Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stacking dollar bills to the moon, and other pointless exercises

has posted a slide show on Republican hypocrisy concerning "earmarks." For each of a string of already-contemptible characters like Inohfe, Vitters, and Kyl, it juxtaposes a quote bewailing the presence of "pork" and "earmarks" in the recently-passed Obama spending bill with a sampling of various budget items that member slipped into the total package to benefit their state or district.

The show left me with two impressions.

First, although it's never hard to catch a politician in this sort of double-talk game, congressional Republicans just seem to make themselves much easier targets these days. In large part that's because they are ideologically compelled to attack all government spending (by Democrats) whether they believe a word they're saying or not. There's really not much sport, or art, to catching them at it.

Second, if the point was to fuel the "silly-sounding projects must therefore be undeserving projects" meme, it didn't really work for me. Didn't we go through this last month when the Republicans were playing the same "gotcha" game against the Democrats?

Most of the projects mentioned by TPM seemed to sit in the narrow range of the spectrum separating "could be pointless, but I really can't tell" (e.g., $807,500 for wind hazard detection equipment in Nevada) from "could be worthwhile, but I really can't tell" (e.g., $400,000 for the City of Oceanside Community Safety Partnership or $95,000 for an expectant mother education--the latter, ironically, proposed by Vitter).

Plucked out of context, a lot of this sounds a pretty outrageous--$95,000 for a traffic light in Oklahoma?

(Actually, assuming that includes installation, it's probably not a bad deal; at worst, it's an indication of how little $95K buys anymore. And let's not even get into the whole business of how one traffic light in Oklahoma is apparently the rough equivalent of support for expectant mother education in Louisiana. The phrase "race to the bottom" does leap to mind, though--doesn't it? Odd that TPM's slide show apparently didn't notice that.)

But in context, this stuff is a teensy, tiny fraction of the federal money that will be changing hands (and already has in the last six months). In fact, it would scarcely cause a blip on the budgetary radar trace if we were to bump up that $500,000 for water treatment improvements in the City of Surprise, AZ--could be worthwhile, but I can't really tell--by throwing in another $50,000 or so to pay for new signage and letterhead so that the town can have a less silly-sounding name.

Partly, this is just a new riff on Everett Dirksen's old observation: "A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money." The amounts at stake here daunt and finally defeat the average person's understanding. When we're reduced to explanations that involve placing dollar bills end-to-end and counting how many times it would circle globe at the equator--as if that were a commonplace-enough experience to quickly give us all a useful frame of reference--we're already in deep trouble. People who toss these figures around for a living, whether or not they really understand them themselves, are always going to have a rhetorical advantage over the rest of us, while we're left trying to grab hold of something, anything, we can relate to--like a traffic light.

Try this: Don't tell me the new traffic light will cost $95,000 (out of $410 billion). Tell me how many person/hours of work that $95K will create in Oklahoma, and at what wage. Or how much parenting education it can provide for expectant mothers in Louisiana .

Phony, innumeracy-driven outrage is cheap.

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