Monday, October 06, 2008

In Defense of Wasteful Spending

One of John McCain's 'best' lines on the campaign trail is when he rails against earmarks, and cites the example of the earmark to study the DNA of bears. He doesn't know, he waggishly remarks, if it's a criminal issue or a question of paternity, but he's pretty sure it's a waste of taxpayers' money.

Only... is it really?

The Scientific American puts on a pretty good defense for studying the DNA of bears, grizzly bears, as it turns out. They are a critically endangered species, and you simply can't tell how well your efforts to preseve the species is going if you don't know what your population is now.

The Federal Government currently provides more than half the funds for university research, a number I'm not suggesting should go down; if anything, it should be increased. Pure 'free marketeers' might claim that if something is important enough, a private sponsor would step up to fund the research. But they argue against human behavior. Sure, private entities sponsor a lot of the research that goes on in the US, but they are motivated by the potential for a future profit. When it comes to resources that are held in common, such as the environment, you run up against The Tragedy of the Commons, "a dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared resource even where it is clear that it is not in anyone's long term interest for this to happen."

Government was created specifically when the first group of individuals yielded some of their autonomy to the first tribal Big Man, giving him authority to deal with issues of common resources and threats that cannot adequately be dealt with by individuals or independent groups. Scoring cheap political points at the expense of the ecology of the planet is shabby. And lest anyone think I am just taking the 'anti-GOP' position, let me make clear that I extend my approval to Governor Palin's seal DNA study. Frankly, we can't spend enough on trying to unpack the effects of the escalating climate crisis.

Oh, and the bear DNA study? It was apparently fun to mock, but not worth voting against:

Despite the fun McCain had ridiculing the bear project on the Senate floor, he didn’t actually try to remove it from the bill. He did introduce several amendments, including three to reduce funding for projects he considered wasteful or harmful, but none removing the grizzly bear project appropriations. And despite his criticisms, he voted in favor of the final bill.


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