Saturday, September 16, 2006

The liberal case for pork

". . . there's a liberal case for supporting pork. It's not because pork projects are defensible on the merits, although they sometimes can be. It's not because they create jobs, although they can do that, too. Rather, it's because, without pork, activist government would wither and die."
I'm thinking the pork projects in question are not defensible in general, because the pork projects in question are the projects that our fearless leaders are choosing to hide from public view, and from the view of their fellow fearless leaders.

I'm also not signing on in support of the justification that these pork projects create jobs. After all, if the money isn't spent on these hidden pork projects, then at least one thing that could have been done with the money was leave it in the pockets of the citizens it was taken from. What would you do with more money? Spend some of it? Sure. Save some of it? Probably. Either way that money is part of the economic activity that has jobs.

And what about the "activist government would wither and die" idea? One illustration he gives involves a tax bill during the Reagan administration:

The problem was that the reform bill faced a daunting uphill battle through the Senate. A multitude of corporations and special interests risked losing their much-cherished tax breaks, and they lobbied hard against several provisions in the bill. The only way to ensure that the bill survived was to grease it up with pork fat. A large number of temporary tax preferences--known as "transition rules"--were added to the bill, at the behest of individual Senators, for over 174 beneficiaries, including a variety of cities and municipal facilities. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole worked to get his party behind the reform, and for his efforts received a tax preference for the redevelopment in his home state of Kansas. Even Ohioan Howard Metzenbaum, a longstanding opponent of narrowly-tailored corporate tax breaks, secured exemptions for convention centers in his home state.
Now, I'm not sure this story is one we should hold up as an illustration of what is good about our political system, but I think this illustration does not really fit today's issue. Today's issue is not just about pork. Rather today's issue is about hiding personal choices by our fearless leaders to spend government money on others. These choices are hidden from public view, and the illustration involves choices that were written into law for all to see.

He offers a second illustration from the Clinton era, and again the illustration includes items that would appear in public view, even though the vote trading of course took place away from public view. Then he offers:

The point is this: Any big-government program on the progressive wish list will likely prove even more difficult to pass than the 1986 tax reform or 1993 budget. Single-payer health care? Card check for unions? Reductions in carbon emissions? It won't get done without an orgy of earmarks to entice the inevitable skeptics in Congress. That won't be pretty, but if the price of, say, universal insurance is a bit of borderline corruption here and there, it's a tradeoff worth making. And, while it's also true that conservatives can use earmarks to pass their own massive spending programs--the prescription-drug benefit comes to mind--in the long run, institutional mechanisms that are biased toward activist government will favor liberals.
I think these illustrations involve logrolling or vote trading, and clearly such logrolling occurs frequently in our system of political economy. I think government would be better government if the number of instances of logrolling could be reduced. Our entire system of political economy would be better if government participation in rent seeking could be reduced. But, these weaknesses in our system of political economy seem to me much different than the practice of earmarking, whereby an individual Congressman or Senator can say which project is to get government monies. And earmarking is, it seems to me, an abhorent practice by our government when the politician can keep his or her name hidden from the public. Earmarking, as I've written here before, seems to me nothing less than corruption.

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