Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Swine By Any Other Name

Something has been bothering me about the Stimulus debate, and I realized what it was last night. Though I’m not a big fan of the stimulus bill, I am for anything that rebuilds our out-of-date infrastructure, supports higher and technical education and repairs our crumbling K-12 education system. I am for projects that make our current resources more efficient. I am for projects that invest in the future. So I am still behind this thing, no matter how clumsily Congressional Democrats decided to preside over it, because a lot of what it does needed to get done anyway. Plus, now that President Obama is back on the mic, I’m sure this thing will pass by next week. (As Dante informs us, it just passed the Senate.)

But I was watching Lou Dobbs last night; I’ve been listening to Rush and reading the right-wing to conservative blogs about this thing; I’ve been thinking about the concerns and criticisms of emailers, commentators and callers onto all of these shows and websites, and I’ve been paying attention to what Congressional Republicans have been saying (which seems the least interesting of the whole debate). Last night, I watched the President’s press conference to see how Obama would respond to a lot of the criticisms s against this bill. (He focused on many specific criticisms, which demonstrates an ability to identify problem areas and speak to them in a way we’ve been lacking for at least 8 years.)

And after all this, I’ve realized something: it seems the definition of pork has changed in our political popular culture. It used to mean “bringing home the bacon” to the “home folks” by the most senior members of a party. For a while it was “any government waste.” And now, it has become “any project we don’t like or philosophically agree with.” That is a fairly significant change in just a few years. I’ll not even get into that “pork” is now some sort of dirty word.

Because, and let’s face it, not all pork is bad pork. There was a lot of waste, yeah, but there were also a lot of big infrastructure projects that have brought big jobs to a lot of smaller areas because those places had a senior member on some Congressional committee. A lot of things that needed to get done got done because of that. When you think about how bitter a fight is to keep a military base open, you realize that the geography of many major installations had a lot to do with who was in Congress and when (though we never, ever, ever describe military base selection as “pork”). The problem used to be the concentration of pork, that the majority of projects went to certain districts and states, that too few people controlled the strings, and the use of such porcine projects (or the threat of taking them away) to pass legislation reeked of corruption and inside baseball. But that’s the “way things used to be” – in the days of both FDR and Reagan. Hell, you think Georgia’s sparkling infrastructure system didn’t have anything to do with the ascension of Newt Gingrich to Speaker and Jack Kingston to the leadership back in 1994? If you don’t, well, there’s a bridge over the South Brunswick River in Glynn County, Georgia that you can pick up for the low, low price of $65+ million dollars.

Any Federal money for that bridge (it was a Federal & State project), if written into the current stimulus, would probably be on Lou Dobbs’ hit list. It would probably be considered “pork” by the pundits, even though the return on investment of such a structure will dwarf the original cost over the lifetime of the bridge. All because our definition of pork has changed.

There are things in the current stimulus that are being called pork that aren’t really pork. But I’ll never accuse an entertainer like Rush of trying to educate people. Let’s think about some of these things:

Millions for the National Endowment for the Arts: any artist from any district in the country can apply for a grant, with no political affiliation requirement. May not be an effective stimulator (that’s debatable) but that ain’t pork.

Millions to purchase hybrids for the Federal government’s vehicle fleet: the Federal government is going to update a certain number of company cars this year, the same as they have done every year since they started buying company cars for their employees. My pops drove one of these for years, a gun-metal grey Crown Victoria that looked like it could have been on the set of a Dirty Harry movie. What is the problem with updating the non-enforcement vehicles with hybrids that save money on gasoline? I can only have nightmares about how many taxpayer dollars went into Federal V8’s last summer. This actually saves money for taxpayers in the long run, and employs American car manufacturers (last time I checked, and industry that could use some work thrown its way) in the short term. It also affects the vehicles at Federal offices all across the country, regardless of political affiliation. May have limited stimulating effect (that’s debatable) but that ain’t pork.

Millions to assist fish migration by removing barriers on waterways: this may be the closest thing to pork I’ve heard about yet, and has been called out as pork at least since 2000. But it has more to do with sushi than with swine. The folks who oppose this as pork must never eat seafood, or, if they do, must looove the BS dishes that are tilapia or Chilean shrimp and Chinese crawfish. They must only eat farm-raised catfish. They must not like going into the great outdoors to fish in rivers, and must not understand that millions of Americans do so as a recreational activity. Fish migration is essential to maintaining the health of fisheries where Americans are employed catching items that other Americans buy as food. The economic stimulation return on investment for this plan negates the fact that it only affects a few districts, because money spent here pays for itself in just a few years. That ain't pork.

