THE PORKBUSTERS PROBLEM. Jane Galt brings up a reasonable point with respect to the anti-"Porkbusters" position taken by a cross-ideological set of bloggers (including me) last week:

But seriously, while this is true on some level, isn't porkbusters still a good idea? There are other reasons to want to cut pork, besides being worried about the budget deficit. Pork may well have a big dragging effect on the economy by the distortions it introduces. And more than that, it's morally distasteful that senators and congressmen spend so much time -- time we pay them for -- trying to grab fistfuls of cash out of the public trough before the other pigs can get at it. The people pushing porkbusters may not succeed in paying for the Iraq war, but surely they're still doing God's work?

I would have a few points in response. First, I don't think that Galt really adequately addresses Ramseh Ponnuru's core point that the porkbuster folks use "enormous amount of political energy in the service of trivial goals." Given the amounts involved here, even if we grant Galt's highly contestable libertarian premises about government spending, the economic distortions involved here are negligible, particularly since some targeted funding is, for better or worse, an inevitable part of getting legislation passed in a Madisonian system. (If we're getting rid on distortions to the market, I say we work to get rid of the capital gains tax cut first.)

Second, I'm not convinced that the term "pork" is a terribly useful one. It's not, exactly, that I'm "pro" pork -- the term is ultimately a tautology -- but what gets defined as pork is not self-evident. I would guess that Galt would consider, say, funding to help cities with mass transit expenses would qualify, while in my mind these are an extremely valuable investment of public resources.

And, third, I insist that you have to consider the context -- we are discussing not merely opposition to unwise spending per se but a specific set of arguments. To the extent that the "Porkbusters" project is designed to distort the very real financial and opportunity costs of the Iraq war, it's pernicious rather than merely useless. And while this isn't necessarily true of everybody who's part of it, such distortions certainly are the type of argument embraced by its founder. But individual motivations are irrelevant; what matters is the effect of prioritizing this item as opposed to something else. And arguments that are designed to avoid the fact that we can't keep both Bush's upper class tax cuts and middle class entitlements favored by most Americans are part of the problem even if they might accomplish some (trivial) good on the side.

--Scott Lemieux

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