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Pork Barrel Politics


Silly me. Here I am thinking that the lesson of Katrina is that – finally – people in politics and government are going to have a “Come to Jesus” moment about infrastructure spending and how putting off for tomorrow what you need to do today is a bad, short-sighted idea that’s just beginning to affect this country’s economic well-being.
Then I get a pointer to Instapundit Glenn Reynold’s and N.Z.Bear’s “PorkBusters.”
Now, I’m well aware of the stupidity of disagreeing with Reynolds, the Pope of the blogosphere. But Porkbusters is, well, it’s wrong-headed. It’s saying that cutting government spending by scouring the latest highway bill for “pork” is a good substitute for, I dunno, raising taxes and for the first time in a generation allowing government spending to become slightly less shameful about spending money in a pro-active way.
The Porkbusters list is long and the list is bipartisan and it makes some good points about how very messed up the federal government’s appropriations and spending process is. That part, I get. Having covered Congress, I doubly get it. But the whole idea behind Porkbusters is, I’m afraid, an extension of the thinking that got us – and the City of New Orleans, the states of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana – in this mess in the first place.
Porkbusters is, really, an on-line take on the old “It’s Your Money” reports that TV stations and newspapers do to increase viewership. And it’s going to have the same effect. It’s going to play to folks who think – and few don’t – that their tax dollars could be better spent. But pork is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s sweaty ugly overfed hog is another’s porkchop dinner for his hungry and hard-working family.

So I took a look at the list compiled for my state, California, which isn’t just strapped for cash but almost broke. How broke? Here in San Francisco, we are being asked to approve a bond issue so we can pave the streets and fix the sidewalks, projects that should – if the city had a decent tax base – come out of general funds. That’s broke. It’s also why the state pushes much-needed projects to the feds. But that’s another post.
Not surprising, a number of so-called “local” projects are highlighted on “Porkbusters.” Some street repairs, some traffic signals, one that would improve commuting times in the East Bay. But there’s also this description of the seismic retrofit of the Bay Bridge which “a San Francisco resident” puts at $58.8 million:

This is a necessary project, but does not need to be paid for by the federal government. The Golden Gate Bridge connects two of the most affluent counties in the nation. With 130,000 (mostly well-to-do) commuters a day, the cost of this project can easily be covered with a nominal $0.50 hike in one-way tolls for a period of less than three years.

Well, the Golden Gate Bridge is a national landmark, for starters. And since it carries U.S. 101 from one side of the Golden Gate to the other, it’s also a federal highway. The federal highway system was built – back in the days when the government was seen as benefiting all Americans – to carry goods and people from one part of the country to the other. And the deal was that the federal government would help maintain those roads because everyone needed them, either directly, to drive between San Francisco and Marin Country or indirectly, say if there were an emergency and folks needed to get quickly in or out of San Francisco because lives were at stake.
To brush aside the Golden Gate Bridge as nothing more than a commuter toll road that its users should pay to retrofit is uh, is not in keeping with that philosophy. It’s also an extension of the attitude that got us and everyone in New Orleans into this mess in the first place: You got yours, I got mine. You take care of yours, I’ll take care of mine. And those that don’t have, well, I guess God’ll take care of ‘em. A seismic retrofit of the Golden Gate Bridge isn’t pork in an area of the country that’s prone to earthquakes. It could well be a lifeline to a city facing – like New Orleans – destruction.
Let’s say the Golden Gate did collapse in an earthquake. The damage – in physical and economic terms – would come to a lot more that $58.8 milion. The chances that lives would be lost – maybe some of those 130,000 rich folks – is high. But it’s also possible that many folks who make their livings in Marin and must drive there to do their jobs (because Marin is even more ungodly expensive than San Francisco) would also perish. The collapse of the Golden Gate would cut out one of the three ways to get in and out of San Francisco which may well not be habitable in such a quake or, at a minimum, might need goods, services and people brought in from other parts of the Bay Area for aid and help. And there’s a good chance that the debris from the bridge would hinder a major shipping channel: the one to the Port of Oakland. If the Gate were to be damaged in an earthquake, its destruction would push traffic over to the already overcrowded and clogged roads of the East Bay, also federal highways, which I might add, are roads that don’t just carry rich folks but carry goods from, among other places, the Port of Oakland (imports and exports) and the Central Valley (fruits and vegetables). It seems to me that those are good reasons why everyone – not just those mythical 130,000 commuters in their BMWs and Mercedes – ought to be happy to see their federal tax dollars go to this project. Besides, toll roads tax the poor disproportionately to the rich; so the woman driving from San Francisco’s Sunset neighborhood to the Corte Madera mall for her job at Macy’s is hurt more than someone like me, crossing the bridge once a month to visit friends in Inverness.
Now the problem with my criticism – I can hear the howls of outrage, already – is that it puts the needs of a few “mostly well-to-do-commuters” against the needs of the citizens of New Orleans at a time when it’s clear that New Orleans needs more help than Marin County or San Francisco. And that’s precisely what “Porkbusters,” like its ancestor, “It’s Your Money,” is meant to do. Intentionally or not, it drapes federal spending with sort of moral or ethical valuation, dreamed up by someone who opposes all spending and who wants to encourage others to see government as inherently wasteful.
That way of looking at how our government provides for all of us is one that has just got to stop. Isn’t that the lesson of New Orleans? One of ‘em anyway? The infrastructure that keeps this nation going – its roads and bridges, its dams and levees, its airports and train stations – is in a serious state of disrepair. It needs spending and it needs it soon.
This used to be a wealthy country that said it tried to do the best for all its citizens by looking ahead to provide a better future: Highways that worked and could carry us safely from place to place, bridges that would stand, schools that would teach. These days, that claim is hollow. We are a nation that uses hindsight in emergencies to scramble to figure out how to provide for those who have needed our help all along. And we do a lousy job. In part because we’re too busy pointing fingers and laying blame for responsibilities we should all share.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 12:16 PM | Permalink

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