The Green Papers Commentary

"Pork" vs. "Beef" in the new
Economic Stimulus Package

Friday, February 20, 2009

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff

Yes, indeed-- there's a whole lotta "pork" in the recently enacted Economic Stimulus Bill (officially, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) and there's a whole lot precisely because it's a big bill (in two senses of the word): nearly 800 billions of Dollars US-- a little under $300 billion in Federal tax cuts of various stripes and a little over $500 billion in new spending.

However, the issue is that political "pork", much like the American People, comes in many varieties: the term itself is actually a euphemism for "fat" (in the sense of 'trim the excess fat'- hence, "pork" is "that which is unnecessary or not germane to the purposes at hand"). It derives, most directly, from its companion term "pork barrel" which itself seems to have been used, during the mid-into-late 19th Century, to refer to the State (or Federal) Treasury into which politicians would "dip" in order to pull out their "pork" which, in turn, came to refer principally to special appropriations attached as a "rider" to a pending bill, especially towards the end of a legislative session (when the sheer crunch of business would reduce the overall effectiveness of too close a scrutiny of what was being proposed and voted upon-- keep in mind that, although no longer as common [for relatively fewer States still have such constitutional provisions], most State legislatures usually met in biennial session [in other words, there would be only one regular session in between elections every two years] with limited time for such a session [thus, constitutionally imposed deadlines for the end of a session had to be adhered to-- although there were many ways for a crafty presiding officer to overcome these (stopping the clocks in the chamber just before Midnight on what was supposed to be the final calendar day being a particular favorite)]).

These "late riders" were almost always for some pet local project within the chief sponsor's district and, since the legislative body would not meet again until after the next election (unless [and this was relatively rare] called into Special Session by the State's Governor [and such Special Sessions usually could only deal with the specific purposes for which it had been called]), it was obvious that such a thing- this "dipping" by a particular legislator into the State "pork barrel"- was primarily intended to ingratiate the legislator with his own constituents at the expense of the rest of the State (of course, those representing at least most- if not all- of this "rest of the State" were doing pretty much the exact same thing-- or, at least, trying to!) and, thereby, enhance the legislator's chances for re-election or even election to a higher office. Therefore, "pork" was originally applied only to such "late riders" and was, in turn, thus restricted to a provision of a general bill that had such obvious local appeal (a State highway bill, for instance, that provided for State funding for the re-grading and re-paving of 84th St. but only that portion of 84th St. up to the point where it crossed from Assemblyman so-and-so's district into another district, that of Assemblyman such-and-such [especially where Assemblyman such-and-such happened to be- solely by coincidence, mind you (yeah... right!)- of the Major Party other than that of Assemblyman so-and-so]).

It was not until the 20th Century was well underway that the term "pork" came to refer to any provision of a bill that someone thought altogether unnecessary-- even an entire bill itself! (Some sources suggest that this broadening of the definition first widely appeared in editorials in New York City newspapers disapproving of the dredging of the Harlem River Ship Channel connecting the Harlem River with Spuyten Duyvil Creek flowing into the Hudson [an act which made Manhattan more fully an island] in the early 19-teens). Thus, for the past nearly hundred years, what is "pork" has, often as not, been determined by one's political leanings-- where not also residence within a State or even where one happened to live in relation to the Nation as a whole!

And so it is with now defining "pork" within the Economic Stimulus...

take, for example, the following:

some $60 billion (some 12%) of the spending (as opposed to the tax cuts) is to go towards housing and urban development and transportation; my own State- New Jersey- is, based on the best breakdowns I have seen, to get nearly $525 million of this for mass transit plus another $650 million for highways and bridges (though the State can opt to apply at least some of this last to port facility and rail infrastructure [since some of the same rail lines over which commuter service here in the Garden State runs also happen to feed into the State's ports, at least a little of this second batch of funding could also be applied to mass transit]).

