August 8, 2007

Kosher Security: the War Against Global Pork

Hatched by Dafydd

This is the second in our ongoing series, searching for a unifying theme of national security in the campaigns of Republican candidates for president. I believe that we desperately need such a theme: an easy-to-understand, overarching "narrative" that melds together a number of urgent problems and their solutions. Our first post in this series explained why the future of energy production is actually a national-security issue:

In this installment, I hope we can demonstrate that eliminating "pork" (earmarks, phonemarks) from the government's diet is also a vital national-security issue.

First, let's start with a definition: Not every earmark is "pork." In the Congress, an earmark means a section of appropriations legislation that directs funding to a specific, named purpose. If the purpose truly benefits the entire country -- for example, earmarking funds to upgrade and improve the Air Traffic Control computer system -- there is nothing untoward about it. It could still be either a good or bad expenditure, but it's not necessarily corrupt, even if it specifies the company that will perform the upgrade.

The problem arises when the earmark is directed to a project benefitting only the district or state of the powerful congressman who forced its inclusion... and especially when it benefits a particular business within that district (or even elsewhere) that just happens to have contributed significant money to that congressman's reelection fund. Let's agree to call earmarks intended to benfit only a narrow subset of Americans, at the expense of the rest of us, "evil-earmarks," or EEs, to distinguish them from the other kind.

EEs can be a profitable deal for the company: They bundle $200 thousand from "voluntary" employee contributions to Congressman Smitty, and Congressman Smitty directs $223 million worth of new business to the company, building a Mucus Museum or a new dome for the George Soreass Sports Centre. If it just so happens that the 200 Gs came from a hundred executives, each of whom owns significant stock in the company, and if the company stock rises a few points because of the earmark, it can even be profitable (and legal) for the donating employees.

Of course, it's not so good for the rest of us, who have to pay higher taxes to support somebody else's wretched soccer stadium. $223 million may be a mere molecule in the opalescent ocean of federal spending; but a couple thousand of such earmarks would be greater than this year's entire budget for the Department of Defense. A billion dollars here, a billion dollars there... it adds up.

And as it adds up, such corruption saps the economic strength of the United States.

Econ. 101

Most economists -- and by definition all free-market economists, who are the only ones I care about (color me prejudiced) -- agree that wealth is generally much better spent or invested by its creators, or those who legitimately purchase it, than by the government. Financial decisions of governmental bodies or functionaries are often not made on the basis of a proper cost-benefit analysis but for purely political reasons.

For example, consider the move by politicians (and left-liberal academics at state-funded universities) in the 1970s and 80s to divest pension-fund portfolios of all stock in South African companies, to protest Apartheid... and the similar move among many state and local governments -- and left-liberal academics at state-funded universities -- to divest pension funds of all stock in Israeli companies, and even non-Israeli companies that do business in Israel, to protest Israel's continued existence. Or consider the move to divest from Wal-Mart because Wal-Mart's employees continue to vote against unionizing.

When people invest their own money, they tend to take more care; and they tend to put economic considerations above sending a partisan message. But when they invest "OPM," they're much less circumspect. Democrats especially are always willing to purchase sanctimony by digging down deep -- into your pocket.

It is a truism requiring no argument that investing for non-economic reasons will not, in general, generate as great a return as investing based upon purely economic reasons. Bad investments of great magnitude damage the economy. Thus, evil-earmarks damage the economy.

Why does this matter? For the obvious reason that the operating budget of the United States -- and all components, including the DoD, the CIA, DHS, NSA, FBI, and the State Department -- critically depends upon the health of the nation's economy: Anything that damages the economy, including evil-earmarks, harms national security.

The road to apathy

But there is a more subtle way that EEs become a national-security issue: They are the most visible examples of corruption in government; and when the government is seen as corrupt, it's harder to inspire support for vital national-security programs, from the NSA's Terrorist Surveillance Program and the data-mining program, to support for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, to military recruitment.

The more people believe the government is corrupt, the less likely they are to believe anything government officials say... hence the less likely they are to support intelligence gathering programs and major sacrifices, such as war. In an indirect but nevertheless very real sense, past GOP corruption led Americans to discount defenses of the war and other security measures. Many Americans believed "they'll say anything to keep the spigot wide open."

