What You Should Think About Pork Barrel Spending

November 12, 2007

“The defense budget is more than a piggy bank for people who want to get busy beating swords into pork barrels.”

–George H. W. Bush

Over the past two days, I’ve encountered an assortment of media items related to NASA’s practice of honoring people associated with the Space Shuttle program with receptions, banquets, and a ceremony coinciding with each launch. One television network even went so far as to run down the contents of a recent buffet item by item. As the unremarkable list was illustrated by computer graphics and emphasized with alarmist narration, I was much more disturbed by this sloppy attempt at journalism than by the fact that there was no limit on how much beef, turkey, or shrimp attendees might consume.

It did sound like the event was nice, but I did not feel the term “lavish” was being used properly in various accounts of it. Certainly the event was nowhere near the kind of extreme decadence one tends to see when corporate entertaining goes beyond the bounds responsible oversight should establish. One report holds that NASA may have spent $4 million on the last seven of these events. That amounts to roughly 0.025% of the actual spending involved in NASA operations during that time.

What public good is accomplished by journalists reacting so dramatically to the idea that NASA might actually spend $250 out of every million dollars under their control to give hard-working scientists, technicians, inspectors, et al. a pat on the back? There was plenty of “taxpayers should resent this” nonsense flowing through the coverage, but there was no effort at all to show some sense of proportion about the matter. Frankly, I think NASA could double up on this, spending a whopping 0.05% of their budget for special events to award good technical work on the Shuttle program, and still be considered responsible in their use of taxpayer funds.

There certainly are situations where it is right for citizens to be outraged by government waste. Unfortunately, politicians and journalists tend to spend so much time stimulating outrage about trivial spending and/or perfectly legitimate spending that there is no keen focus on real corruption and the most costly abuses in the system. In my opinion, the spending in this NASA story was both trivial relative to the big picture and legitimate insofar as it was perfectly reasonable for its purpose. Yet I imagine most American citizens inclined to read a daily newspaper or watch a significant amount of television news encountered this misleading and emotionally charged item.

Of course, it is but one of many. Every time there is a legislative pay raise up for debate, some grandstanding nincompoop sets about depicting Congressional salaries as a form of government waste. I believe the nation would see more fiscal discipline and better legislative work product if the job paid $10 million per year. Being a Representative or Senator is surely more consequential than being able to play a sport extremely well. The only reason I hesitate to advocate that approach to drawing a better class of citizen into the realm of politics is that such high salaries would make unseating an incumbent that much more difficult for challengers.

This nation started building costly missile defense installations before inventing the technology to actually defend against long range ballistic missile attacks. Even in the unlikely event all that rocketry infrastructure finds future use as part of a working missile defense shield, billions upon billions of dollars will have been squandered by putting the proverbial cart before the horse. Yet the role Senators Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer played in earmarking $1 million for a museum near the site of the Woodstock music festival has generated far more public criticism than the role George W. Bush played in deploying a major military system before developing the hardware essential to making that system function in any useful way.

Another item fluttering about the news in recent days has been the mysterious problem that brought down an F-15 fighter during a routine training flight. I cannot dispute what Air Force officers have to say about that warplane. It is an old design, most of the chassis have seen heavy use for decades, and the time has come to consider retiring them outright. Yet the initiative building up steam on Capitol Hill is not for a simple strike fighter replacement. Instead the plan is to double the build orders for the F-22, a powerful (and powerfully expensive) yet stealthy air superiority warplane.

It may well be the case that the Air Force and the Navy need to go beyond existing plans to modernize their aircraft fleets. The problem is that in the military-industrial complex’s uncompromising pursuit of excellence, there is also no room for compromise in spending. The wealthiest nation in the world cannot manage $35 billion to insure health care for children for the next decade, but we can find a larger sum to avoid losing a single step in the arms race? Considering that no other nation is foolish enough to run that race with us anymore, we have all the more reason to reconsider maintaining this extreme pace.

Widespread public perception holds that the $9 trillion debt accumulated by our federal government is a function of “all that damned waste.” Spending like NASA’s banquets or the Museum at Bethel Woods are not at all the real problem here. Now that museum’s funding has been abandoned, all because of misdirected outrage about government waste. So long as politicians and journalists continue to stir up public outrage about little things, many of which actually are not as ridiculous as they are made to seem by sensationalist media accounts, it becomes more difficult to rally the public behind fiscal restraints that are both non-trivial and reasonable.

George W. Bush, happily in league with strong Congressional majorities for the first six years of his Presidency, never vetoed a single spending measure during that time. While pundits bickered about the “waste” of a million here and a million there for projects like the study of an exotic species or a fact-finding mission to some Hawaiian resort, the President and his allies gave out billions in subsidies to profitable oil and gas companies. Not only was this a useless drain on the treasury — it also serves to place business rivals in fields like alternative energy and nuclear power at a relative disadvantage. It was a deliberate step away from energy independence.

Perhaps it is true that a million dollars saved is a million dollars earned. Yet policymakers must cut a million dollars one thousand times to compensate for squandering one billion dollars. If we do not develop a sense of proportion about these matters, then we cannot hope to have an informed national debate about how to bring government spending under control. While the media continues to focus on everything except the major problem areas in our national budget, that sense of proportion will continue to be elusive. I can only hope that in the mean time NASA is not reduced to rewarding its best engineers with nothing more than a literal pat on the back.