at McDonald’s. Another woman asked the President for a new kitchen—and was promptly given a new house.
This is special interest lobbying for an interest group of one. Government not as promoter of the general welfare but guarantor of individual welfare. Pork is too kind a word.