The Bogus McCain/Coburn Campaign Against Waste in the Recovery Act

mccain 1 1

It’s very easy to describe most grants, whether foundation-funded or government-funded, as silly-sounding waste if you’re willing to use pejorative wording. And if like Senators John McCain and Tom Coburn you’re willing to combine that with widespread inaccuracy, then it’s easy to devise a list of 100 wasteful stimulus-funded projects.

Jared Bernstein, writing for the White House, observes that five of the allegedly wasteful stimulus projects aren’t ARRA-funded projects at all. It’s also easier to describe things as wasteful when you don’t describe them correctly:

Take for example an award that McCain and Coburn describe as “funding a WNBA Practice Facility,” when in fact the award is building a tribal government center that will create education and health facilities while also creating hundreds of jobs. Moreover, the tribe has agreed to disallow any commercial use of the facility.

In general, there are obviously a lot of unemployed people in this country who were previously working in the construction sector. That means doing construction projects now rather than later is a smart idea. But McCain and Coburn just seem to object, in general, to building stuff. For example, they reveal that the federal government gave $135 million in bond authority to the Vermont Economic Development Agency which, in turn, loaned $25 million to a ski resort to replace some lifts and buy new equipment. But what’s wrong with that? The money is going to be repaid. The government is facilitating the transfer of economic activity from the non-depressed future into the currently-depressed present, thereby alleviating economic misery.

Jon Chait observes that McCain & Coburn also seem to have decided that anything relating to animals is necessarily waste. Hence a small grant to fund research on cocaine addiction and relapse is turned into “Monkeys Getting High for Science.” Hardy-har-har. There’s a case to be made that the government has no role to play in funding scientific research, but it’s a mighty bad case. If you think the government should fund research in the health and medical fields then of course you’re going to be funding some experiments that involve monkeys. Even though monkeys are funny.

They also deploy some plain illogic. They go on and on about problems in the past with Pittsburgh’s North Shore Connector project which is going to extend the city’s light rail under the Allegheny River so it can serve the stadiums. They cite perhaps-persuasive evidence that the project has been mismanaged from the start, and arguably never should have been undertaken at all. That said, sunk costs in the past are irrelevant to whether or not a $65 million ARRA grant to finish the damn thing is a good idea. They also appear to object to the idea that this particular branch of the light rail will be for “entertainment” rather than for “commuters” but by this logic there should be no transportation to sports stadiums and movie theaters whatsoever. In the real world, of course, getting people to entertainment locales is a perfectly valid goal of transportation policy.

The whole list is full of nonsense like this. It’s true, of course, that if you don’t accept the underlying premise that it makes sense to engage in temporary spending boosts to counteract a downturn then you’ll discover that ARRA is full of not-totally-essential spending items. But counteracting the downturn is itself an essential government priority.