Monday, March 16, 2009

Taking It In the Earmark

Yeah... I too used to get indignant about federal government spending bills that were full of “pork”, “earmarks”, and so on. But then I realized something that enabled me to relax. Just as “all politics is local”, so all government spending is, ultimately, local – in other words, at the end of the day it's _all_ “earmarks” and “pork”. But if this is true, why is there so much controversy about the issue? And why are “special interests” always being accused of diverting money from “more important projects”? It's mostly a question of focus. A typical “earmark” is a line item that specifies which project or program the money is to be spent on, with details provided as to the specific beneficiaries and their location. (And in some cases, specific contractors are named to do the work, "no-bid", of course – I've seen this, it's not a joke.) The main feature is that the "localness" is made explicit and unambiguous. General program funding, on the other hand, is provided in large chunks for a given agency to spend as they see fit, i.e. Congress does not dictate precisely when and where the money is to be spent. However, once the funding filters down through an agency and is disbursed to either in-house personnel or contractors who provide goods and services, it inevitably becomes local. In other words, no government funding remains general, or generic, or free-floating, forever – sooner or later it's translated into someone's paycheck, or agency overhead (which, ultimately, winds up in someone's paycheck), or contractor personnel paychecks, or contractor overhead, which... etc. So when I say that every government program is a jobs program, that's really almost a trivial statement, i.e. it's true by definition. Government money doesn't get paid to trees or rocks or trained sheepdogs – it gets paid to people for doing things. So the case against government programs is not that they create and sustain jobs, because they all do – ultimately, and inevitably. The case is that government expenditures are made, by and large, in defiance of laws of supply and demand, i.e. they are used to purchase goods and services for which there is no demand on the free market – or if there is, it is much lower than the level of “demand” represented by the government program. Now, every time the government buys something that no one wants – i.e. no taxpayer would be willing to pay for if he had the option – it distorts the economy by unduly raising the (artificial) demand for one thing and thus lowering the _legitimate_ demand for something else – i.e. for whatever the taxpayers would buy if they still had the money that they paid in taxes. It is really, ultimately, that simple. So the result, in the long run, is that there are vast sectors of the economy that would simply not exist if it weren't for government... and other sectors that would exist, but in a qualitatively and quantitatively different way. Besides, the goods and services that are delivered to the government, even if they are of some use, are typically produced in a much less efficient and focused way than comparable goods and services provided to the private sector through the marketplace. So in addition to the sin of distorting the market, the government also commits – or allows to be committed – the sin of inefficiency. But even that is, in a sense, an additional source of employment. If it takes more labor hours to produce the same goods or to provide the same services, then the government has “succeeded” in creating even more jobs out of a given program – and since job creation and sustainment are the primary (if unstated) goals, it can almost be said that “efficiency” is totally irrelevant – that, in fact, inefficiency is precisely what is wanted. And what this means, in turn, is that... hang on to your hats... _there is no such thing as “government waste”_! When one thinks about “waste”, one pictures resources being squandered, or thrown away. But this does not actually happen in government programs – all that money is spent on something, and that something is, ultimately, jobs, which means paychecks for people. It's not “waste” to them, is it now? Heck no – as far as they're concerned, the program they're working on is the most necessary, vital, important program in the entire country... and if they don't get paid to work on it, why, the result could be absolute disaster. (Yeah... like unemployment for them!)

Now, maybe you're going to say, “Yeah, but some of these government programs are ridiculous! They pay people to do absolutely stupid things... or nothing at all, in some cases! Surely that qualifies as 'waste'.” But my answer is, well then it's _all_ waste, i.e. anything the government pays for that would not get purchased in a free-market setting is waste... which reduces to virtually everything the government pays for. Why make artificial distinctions? If something would be impossible to sell on the free market, then it's “waste” when government pays for it. But if the goal of government programs is to create and sustain jobs, then _none_ of it is waste. So it's really all a matter of definition.

But then you might say, “OK, but how about the things the government pays for that the free market would pay for if it had the chance?” This would describe sectors of the economy where the government has stepped in and taken over what was a legitimate function of the private sector and made it an _illegitimate_ function of government. But if the government program were terminated, the private sector would regain that function and it would still exist on some level. All perfectly true... and the distortion in this case, as I said before, is not in the fact that the function exists but in the fact that it's a government function and not a private function, which introduces inefficiencies, lack of focus, and lack of responsiveness to real needs. So yes, compared to the same thing being done under free-market conditions, it's wasteful... but, remembering that, for the government, jobs are Job One, we have to admit that, as far as it is concerned, the program is not wasteful, and there is nothing that could _make_ it wasteful – i.e. no level of inefficiency would be sufficiently high for the program to be pronounced “wasteful” by its proponents or the people who run it. As long as the program is providing employment, and as long as it constitutes a fiefdom for its directors, it will never be seen as wasteful. And on those rare occasions when someone – in Congress, say – who is not involved with the program and who does not benefit from it (in the form of votes, say) pronounces it “wasteful”, all they're really saying is that they want the money taken away from that program and given to a program they like. Of course, their program is going to look just as wasteful to someone else as the original program did to them... so ultimately there are no objective criteria. Actually, there is one objective criterion, namely that if government is paying for something no one would pay for on the free market, then whatever that thing is should not exist. And, if the government is paying for something that would be supported on the free market, but in a different, and more efficient, way, then that thing should be privatized.

As I said, it's really quite simple. So now we see that all these arguments about “pork” and “earmarks” are really designed to obfuscate the real situation, which is that the vast majority of government programs simply have no right to exist at all, at any level of funding. And all of Obama's preaching about “legitimacy” of earmarks is nothing more than a diversionary tactic. Are people upset because the "bailout" and "stimulus" money is going for the same old crap, rather than for things most people would consider "emergencies"? Hey, too bad -- even "emergency" money benefits someone more than someone else -- and "emergency" is in the eye of the beholder, isn't it? Once again, if it wouldn't survive in a free market it shouldn't be getting bailed out, or paid for with "stimulus" money, or paid for with regular budget money. Ultimately, there is no difference -- and people are starting to realize that the bailouts, and the "economic stimulus", are nothing more than excuses to spend more government money... which means more taxpayer money... which means more of _your_ money. But don't worry... as I said, none of it will be "wasted"; it will all benefit someone -- just not you.

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