Millions to weatherize housing: screw off Congressional Democrats. We’re still waiting for billions to weatherize the levees in South Louisiana. But I understand the desire to make US housing stock more energy efficient, just like...

Millions to build/renovate Federal buildings for more energy efficiency: please see also purchasing hybrids – the Federal government is going to spend a certain amount on their physical plant, the same as they have done every year since the Federal government figured out they should work out of offices. That these buildings ought be renovated with a purpose of saving money down the line is something that I welcome gleefully. Saving money by being efficient is something that should be applauded in government. Again, as there are Federal buildings in many, many districts, and there is no political affiliation requirement. Again, that ain't pork.

So where’s the swine, folks? What in the stimulus actually does count as “pork” and not as “maybe not as big a bang for the buck as we want” or “something we just don’t like?” I mean, you folks on the right do call it "Porkulus" after all.



Dante said...

The definition of pork has changed. But the Porkulus branding is working because people do now equate pork with any government waste. And as mentioned earlier, the biggest supporters of this stimulus bill are doing absolutely nothing to assure us it will actually work (or even help). The people see the spending but they don't see stimulus. You can throw around the line items all you want but until Congressional Democrats, the three RINOs in the Senate, and the President take up that cause it will fall on deaf ears.

You can cite New Deal but when you ask people who actually lived through the Great Depression what got them out of it, they give a pretty uniform answer: World War II. Should we pick a fight with the Germans and the Japanese while we're busy spending like drunken sailors? That was part of the solution that I keep hearing is going to work here.

patsbrother said...

The stimulus bill is an example of the new pork: issue pork.

We did just have to take out an obscene sum of money for contraceptives. Had Republicans not blown a gasket, that would still be in there. I'm also not sure about the millions to re-sod the mall. But I don't care about these specifics.

What bothers me bonkers is that the raison d'etre of this humongous thing was (originally) to stimulate the economy. That was (at least) how it was sold two months ago. Now it's anything goes. Anything goes, if the powers that be want it.

Your bizarre argument for how these programs will stimulate the economy serve to illustrate what this is. It is a spending frenzy.

Here is the argument. I think it would be fabulous if we could just get the federal government to pay for X. Paying for X would spend money. Spending money involves the economy. Bam! Program X will stimulate the economy.

Assume for a minute the ruckus we would hear if we applied the same reasoning to programs that actually fall under the constitutionally enumerated purposes of the federal government We'll take defense. What if we decided to spend $800 billion on SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) to protect the country from incoming missiles. We would be spending $800 billion! That would pump money into the economy! Bam! It's a stimulus!

Fantastic. Now, nothing the federal government will ever do will ever be bad. It will be stimulus. Huzzah.

(Humorous irony: the word verification for me to post this comment is "dread".)

patsbrother said...

Dah! I just wrote a response to each of the vegan projects paT describes, but blogger ate it. Sucks to me.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

You can cite New Deal but when you ask people who actually lived through the Great Depression what got them out of it, they give a pretty uniform answer: World War II.

New Deal is the theory - the Great Depression was a much more serious collapse than what we are currently experiencing. Some New Deal plans worked, others didn't, based on the competency of the folks in charge (which is what everything comes down to, public or private ventures).

And we'll not mention the stimulating effect of the Marshall Plan for the post-war era, when we were able to stimulate the entire world economy, rebuild Western Europe and Japan and contribute to a huge post-war boom.

"an example of the new pork: issue pork."

That would be called "politics," bro. We already had all our terminology in place - I just love it when folks advertise instead of make real contributions just to reconfigure the debate.

"Your bizarre argument for how these programs will stimulate the economy"

I have consistently argued for the more effective programs to come first (infrastructure, education) - based on the return on investment. These are also things we pretty much decided long ago as a society were within the purview of government. But, go ahead, I'd love to have the "infrastructure and education not purviews of government" argument again and again and again.

And I could play Devil's Advocate with every item in the stimulus bill and find a way it puts people to work or saves money down the way. You still haven't shown me any item that is actually pork based on the traditional definition.

Even when Dante and I agree (the definition of 'pork' has changed), and even if we were to accept that its new definition is 'government waste,' you only have two options: that government waste is based on what government spends the money on (Dante) or how effective the government spends the money (me).

When I think "government waste" I think of projects managed badly, not usually the decision to take on the project.

IE: government will always take on projects that somebody will have a problem with (Iraq war, welfare, etc), that's part of living in a republic and why elections have consequences. Waste comes in when the money allotted for a program is not well spent.

Cousin Pat from Georgia said...

That's why there is "copy and paste" for long comments, bro.