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Addicted to earmarks

During the budget debates in early 2009, there was a great deal of huffing about “earmarks” in the Congressional budget allocation process — that time-honored tradition in which politicians trade each other little bits of directed spending on special projects within their districts.  Everyone seemed to agree it was a bad thing, except when they didn’t because, after all, they could be used to direct funding to good and desirable things, not just to “pork”.

Roland S. Martin wrote an opinion piece at CNN in which he chastised all of us for not actually caring enough about earmarks (and “pork”) to do anything about them — or rather, for a being sanguine enough about the earmarks that benefit us that we are willing to put up with the ones that don’t.

I don’t disagree with him, but I thought his explanation was moralistic, rather than practical — that is, his argument was more “shame on us” than “this is why we are here”.  I wrote this to him to offer a bit of practicality.

4 March 2009

The problem with earmarks — or any other similar system, once established — is that it represents a variant on the prisoner’s dilemma (or, for that matter, of a “Tragedy of the Commons”).

If earmarks exist, then we all pay for them and, presumably, most of us benefit from them, even if only indirectly.

If we could do away with earmarks — or if everyone refused to accept them, which would amount to the same thing — then we would all benefit from more efficient governance that took less from us.

But, on an individual basis, if we refuse the earmarks targeted at us but other people don’t refuse the ones targeted at them, then we end up paying for their earmarks without benefiting from our own. So, on an individual basis, we end up worse off by refusing earmarks unless we can count on everyone else doing likewise.

Hence, the system is perpetuated: if/when individuals stand up to it, they end up losers while everyone else takes advantage of them. Only a universal agreement from the top to change the system can work; insurrection from the bottom is suppressed by self-interest.

By the way, I don’t for one minute presume this is entirely happenstance. People who benefit from the manipulations such systems allow — in this case the Congress, but it is true of any large and political organization — will organize the system in this way because it maximizes their own power and well-being. It is similar to the way NASA and the military spread large projects out to contractors all over the country rather than focusing them in one locale: it maximizes the number of Congressmen who have constituents dependent on the project and, therefore, minimizes the chance of the project being cancelled.

© Copyright 2009, Augustus P. Lowell

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