Now the Democrats are in charge, to a large extent because of the perception of a "Republican culture of corruption;" and voters have discovered that lobbyists are equal-opportunity seducers: They're just as happy bribing Democrats as Republicans, and the former are equally willing to grab for the cash. Thus, despite many promises to the contrary, in the end, the Democrats could not bring themselves to shine a spotlight on individual earmarks; since they took over the corrupt practice of evil-earmarks themselves, they have lost all interest in making EEs public record.

In fact, they even invented a brand new method of achieving the same goal, which has been dubbed "phonemarking." See the link above.

Visible corruption leads to the erroneous belief that it "doesn't matter" who is in charge, because "they're all equally corrupt." This in turn leads to voter apathy... or even worse, electoral tribalism, where elections are treated as playoff games; voters cheer when "their guy" wins, regardless of his issue positions, experience, or even fitness for the job.

An apathetic or tribalist electorate has a very hard time understanding bipartisan issues such as war, national security, protecting the borders, the rule of law, and leadership. They care only where their "team" stands in the rankings.


A presidential candidate can sum up this entire syllogism very pithily:

Continued congressional corruption not only bleeds away funds we need to support vital national security; worse, it saps the willingness of the American people to stand up for our country and our culture.

I have never seen a valid counterargument: Stopping evil-earmarks is a vital national-security issue, and it should be defended as such by all the Republican candidates for president... and indeed, the Democrats as well; though so far, the latter -- notably including the Democratic presidential candidates -- seem as incapable of understanding this point as the Republicans who ran the 109th Congress last term.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, August 8, 2007, at the time of 3:22 PM

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The following hissed in response by: Big D

Well, yes but...

Small states have very little power in Congress, but may have the same or even greater needs for federal funds than large states. But why in the world would the large states, with many more representatives in Congress, ever agree to provide funds to small states? For example, couldn't Texas, Florida, California, and New York simply divvy up all the federal highway funds amongst themselves?

What prevents the tyranny of the majority in congress is seniority and earmarking. Small state legislators get seniority in the house and senate, and are able to attach riders or earmark funds. While such a system is corruptible, it doesn't mean that whenever funds are earmarked for a specific use in a specific district it is automatically corruption.

The Alaska "Bridges to Nowhere" fiasco is an example of "bad" earmarking that really isn't all that bad. The proposed bridge to Gravina Island in Ketchikan is a bridge from the city (6th largest in the state) to an island with just 50 residents (i.e. "nowhere"). What isn't discussed is that the airport for the city in on that island too. And that the ferry sometimes can't run in bad weather (240 inches of rain a year). Oh, and did I mention primary business of Ketchikan is...tourism? Tourists who fly?

It is not coincidence that the "Kings of Pork" in the Senate are Robert Byrd and Ted Stevens. Both represent mostly rural and undeveloped states.

I don't disagree completely with your post, and what your describe certainly happens, but earmarking arose as a way to prevent tyranny of the majority over the minority. What is need is to develop a better means of accomplishing the same thing.

From a defense side of things - federal spending is one way the states are bound together more tightly in the union. While overuse of earmark spending may lesson large state commitment, it may increase small state willingness to stand up for the whole.

A delicate balance.

The above hissed in response by: Big D [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2007 11:46 AM

The following hissed in response by: JohnSal

I agree with the thrust of Big D, let's not prejudge.

If we believe in the philosophy that the USG is too big, then, for me, the medicine is transparency in its decision making process. Thus, as a slight aside, if the perceived problem is campaign financing, the solution is not more byzantine regulations but public reporting, i.e. create a data base for all campaigns which records all contributions, amounts, dates and contributor names (not just organization names), with 72 hour limits (24 hours within 45 days of election) and stiff enforcement and penalties. Voila!

The same goes for all earmarks - defined as targeted expenditures for one region or one industry. Create and continually update a data base of complete information regarding the earmark and its sponsor(s). Follow this up with a revised campaign of "Golden Fleece Awards" a la William Proxmire. I know the GFA was revived in 2000 by Taxpayers for Common Sense, but it seems to get no publicity (MSM anyone?). But, with the alternative media on the case - blogs and talk radio - along with the web site of the data base, it will force the earmarkers to own up and provide a believable justification.

Then the public can makes an informed decision about earmarks in general and each proposal individually. The end result, hopefully, will be fewer earmarks and less wasteful expenditures.

The above hissed in response by: JohnSal [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 10, 2007 9:27 AM

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