Mass transit in general, and commuter rail service in particular, is not at all a money-maker: indeed, passenger service was a "loss leader" even during the heyday of American Railroading (although a privately-owned railroad company of the time would make darn sure that Mr. BigWig was comfortable in his Pullman car appointments between New York City and Chicago in hopes that the corporation of which Mr. BigWig was Chairman of the Board would thereafter utilize this railroad to ship goods between the two cities instead of using the freight service of its competitors-- in fact, what we now know as commuter service dates back to the old "accommodation service" of the 19th Century in which an otherwise-freight carrier would willingly pick up [thus, "accommodate"] the wealthy businessmen whose country estates lay relatively close to the right-of-way and take them to and from the nearest metropolis for the very same reason [the later term "to commute" is originally from the very same sense as in 'a Governor commuting a prisoner's sentence'- that is, "to mitigate; to make better": the railroad was making it easier for Mr. BigWig to get to the board meetings while hoping that Mr. BigWig would ever recommend to the board he chaired that his company make things better for said railroad by using only that railroad to ship freight])...

but, once freight was becoming as (if not, at times, more) efficiently moved by highway-borne truck and faster shipping times (at not much more cost) was available via the airplane, railroads began to lose revenue. After World War II, these losses turned into a virtual hemorrhage while, in the meantime, whole regions began to rely on the commuter and other passenger rail services the railroad companies provided (even though such services could not possibly turn a profit): where such services were no longer deemed to be essential (primarily in rural areas of the country), they were eliminated (the outlying farm family who once could get to the county seat 20 or 30 miles away by train would, from now on, have to drive to and from) but there were urbanized/suburbanized areas where, if completely eliminated, the whole region would come to almost a complete stop- since the highway system, even with the introduction of more and more limited-access superhighways, could not have handled the resultant load of rush-hour traffic.

I, for one, am old enough to remember when something called 'the Erie-Lackwanna Railway' (a private company: itself a product of an earlier revenue-loss-driven merger between the two once-independent railroads making up its very name) ran by the house in North Jersey in which I grew up (the trains still rumble by that house, by the way, but only after this Erie-Lackwanna was, in the mid-1970s, subsumed into something called 'ConRail' which, being intended by its Federal Government creators to become a profit-generating freight system, not long thereafter [early 1980s] forced my State to create something called 'NJ Transit' to now run these trains at government expense). I am also old enough to be able to say I once often traveled on the New York, New Haven and Hartford RailRoad (yet another private company, one colloquially known as 'the New Haven') from Grand Central Terminal in New York City in order to visit my grandparents then still living in the vicinity of New Haven (which, it just so happens, is the city of my birth)-- both while I was a child living on Staten Island and later, while I was growing up in that New Jersey home along the Erie-Lackawanna...

but the New Haven, already having been forced by economic reality (but, yes, also incompetent- where not also downright destructive- management) into bankruptcy, then disappeared into that vortex known as 'Penn Central' which, in turn, went bankrupt only to thereafter become the very core of the aforementioned 'ConRail'. Today, there is still a 'New Haven Line' but it, for now over a quarter century, has been part of something called 'Metro-North' with the line in question jointly run by the States of Connecticut and New York:

the New Haven Railroad, meanwhile, has not existed for now over forty years.

Meanwhile, the Murray Hill- the 8:00 A.M. Express to Boston out of Grand Central I used to so regularly take during most of the 1960s (it arrived in New Haven, where I would disembark, at 9:30)- itself disappeared, the merger of the New Haven with Penn Central having replaced it with something called The Bay State (which I rode only a couple times after the merger: it left Grand Central an hour later and took an additional 20 minutes to get to New Haven) and, even this would disappear when a government-run service called 'Amtrak' took over all the intercity passenger train runs in the early 1970s and consolidated all Northeast Corridor (Washington to Boston) service through New York at the city's Penn Station on the other side of Midtown Manhattan (as things would turn out, I would not ride Amtrak's Northeast Corridor service into and out of Penn Station until I was already a student at Boston University a few years after Amtrak came into being (well... except for a weekend day trip I took to/from Boston as a high school student without my parents' knowledge, let alone permission... but that would be a whole other story [and one certainly "not germane to the purposes at hand" ;-)]).

The reason I recount all the above from personal experience is to well illustrate how the private companies could not ever make a go of it as passenger carriers (whether intercity or commuter) in any event and that the loss of offsetting freight revenue made their continuing operation of such passenger service untenable: yet, at the same time (as I also know from personal experience, given that I grew up- and continue to reside- in what is known as the Metro New York/Tri State region), there is no way that the economy of my part of the United States could- back in the 1960s becoming 1970s- and can- now in the earliest 21st Century- at all effectively and efficiently function without a balanced transportation system that includes just such mass transit.

So, is all this money (which, quite frankly, is merely the proverbial "drop in the bucket"- despite the price tag- when it comes to what is really needed to fully upgrade rail transportation infrastructure hereabouts) really "pork", then?

