McCain, Dowd Substitute Mockery for Understanding

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"McCain, Dowd Substitute Mockery for Understanding"

You understand why politics might get up to dumb gimmicks. They’re trying to get press, they’re trying to get elected, whatever. But even though lots of people do it, I genuinely don’t understand why someone would go into political journalism despite a total lack of interest in trying to actually inform the public. If you want to operate with a reckless disregard for the consequences of your actions, there’s a lot more money to be had in banking. At any rate, Maureen Dowd loves John McCain’s Twitter feed:

$1 million for Mormon cricket control in Utah. “Is that the species of cricket or a game played by the brits?” McCain tweeted. …

$2 million “for the promotion of astronomy” in Hawaii, as McCain twittered, “because nothing says new jobs for average Americans like investing in astronomy.” …

$200,000 for a tattoo removal violence outreach program to help gang members or others shed visible signs of their past. “REALLY?” McCain twittered.

The tattoo removal anti-crime program has already been dealt with in some detail. But it’s worth dwelling on this for a bit. The cost per-prisoner of incarcerating someone for a year is enormous. If this program generates as little as ten person-years less of imprisonment that’s a net fiscal benefit to the government even if you ignore the benefits of reducing crime which, obviously, would be absurd. In other words, the marginal benefit of preventing a serious violent crime is extremely high—much higher than might be apparent if you didn’t bother to consider the issue at all. Which is exactly how McCain proceeds.

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As Jon Chait says:

And McCain’s method of indentifying waste, gleefully repeated by Dowd, is a disgrace. His technique is to focus on programs that mention animals or food, or anything that sounds silly. He’s clearly not interested in learning whether any of the programs he targets have merit. [...] I don’t know whether or not cricket control is a necessary program. Maybe crickets are doing many times that amount in crop damage every year. Maybe it’s a boondoggle. I don’t know about the astronomy program, either, though I do think there’s a role for federal support of the sciences, even in silly-sounding places like Hawaii.

I’m just a blogger, not a U.S. Senator or a powerful newspaper columnist with access to a research assistant, but it’s not so difficult to make some inquiries into this sort of thing. What’s the deal with Mormon crickets? Well “Mormon crickets become pests very sporadically (about once or twice in a decade) when populations build to high levels and they migrate over large areas. If an alfalfa field is in the path of a migration, Mormon crickets can cause severe damage by devouring the plants.” Are Mormon crickets a problem this year? It seems they are. Now that bit of Googling is hardly the last word on this, but we’re at least getting somewhere. Dowd and McCain both have a lot of resources at their disposal and big megaphones—maybe they should try to figure this stuff out and help people distinguish the worthy programs from the wasteful ones instead of just making jokes.

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