Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Senate Changed Paul

The earmark debate is dumb. Earmarks account for an absurdly small percentage of federal spending, so the hubbub over it is almost invariably a way to sound like one cares about the budget without actually having to cut anything worthwhile.

Nonetheless, it has been a bit of a tea party hobbyhorse, and opposition to earmarks was a key element of Sen.-elect Rand Paul's (R-KY) campaign. So much for that:
In a bigger shift from his campaign pledge to end earmarks, he tells me that they are a bad “symbol” of easy spending but that he will fight for Kentucky’s share of earmarks and federal pork, as long as it’s doled out transparently at the committee level and not parachuted in in the dead of night. “I will advocate for Kentucky’s interests,” he says.

Good lord, man, you've been elected for less than a week! At least go through the motions!

I'm reminded of the last panel of this comic:
THOG: Thog wonders how Thog will cope with life outside jailhouse walls. Prison changed Thog.

ELAN: We were only in there for 40 minutes.

THOG: Prison changed Thog quickly.


N. Friedman said...

Your comment regarding earmarks is, in my view, incoherent. Lots of small things ultimately add up eventually to some big things. Surely, you remember the saying: a billion here, a billion there; pretty soon we're talking real money. Or, in English, earmarks may not, of themselves, be more than a ant but there are a great many ants that, eventually, add up to a lot of money.

Of course, you are correct that Paul should put his money where his mouth is. Well, I am not fan of his and it is interesting to see him caught between his "ideals" and his voters' needs.

Cycle Cyril said...

A further problem with earmarks is that it makes the Federal government look like an endless piggy bank that is there to satisfy any need whether petty or not.

While eliminating earmarks is partly symbolic, as NF clearly indicates, it adds up and sets the tone for fiscal prudence in other areas.

David Schraub said...

It "adds up" in the sense that if I take a bucket into the ocean and pour it over the dunes, there's slightly less water in the ocean. But if I was actually trying to drain the sea, focusing obsessively on that one bucket would be (a) spectacularly inefficient and (b) a recipe for failure. Even if one eliminated all the earmarks, one wouldn't make a dent in federal spending (particularly since earmarks often don't increase spending at all -- they divert already-approved spending away from merit-based formulas to the Congressman's pet project. Perhaps bad, but not because it increases spending.). You can't even say that if you keep going to the bucket, you'll eventually make an impact -- earmark spending is only enough to fill one bucket!

Meanwhile, allowing earmarks to take center stage in discussions about spending diverts attention from the areas of the federal budget that we'd actually have to cut in order to make a meaningful impact on spending. It let's us continue the endless posturing over federal spending that has characterized "deficit hawks" and "small government pols" for at least the past decade -- pretending like they care about the problem when they really don't.

If you care about cutting government spending, you need to have some ideas about substantial programs to cut. But since almost every supposed deficit hawk puts entitlements and defense spending off the table (together, 3/4 of the federal budget), forgive me if I think that earmark reform is but smoke and mirrors to distract us from the fact that they have no plans to cut spending at all.

Cycle Cyril said...

I for one would cut entitlements which has run rampant. I would not cut defense, which these days are necessary and in future days will probably even more necessary.

joe said...

To be fair, the reasons we even have a dumb earmark sideshow is that all those expensive programs are off the table thanks to a system that is an obstructionist's wet dream. Various entrenched interest groups will defend to the death their own benefits, hence the specter of "keep your socialism off my Medicare" Tea Party signs. If deficits are your pet issue you'll still want to look at who will raise spending least, even if substantive cuts prove unattainable. Under the system we have now it's either that or the Grover Norquist approach.

In other words, politician who says he's different joins, not beats, city hall. News at 11.

N. Friedman said...


You write: 'It "adds up" in the sense that if I take a bucket into the ocean and pour it over the dunes, there's slightly less water in the ocean.'

I recall a similar debate regarding crime in New York City, which was that focusing on small crimes was a waste of time, given all the robbery and other serious crime. Eventually, the city tried focusing on small crime. The results were pretty remarkable - changing the attitude of many in the city and, if I recall correctly, dramatically improving the crime situation overall.

So, I do not buy your drop in the ocean rhetoric. If, in fact, there is a problem of spending on waste, then finding waste to deal with makes sense.

I might add: it might lead towards greater acceptance of liberal programs by the general if liberals public did not oppose plans - even symbolic ones such as earmarks - to eliminate waste.

N. Friedman said...


Strike: "I might add: it might lead towards greater acceptance of liberal programs by the general if liberals public did not oppose plans - even symbolic ones such as earmarks - to eliminate waste."


I might add: it might lead towards greater acceptance of liberal programs by the general public if liberals did not oppose plans - even if directed towards symbolic problems such as earmarks - to eliminate waste.

David Schraub said...

Well, at the moment the problem seems to be that conservatives can't bring themselves to support "symbolic" reductions either.

In any event, sometimes, undoubtedly, symbolic measures provide a spark which allows bigger actions later. And sometimes symbolic measures are nothing but empty symbolism. Show me the proof that Republicans have big ticket items they're interested in cutting, and I'll buy that earmarks are the first step in a larger journey.

N. Friedman said...


It sounds like your view is, bite your nose to spite your face.

