President-elect Obama’s transition team is promising that its $700 billion, or $850 billion, or $1 trillion, or whatever it now is “stimulus” won’t include pork-barrel spending. They must not have talked to the nation’s mayors, who recently responded to Mr. Obama’s request to compile their priority list of “shovel-ready” projects.
By all accounts, the $73 billion wish list may be the largest collection of parochial spending projects in American history. Strolling through the 800 pages, we found such beauties as: $1 million to upgrade the Los Angeles County Convention Center elevated “catwalk” for cameras and lighting; $350,000 for an Albuquerque, N.M., fitness center; $94 million for a parking garage at the Orange Bowl in Miami; $4.5 million for Gretna, Florida, to bottle water with recyclable bottles; a $35 million music hall of fame in Florissant, Missouri, and $3.1 million for a swimming pool in Tulsa.
Let’s at least be honest: none of this has much to do with lauded goals of speeding an economic recovery or “creating” jobs. The WSJ editors remind us:
They may put a few people to work for a while, albeit while taking money out of the private economy to pay for them. But the test for a useful public project should be whether it contributes to a net increase in productivity after accounting for that lost private investment.
All of these boondoggle projects and the whole notion of “shovel-ready” projects seem awfully outdated — hardly the stuff of the new economy and the new politics many pundits saw coming with the Obama administration. We’re back to nationalizing industries, creating make-work projects of dubious value and piling up a mound of debt. It sounds like a compilation of the worst ideas of the last seventy years.
If President Obama is simply going to become defender of the Old Liberalism, that leaves some running room for Republicans to be the champions of the Really New Politics. That would mean the junking of bad old ideas (e.g. the WPA), the revival of good ones (e.g. free trade, reducing the tax on labor and capital), the rejection of special interest politics (e.g. card check) and, finally, reforming how the government delivers essential services (e.g. education). It sure beats racking up a trillion more in debt for swimming pools and catwalks.