Matthew Yglesias (8/3/10) has a good takedown of senators John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and Tom Coburn’s (R.-Ok.) list of supposedly wasteful stimulus projects that generated an “exclusive” on ABC‘s Good Morning America (8/3/10):
Jon Chait observes that McCain and Coburn also seem to have decided that anything relating to animals is necessarily waste. Hence a small grant to fund research on cocaine addiction and relapse is turned into “Monkeys Getting High for Science.” Hardy-har-har. There’s a case to be made that the government has no role to play in funding scientific research, but it’s a mighty bad case. If you think the government should fund research in the health and medical fields, then of course you’re going to be funding some experiments that involve monkeys. Even though monkeys are funny.
This animals-are-funny principle was followed by ABC‘s Jonathan Karl, who cited “among the highlights” of the McCain/Coburn press release not only the monkey study but also “nearly $1 million for the California Academy of Sciences to study exotic ants.” That’s doubly funny because they’re bugs and they’re “exotic.” But the reason you would want to study exotic insects (meaning non-native) is that they’re a threat to agriculture, either current or potential. Agriculture is a $36 billion-a-year industry in California–but this crucial context was ignored by ABC.
But including the context is dangerous, because it has the potential to reveal that what you’re reporting is completely pointless. Karl led off his report with this example:
KARL: The Forest Service is spending more than $500,000 to replace the windows at this Mount St. Helens visitors center. It could sure use a facelift, but–
ANSWERING MACHINE: Coal Water Ridge Visitor Center is now closed.
KARL: The visitors center is closed and there’s no plans to reopen it.
What an outrageous waste of taxpayer money! But then Karl follows up with this crucial bit of information: “The Forest Service told us, they are fixing it up to sell it.” If that had been mentioned in the first place–“The Forest Service is spending half a million dollars to fix up a shuttered visitors center in order to sell it”–that wouldn’t have sounded crazy at all; lots of homeowners make similar decisions about their property every day. But if it didn’t sound crazy, it wouldn’t have been a catchy way to lead off the report.
Of course, the real point of the list is not the individual items, but the general point that the whole stimulus program was a waste of money that failed to boost employment. On this economic question, ABC cites exactly one expert: John McCain, who declares of the projects he listed, “I think none of them really have any meaningful impact on creating jobs.” This is the politician who declared during the 2008 campaign (Think Progress, 1/18/08), “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should.”
The Congressional Budget Office (5/25/10), whose understanding of economics is somewhat more advanced, estimated that in the first quarter of this year, the stimulus bill created the equivalent of 1.8 million to 4.1 million full-time jobs. This is context that ABC could have included in its story, but chose not to–perhaps because it would have revealed that the story had no real point.