Wednesday, August 4, 2010

We're Paying What for What?!!!!

Well, it's that time of year again.  Republicans are posting their latest and greatest examples of wasteful government spending.  As usual, the list includes colorful projects chosen to appear as silly as possible:
  • $1.9 million for international ant research
  • $89,298 to replace a new sidewalk that leads to a ditch in Boynton, OK
  • $760,000 to Georgia Tech to study improvised music  
So I have a question for these folks.  Should the government ever be involved in scientific research, transportation infrastructure, or national parks?  I assume the answer is yes.  At which point the question becomes how to separate out the useful from the non-useful spending.  Of course, in a recession, there's also the question of whether stimulus works.  Keynesians would likely argue that, in terms of stimulus, how you spend money is less important than how fast you can spend it.  Keynes famously said of stimulus theory:

"If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing."

Setting aside for a moment whether any of the published list is useful, the government spends a ton of money in each of those areas.  For every questionable project, there are plenty of very unquestionable ones.  The problem I have with this perennial endeavor is that it often frames the problem as an existential one: "We need government out of our lives!"  Well, no.  We need government to not waste money.  I return to the first question I asked.

Now for the specific projects.  I'm not going to go and check every single one to see whether it makes sense.  I have better things to do.  But I guarantee you that when looked at more seriously, many of these so-called wasteful projects end up making more sense.  Science often works this way.  Just because the research involves ants or rat sperm it doesn't mean it isn't important.  It just makes for a nice Republican punch-line.

In the end, lists like these are dishonest.  They cherry-pick items, finding the most silly sounding even if the actual project might be important.  Then they're used as a way of arguing that because government is sometimes wasteful, it is always bad.  But the totals generally amount to a drop in the bucket of federal spending. 

What's more, there are areas of the government in which spending is rarely questioned.  Because Republicans tend to love anything involving the military, they rarely spend much time picking over that colossal piece of the budget.  But since it is spending they have an affinity for, they simply ignore it.  That's hypocrisy. 

I'll admit there is waste.  But I'd like to see a more honest and objective discussion, rather than the immature petulance.

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