I have no idea whether and to what extent Republicans are sincere about anything. No doubt, some are and some are not. The question, of course, is who and how many and in what way. And, the way to find out is to try.

Your approach, by contrast, seems simply to involve basically dismissing those with whom you disagree, like our not so politically able President. That, to me, is a species of why liberals of your stripe have made themselves so out of step with the country.

David Schraub said...

Your credulity on the matter is adorable, but the fact is that one of the perks of being in Congress is that one can propose bills cutting whatever spending one believes should be cut. There's no need to start with earmarks. Nor, for that matter, is there any reason to believe that Republican refusal to discuss substantive spending cuts is all part of some clever, unrevealed strategy, as opposed to a revealed preference that they don't actually have a desire to substantively cut spending.

N. Friedman said...


Not being a Republican but a Democrat, I entertain the possibility that I have no sure knowledge of what Republicans will or will not propose. I am not even sure that cuts are appropriate, even if that is what they have in mind.

What I do know is that assuming the opponent is evil and without ideas is almost always a mistake. It is surely something that a lawyer does at his or her peril.

I do recall reading Bernard-Henri Lévy travel book, American Vertigo - you'd like it, by the way -, where he spends much time interviewing leading intellectuals and politicians from both parties. As he noted, just now the problem in the US is that the Democrats have ideas about getting elected but a complete lack of coherent ideas about governing. His view - and he is, to note, a man of the Left - is that, while he disagrees strongly with a great many Republican ideas for governing, at least they have real and coherent ideas. His observation may go a long way towards explaining why liberal governance has not been very popular as of late, since he sees the Democrats as essentially a rudderless, idea free, ignorant group of self-interested pols with no conception other than about electioneering.

Ideas normally begin with listening. As I have noted - and you are free to disagree - is that the problem for the Democrats is that their policies harm as many people as they help. Or, in simple terms, the policies take from one relatively poor group and give to other poor groups - thus undermining support for programs and not really accomplishing the aims of seemingly well meant programs. Unless and until Democrats/liberals solve that problem, liberal policies are a formula for political catastrophe, as has been the case repeatedly during my adult life.

Which is to say, when you claim that Republicans have no plan for this or that, it may be so. But, we shall have to wait and see what, if anything, they come up with, for good or bad. Just now, I think Democrats need to do more listening and consider that some of the criticism is well taken.

David Schraub said...

I'm sure Republicans have ideas. Whether or not "cutting spending" is one of them remains to be seen. But I'm not going to preemptively agree that they care about the issue until they demonstrate that they actually care about the issue. Nor am I going to pretend like advocating (or not, as in Sen. Paul's case) something that, at best, trivially relates to the issue is demonstrative of actually caring about an issue.

N. Friedman said...


Nor should you accept what Republicans claim. I do not even ask you to, in the words of Reagan (borrowed from a Russian proverb): doveryai, no proveryai - trust but verify.

I merely ask you to listen without projecting your prejudices onto other people's thoughts - failing to do that is your particular original sin. E.g., you use terminology like "racism," etc., as an effective shield in order to avoid having to consider seriously what your opponents say and think. It is also the original sin of much of the politically correct part of the left, which prefers labels to thinking.

David Schraub said...

There were no "labels" being tossed about here. The only thing under discussion is whether opposition to earmarks is, itself, proof that one cares about cutting federal spending. Which it isn't, because earmarks are such an insanely small percentage of federal spending that they can't possibly demonstrate seriousness about the issue.

If Rand Paul said "I want to eliminate X, Y, and Z federal programs" which did, in fact, reduce federal spending by a substantial degree, I wouldn't think that he's lying. I might think that the idea was bad, because we should preserve those programs (or good, if we shouldn't!). That's what keeping an open mind means -- it means evaluating the policy positions Republicans actually take on their substantive merits based upon some value-laden criteria. It doesn't mean I have to refrain from saying "put up or shut up" in response to a political slogan that, so far, has translated to nothing but the most trivial political action.

N. Friedman said...


My more general comment was directed at how you write more often than not.

In the instant case, you claim a lack of seriousness in Republican opposition to earmarks on the theory, inter alia, that only a small amount of money is involved. My view is that position is premature.

In some states (e.g. Massachusetts), there are "temporary" highway tolls that have become permanent. Those temporary tolls, intended originally to pay for this or that real need, not only did not go away after the need was met but have been expanded, as if promises to the public mattered not one wit. The point is that you are judging before the fact.

David Schraub said...

The only pertinent fact is the fact that one can propose spending cuts of whatever program you want, whenever you want. As members of Congress, the GOP could even introduce bills doing so.

The fact is that they haven't done so, so it is a perfectly ripe assessment that they have, to date, taken no steps towards cutting spending. And given the prolonged overlap between the time period that Republicans have been calling for spending cuts, and the time that Republicans had the opportunity to propose specific substantive spending cuts but didn't (i.e., a 100% overlap), it is also a perfectly ripe assessment to note that the rhetoric and the reality are, in the status quo, detached from one another. They've long since exceeded their grace period on this.

sonicfrog said...

I expected the backtracking on earmarks to happen sooner or later, but I didn't expect it to happen quite so soon... And I certainly wouldn't have guessed that it would have been rand Paul leading the charge.

The more things change...