January 14, 2013
Why pork-barrel spending is a good thing …

"Pork," of course, is a slur term in American politics. It evokes money wasted on ten lane interstates in unpopulated areas, bridges to nowhere, and endless government "waste" on research into things like sex habits of snail darters. (They’re a type of fish. Look something up, won’t you?)

Well, as this post from The Monkey Cage suggests, there’s a problem with eliminating pork, as the tea party demanded we do after 2010.  Pork, you see, is the grease that makes the gears of government work. No grease, no grind.

Here’s why. In some ways, the contemporary era of governmental stasis reflects politics as people claim they wish it would be. Two opposing ideologies are engaged in a life or death struggle for political dominance. Great ideas are in contest. Who is going to win?

The thing is, of course, is that while this great ideological contest is going on, no side has sufficient power to impose its will on the political system. Notably, the framers would be all for this: they didn’t want it to be easy for any group to impose their will on the political system. That’s why they created the system of checks and balances. But in any case, as long as the ideologues are fighting in all or nothing terms, no one has the power to do anything until one side or the other takes total control of American politics. Which is really hard to do. So we do a lot of nothing.

In an era of divided politics, like ours, compromise is necessary to get things done. However, in an era of ideological politics (like ours) compromise is a dirty word, a sign one has lost faith in the Faith that is one’s political ideology. So what to do? How can you get things done when the ideological demands of the moment seem to make it impossible to make the compromises needed to take important actions?

As it happens, this is not the first time in American history when the nation has faced this ideological divide. Once, of course, we entered a civil war when we could not compromise, but more often than not we figured out how to make things work despite the great tension among various political actors. 

What did they do that we didn’t?

Historically, the answer to that question is: they distributed pork. Government spending on plans and projects was used to bring coalitions together. One might not like all the details of a particular bill, but you got enough out of it that you voted for it. Like most things in life, you weighed the pros and the cons and if the pros outweighed the cons you supported a bill and lived with the smell. 

Now, of course, any deal making like that is seen as corrupt, dirty and wrong. Perhaps it is. As a practical matter, however, when you take away the grease that made the gears work (pork) without replacing it with something else (a parliamentary model that gives ideological voter groups a better chance to dominate politics) you end up with ideological screaming matches that have little to no prospect of being resolved.

Sound familiar?

  1. zumisumi reblogged this from politicalprof
  2. captainliberal said: A point that we develop here: rollcall.com/news/fr…
  3. sedavis said: Why the focus on the debt ceiling? Wouldn’t sequestration, the fy13 continuing funding resolution or the fy14 budget be better forums to work out a compromise on spending and taxes? I don’t think they care. I don’t think they love America.
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  7. thatpoliticalkid said: I’m only afraid this could give legitimate claims for Republicans to say that there is too much unnecessary spending, even if this is for Sandy relief.
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  11. dangerfieldnewby reblogged this from politicalprof and added:
    In praise of pork in politics
  12. i-married-a-vox-populi reblogged this from politicalprof
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  14. demondrinkingwithskeletons reblogged this from politicalprof and added:
    Pragmatism: one of the truly American addition to political thought. The true value of pragmatism is in the recognition...
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