Friday, April 03, 2009

Supposedly Wasteful Spending and Anti-Intellectualism

[Note: In my post on Wednesday, I stated that my next post would "address some of the more silly comments about economics that some of the Times op-ed writers have offered recently." I will publish that post on Monday morning.]

One of the more amusing aspects of the debate over the fiscal stimulus package and President Obama's first budget has been the attempts by Republican politicians to score points by decrying line items from the budget that (they think) sound silly, hoping that voters will conclude that Democrats just want to waste money on bizarre projects with no social value. These items are then picked up by the echo chamber and turned into momentary causes celebres. (Being a liberal, I am compelled to use a French phrase.) High-speed rail from Disneyland to Las Vegas? How horrible! As this example demonstrates, it is not even necessary that the program actually have been proposed by any real politician, only that it sound outrageous.

What is both interesting and disturbing, however, is the pattern that emerges when one listens to the types of spending proposals that raise the ire of the defenders of fiscal probity. From Bobby Jindal's complaints about an earthquake monitoring system and a "magnetic levitation" high-speed rail project to Fox News's horrified reaction to the idea of spending money on research about insects, the common theme is that anti-spending politicians think they have a winner when they can point to money that would be spent on something that sounds scientific or intellectual. They really, really hate "studies" of any kind. The idea, apparently, is that regular guys don't want their hard-earned money going to eggheads.

This is an old trick, of course. At least as long ago as the 1970's (which is as far back as my political memory goes), Sen. William Proxmire (D-WI) mounted a one-man crusade against wasteful spending, announcing his "Golden Fleece Awards" to spotlight egregious wastes of public funds. One week, he announced that the award was going to a government study that was designed to investigate why inmates try to escape from prison. How ridiculous, opined the Senator. We already know why they want to get out of prison: They don't like being in jail!! Even as a teenager, I could not understand why this study was being ridiculed. Obviously, the question was why inmates would try to escape given the likelihood of being injured or killed in the attempt, the likelihood of being recaptured, and the increased sentences that accompany escape attempts. Why would we not want to spend a few thousand dollars (which really was the extent of the spending) to try to learn more about this question? We might even discover inexpensive ways to decrease escape attempts.

Proxmire's shtick was later picked up by NBC News, which ran a series called "The Fleecing of America" for several years. As one columnist noted at the time, exposing government corruption is a lot less risky than exposing corruption in private industry, because you're much less likely to be sued by a federal agency if you're wrong. Some watchdog groups have recently revived the Golden Fleece Awards, again to expose the politicians who are supposedly spending us into the poorhouse.

As someone who believes that government should not waste money, I generally think that it is important to keep a close eye on the spending of public funds. Inspectors general should be aggressive, whistleblower protections should be enhanced, and the Government Accountability Office should continue to do its important work. It is truly objectionable, however, when the hunt for misspent funds becomes -- as it so often does -- an attack on education, research, and science. As a very wise smart guy once said: Knowledge comes with a price, but ignorance is far too expensive.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan


Jamison Colburn said...

Boy. It reached a fever pitch in the last election cycle, too. My favorite (obvious selection bias notwithstanding) was the repeated attempts to label a relatively cheap study of the genetics of the Rocky Mountain grizzly population and interior West's wolf populations as wasteful spending -- when one of the driving forces behind the studies was/is a continuing insistence by western ranchers (and others) that these populations are identical to those in Canada and that their extirpation would be unimportant. It made me giggle (and squirm a little). Great post, Neil.

egarber said...

The anti-spending crusaders are simply trying to create something easy to understand, something that doesn't require much reflection to comprehend. But it's so intellectually dishonest. Anybody who puts even a semblance of thought into it *should* see this path:

1. Basic research is a cornerstone of our economic system.

2. Basic research leads to a more educated population.

3. Basic research generates patents, which are translated into revenue streams for institutions.

4. Those patents seed private ventures.

5. Those private ventures create wealth.

6. That wealth leads to jobs and higher incomes.