Mar 1 2009

Stimulus as Pork

There’s been a corporate media trope lately that the stimulus bill, despite Barack Obama’s assurances, contained “pork.” CNN’s Lou Dobbs (2/12/09) even offered a detailed statistical breakdown:

Tonight we have our own preliminary analysis of just how much of this bill is pork and how much is stimulus…. Of the $800 billion piece of legislation, about $330 billion is spending. You can interpret that as stimulative or not. There is $270 billion of tax cuts and credits. And then there’s about $200 billion of the legislation that is potentially pork projects; that could potentially increase. The number could easily increase as we find out more details about this huge spending plan.

How exactly Dobbs determined what was “spending” and what was “pork” was not at all clear; most economists will tell you that virtually any kind of domestic government spending creates jobs and is therefore stimulative (Washington Post, 2/16/09; Rabble, 1/19/09). When Dobbs’ colleague Kitty Pilgrim rattled off a list of some of that “pork,” it seemed to be defined mainly as items that they thought sounded vaguely comical, like “$600 million for energy-efficient vehicles, including electric golf carts for neighborhood travel,” or “$400 million for health prevention of sexually transmitted diseases.”

A Washington Post article (2/13/09) headlined “Despite Pledges, Stimulus Has Some Pork” at least had a definition of what it meant by the term. Unfortunately, that definition would seem to turn virtually any government spending into an instance of “pork.” Reporters Dan Eggen and Ellen Nakashima led off:

The compromise stimulus bill adopted by House and Senate negotiators this week is not free of spending that benefits specific communities, industries or groups, despite vows by President Obama that the legislation would be kept clear of pet projects, according to lawmakers, legislative aides and anti-tax groups.

Their exhibit A:

  • The deal provides $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, for example, including money that could benefit a controversial proposal for a magnetic-levitation rail line between Disneyland, in California, and Las Vegas, a project favored by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). The 311-mph train could make the trip from Sin City to Tomorrowland in less than two hours, according to backers.

Note the language there: “could benefit.” A few paragraphs down the piece clarified:

Reid spokesman Jon Summers said in a statement that the transportation secretary “will have complete flexibility as to which program he uses to allocate the funds,” but he acknowledged that “the proposed Los Angeles-Las Vegas rail project would be eligible.”

So the Las Vegas-to-L.A. rail link (sounds less silly than “Disneyland,” doesn’t it?) “would be eligible” for the high-speed rail money—as would proposals to speed travel between L.A. and San Francisco, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the major Ohio cities, etc. The list of high-speed rail projects on the drawing board would certainly take a lot more than $8 billion to fund.

If being one of several “eligible” projects that could potentially benefit from a program makes you a “specific” beneficiary of that program—and therefore a recipient of “pork”—what government program would not have such beneficiaries?

NBC Nightly News correspondent Lisa Myers (2/17/09) made a more general statement about the kind of spending that is thought to be objectionable: “Critics complain that Democratic Party priorities get big money—education, healthcare, communities, the arts—without enough specifics.”

Education, healthcare and communities are “Democratic Party priorities”? Maybe all that talk about the “liberal media” has something to it after all.