Results of the Pick your Pork Wonkathon

by Bruce Webb

Disappointing from the point of view of participation, yet not unexpected. Because I just don’t think they have the numbers on their side.

On Friday I invited AB readers, and particularly those critical of HR.1 aka the House Stimulus Bill, to dig into the numbers and develop lists of spending items that could clearly be described as pork or shown to be scheduled too late to have real impact. Pick your Pork: an Open Invitation The implicit challenge was to see whether their opposition to the plan was actually data driven by a concern that the money was being targeted in wasteful ways in too long of time frames or whether like Mankiw’s linking to (without actually endorsing) every blog critical of the stimulus package or the Wall Street Journal’s editorial’s incredibly lazy piece that Dan directed us to in Saturday Browsing was really being driven by free market fundamentalist ideology or worse by simple partisanship. Well lets just say it wasn’t data driven. Results and discussion under the fold.

First participation was poor and relatively non-specific. The most helpful input was provided by Kolohe who suggested that likely cubbyholes of pork would be found in Title 4 Defense, Title 7 Homeland Security, and Title 11 State Department. Which seems reasonable enough, time lines for defense spending are often long, homeland security would seem to be pretty much staffed, and the State Department mostly works overseas. The odds that all of the spending in these categories would be focused on American job creating infrastructure did not a priori seem likely. So I took a look at all three.

Title 4 Defense $4.8 billion or .5% of the package. Going in I figured this was likely to be mostly boosts in spending for medical care for returning soldiers from Iraq. Well it turned out that indeed $454 million was being directed to the “Defense Health Program”. But another $350 million was going to “Energy Research and Development” intended to increase energy efficiency at military installations and in military vehicles. The remainder of this spending category was “Operations and Maintenence” which I assumed was to repair and maintain equipment coming back from Iraq. This was confirmed by reader 2slugbaits who it turns out worked on this section as a consultant to the Pentagon. He further explained that most of it would go to extending the contract for civilian workers in military depots who make sure that machinery destroying desert sand is fully cleaned out.

So we have medical care for soldiers coming back from Iraq, maintenance of their equipment, and a military contribution to our national goal of energy independence. No apparent pork chops here.

Title 7 Homeland Security $1.1 billion or .134% of the package.
(And this is a point I will return to. As Noni reminded us there is a hell of a lot of difference between million, billion, and trillion. Which doesn’t mean we can just throw unlimited numbers of $100 million dollar bills around. As a senator once pointed out years ago ‘A billion here and a billion there and soon it adds up to real money’. On the other hand obsessing about a $1 million earmark for a NY museum is kind of silly.)
$100 million “Customs and Border Protection: non-intrusive detection technology for sea ports of entry”
$150 million ‘Construct and repair inspection facilities at land border ports of entry’
$500 million “Transportation Security Administration: purchase and installation of explosive detection systems”
$150 million “Coast Guard: Alteration or removal of obstructive bridges”
$200 million “FEMA: Emergency Food and Shelter”

So we have $600 million for high tech equipment for sea port and airport security which may not all be delivered and installed in two years but should create some manufacturing jobs in the interim. $350 million for bridge alteration and for construction at border installations. And $200 million in funding for natural disasters. Not a lot of bacon strips here, most all of this money will be out the door in short order and/or enhance our defenses against terrorists.

Title 11 State Department $500 million or .06% of the package.
For Hilary haters this would seem to be fertile ground, surely she stuck something in even though she really didn’t get much of the package as a whole, after all most of here operation is overseas. Sorry friends, this looks to be pretty clean.
That $500 million is split between:
$224 million “National Boundary and Water Comm, US and Mexico: Construction” $224 million for ‘immediate repair and rehabilitation requirements’. It turns out that certain water projects on the Mexican border fall under State and require some labor intensive repair work.
$276 million “Capital Investment Fund” $276 million of which
‘Backup information management facility’ $120 million
‘responsibilities under the Comprehensive National Cybersecurity Initiative’ $98 million.

Sharp eyes will notice that the two specific projects add up to just $218 million. Leaving $58 million unaccounted for. An examination of the bill shows that Secretary Clinton has 90 days to submit a detailed spending plan for that money. So if it turns to pork it will be transparent pork and in any event only .012% of the whole package.

Once again we are not talking about a lot of money in context here. And most of that spending is clearly focused on infrastructure repair and construction on projects that can be contracted out in pretty rapid fashion.

So these three potential pigpens of pork end up delivering on three different national priorities: job creation in building infrastructure, counter terrorism, and energy independence. Arguments that some of this adds up to pork anyway are welcome in comments.
On a somewhat different note reader Sammy challenged me as follows

Are you are just looking at the title of the spending line ie. “Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy” Budget Authority = $18,500M (which is on top of what is already budgeted for 2009) and concluding that it is necessary, or not pork??????

Note first that he never actually checked the line items, he just assumed I looked at the title and said ‘Okay’. Well up to that point I hadn’t looked at this category at all so I browsed on over to HR.1. Details of the breakdown are available on the previous comment thread but what I found that was very interesting is that just about half of the spending in this category was authorized by energy bills passed in 2005 and 2007, time periods during which the Republicans either had full control or had blocking power via the filibuster and/or the veto. That is if this authorized spending was pork it was largely Republican pork. And as it turns out not actually budgeted for to start with. For the House Republicans to now say that the whole package is a waste and should be replaced by tax cuts you have to wonder ‘Why did you allow this to go through the first time?’

As I get time I’ll poke around in some of the other categories like Arts, Science and Education where the relation between spending and economic stimulus are not immediately apparent. But as far as I am concerned opponents of this package seem driven much, much more by considerations of future partisan advantage and anti-government ideology than by any kind of rational, numbers based examination of the proposed spending. All I see is them falling in behind their Once and Future King Limbaugh and hoping that Obama and the Democratic Party fail. Which begs the question ‘Who is the anti-American in this picture’.

Of course anyone is free to prove me to be just a hyper-partisan here. All you need to do is to come up with a clear list of proposed projects that are just wasted pork and or come up with a numerically backed argument to support this claim by Sammy.

If we have $815B to play with here to get the economy back on track, there are so many better ways to spend it if you want to spur the private sector back to life, which is the real engine of wealth. How about a corporate tax cut?

Well how about it? But in order to be convincing it needs to come with some numbers attached. Otherwise it is just another talking point. Bring it on!