Well, to take just one rather obvious example: numerous persons who work in- or at least in support of- the financial sector based in and around New York rely on commuter rail and other mass transit services to get to and from work each and every day: thus, there is a clear connection between the application of this money to the overall national economy. Put another way: from the perspective of the average New Jerseyan, the argument that it is, in fact, "pork" is a rather dicey one (the real question here in Jersey seems to be whether or not the money will be applied efficiently and not much, if not at all, squandered in waste and mismanagement [where not also outright corruption]-- getting, say, only $50 million worth of mass transit improvements for New Jersey's $525 million share would be disastrous!)

However, I can fairly understand how someone out in, say, Wyoming might well see all this as no little "pork":

after all, Wyoming is a politically conservative State- one that usually trends Republican (even though the State currently has a Democratic Governor): it is, after all, the home State of now-former Vice President Dick Cheney; the State's two United States Senators- Messrs. Barrasso and Enzi- are Republican; the State's lone Member of Congress in the House- Cynthia Lummis- is a Republican. New Jersey, meanwhile, has been rather "Democrat-friendly" of late: its Governor is a Democrat (albehe up for re-election this year), its two United States Senators- Messrs. Lautenberg and Menendez- are Democrats; Democrats are a majority of 8-5 in the State's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives.

New Jersey gave its Presidential Electors to President Obama last year, while Wyoming gave its Electors to Senator McCain: I can, therefore, see why someone from Wyoming might well see abject political favoritism towards New Jersey in the money my own State happens to be receiving ("To the victor go the spoils" and all that!)

Then again, just why is New Jersey so "Democrat-friendly"? Is it primarily because of just such favoritism? Or, rather, is it mainly because of the position of the Republican Party nationally as evidenced by the votes cast on the floor of each chamber of Congress by the very Republicans elected from States such as Wyoming?

Put another way: is New Jersey now a Democrat-leaning State because it is being, in essence, "purchased" by that Party through political "dogbones"- "pork", if you will- such as, in this case, increased Federal aid to the mass transit New Jersey very much needs in order to function as a community?-- or do the positions taken by Republican politicians such as those from Wyoming on such issues suggest to a majority in New Jersey that, at least for the duration, the views of the GOP are not all that beneficial to the State and this- and not any such "pork"- is what is really driving the political leanings of Garden State voters?

Ah, yes-- the proverbial "chicken and egg"!

Along these same lines, though, we now have the news that several Republican Governors (many of whom will potentially express presidential aspirations come 2012) are putting themselves on record as not so willingly accepting the money coming into their States via the Economic Stimulus. Some of their objections are actually pragmatic (much of the money allocated is intended to go to persons eligible for it under Federal law but not under State law and there is genuine concern that the very size of the package will force States to broaden their own narrower standards when it comes to, for instance, defining who is actually "unemployed" [can the Feds thereby force the taxpayers of a State to take on a higher State tax burden that they themselves did not support in State elections?]); other objections, however, are purely political (after all, how can one run against President Obama's policies in 2012 [or, for that matter, while running for re-election even sooner] after having taken fullest advantage of those very policies?).

Many of these objections, however, are in the realm of "political posturing", for there is a provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that permits State legislatures to alone accept the money in those States where the Governor might object. The original intent of this provision was to make sure that persons and businesses who seemingly need the money were not blocked from at all receiving it simply because a given State's Governor might be opposed to the Economic Stimulus for his/her own political reasons; however, this provision, in the main, actually provides more than a little political cover for those Governors who do so oppose it (since their State's legislators- even where the majority of these might be Republican, too- can always take whatever moneys they, on behalf of their State, think might actually be necessary): thus, a Governor's objection is, in the main, at least somewhat disingenuous-- for no responsible Governor, of any Party, is going to so purposely allow key sectors of his/her State's economy to continue to unnecessarily tank!

Putting aside the issue of what is "pork" and what might, in reality, be "beef" within the Economic Stimulus (along with the concomitant political positions either in favor or opposed to the package), however, there is always the much more important question of "will it actually work?"

Simply put: it had better work!

Because, if it doesn't, there's not a whole lot left for Government to do to prop up or stimulate (pick the process of your choice) the American Economy: for instance, the Federal Reserve Bank cannot possibly lower their Interest Rate to below where it is now (not all that much above 0%) in order to try and free up so-called "frozen" credit...

basically: as with the Kansas City in the musical Oklahoma!, we've gone about as fer as we can go.

"No option to fall", indeed!


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