Monday, March 04, 2013

Mythical government waste

By Frank Moraes 

Conservatives have a special fondness for government waste. As I pointed out leading up to the Fiscal Cliff, John Boehner seemed to think there were wasteful government programs, he just needed Obama to tell him what they were. This goes along with polls that shows that the American people want to cut government spending. But when asked about specific programs, they always want to continue funding those -- in many cases they want to increase that funding.

There is one exception. Americans want to cut foreign aid. Of course, that wouldn't do much because foreign aid is generally a bit less than 1% of the federal budget. But Americans think it is much higher. An American Public Opinion poll from two years ago found that the median American thought that foreign aid was 25% of the budget. So there you have it! In the minds of most Americans, we could balance the budget and then some (Quite some!) if we just stopped handing money out to people who hate us.

This kind of thinking is pushed by the conservative movement without actively lying. It is the reason we have Republican politicians constantly talking about "waste" without mentioning what the waste is. It is just a given that the government wastes money. When they do, they present spending on projects that sound wasteful but almost never are.

This process unfortunately dates back to a democrat, William Proxmire, who gave out the Golden Fleece Awards from 1975 to 1988. Much of the supposed waste that Proxmire noted was good and even critical government spending. He, like his modern day conservative heirs, liked to go after research contracts. It is often easy to dismiss as crazy a piece of research based only on its title.

Last year, "Michael" at End of the American Dream wrote "30 Stupid Things The Government Is Spending Money On." But there are many other lists to be found throughout the conservative media ecosystem. What's really interesting is that it contains "wasteful government spending" claims that I've heard make the rounds this week: 

The federal government has shelled out $3 million to researchers at the University of California at Irvine to fund their research on video games such as World of Warcraft. Wouldn't we all love to have a "research job" like that?

As it turns out, this program is using video games that have their own social and economic systems to study some social science problems. This is fairly standard stuff. A lot of economists use these programs to study markets. They are in effect large computer models with lots of free research subjects. Now, I can't say that the research is a particularly great use of money. I don't know, because I haven't be able to find more than the briefest of summaries of it. And this makes me think that the conservatives who are complaining about it know no more than I do.

But I do know about other things. The article complained, "The U.S. government spent $200,000 on 'a tattoo removal program' in Mission Hills, California." Here's the problem: this is part of a gang prevention project. Gang members get out of jail and want to go straight. But they have all these gang tattoos. (In one case, a young man had "Fuck You" tattooed on his forehead!) Does this sound like government waste? It sounds like violence prevention to me.

Some of the items do seem ridiculous. Take for example, "The U.S. government once spent 2.6 million dollars to train Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly." Of course, as usual, it sounds worse than it is. This is a program to "establish and evaluate whether an alcohol and HIV intervention center can assist in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS among sex workers in China." Now maybe that money isn't worth spending. We could discuss that. But we can't do anything if the conversation stops at: government teaching prostitutes to drink responsibly, tee-hee!

And some of the "waste" is just pathetic. A great example of this: "The U.S. Postal Service spent $13,500 on a single dinner at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse." There are several problems here. First, $13,500? Really?! That's the best they can come up with for the "30 stupid things"? But it's worse, because the government didn't pay for that dinner. The USPS is independent; the government doesn't fund it at all. And finally, that dinner was for potential corporate customers -- a completely legitimate expense.

What all this shows is that the conservative movement wants to imply that the government is this hugely wasteful institution. The data just don't indicate this. So they mislead and even lie. It is shameful. 

(Cross-posted at Frankly Curious.)

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