A couple of weeks ago, there was a story going around the internet about how the State Department had commissioned a Vermont company to make 12,000 pieces of official stem- and barware for American embassies around the world, with a price tag of 5 million dollars, one day before the Republican-engineered government shutdown. People posting links to the story on Facebook were shocked, shocked that such a wasteful contract would be pushed through at a time when clearly the government was running out of money, and, further, that so much was being spent on these glasses (and yes, $416 apiece is spendy by any calculation) when perfectly good glassware could be had at Walmart. And yes, that's the argument that was being made.
This scandalous purchase--5 million dollars to an American company for products that would be made by Americans for use in American embassies, where trade with America is promoted by American diplomats--came at a time when Republican brinksmanship was costing the American economy somewhere between 3.1 and 24 billion dollars. My Yankee mother used to refer to hypocrisy like this as "the pot calling the kettle black."
Back in my younger years, there was a Senator from Wisconsin by the name of William Proxmire. Senator Proxmire considered himself a pork-hawk, rooting out boondoggle projects from the federal budget and awarding the "Golden Fleece" prize to them with much fanfare. The publicity served him well: he was elected to five terms in the Senate, and in his last two campaigns, did not need to spend a penny on the election apart from the filing fee. Many of his targets were scientific research projects, especially those involving space exploration. One area of porkbarrel spending that did not receive a golden fleece award, however, was dairy subsidies--an important source of income for Proxmire's Wisconsin constituents.
Screaming "pork" at the federal budget is popular sport for Republicans in general, Tea Partiers in particular, but Proxmire was a Democrat. The reality of Proxmire's blinders toward his own pork-mongering is that, as Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." Politicians may be elected to office on national issues, but bringing home the bacon is what gets them reelected. Any senator or representative who does not funnel at least some federal spending back to his or her home state or district will not long be holding a seat in the Capitol.
Personally, I've got a far bigger bone to pick with these deficit hawks than the hypocrisy of their pork-hunting. We have become so eager to cut taxes and then slash budgets to make up for the missing revenue that this country is falling apart. Our children attend school in buildings that would collapse in an earthquake, reading tattered textbooks that were out of date years ago. Music, art, drama, physical education are all cut or eliminated at the primary, the intermediate, and, increasingly, the secondary level. Bridges are collapsing, national parks are unsupervised, poor families are going hungry; pharmaceutical and medical research that could save countless lives is being curtailed; and research that could revolutionize our understanding of the universe, both at the micro and the macro levels, never gets past the proposal level. We are abandoning space exploration, turning inward, cutting ourselves off from anything bigger than our bank balances.
What about private and charitable financing of these projects? If we can't find a grant for it, can't make it generate a profit, do we really need it?
If you know me at all, you know that question was purely rhetorical. In truth, most of what the federal government does for us cannot or will not be done by any private interest--or if it is done by them, will be done at far greater expense, and lower quality, than a federally-funded version.
Consider the National Parks. There was a time when parks were staffed entirely by government employees. Rangers were easy to find, admission prices were low or nonexistent, and Americans roamed freely in these wonderlands of nature and history.
Then came the contractors. Most park services are now contracted out to private companies. Lodges are run by hotel chains, cafeterias by food service companies, camp stores by retailers. Everywhere you look in a national park, you see corporate interests there to make a buck. Their employees are underpaid, relative to true public sector workers, and while they often share the love rangers have for the parks in which they work, they have not dedicated their lives to them; and their employers' first concern is the bottom line.
Last summer, Amy and I spent several days backpacking in Olympic National Park. The ranger station where we entered the park was shuttered, and we encountered not a single ranger while we were there, most likely a result of the sequester. There was no one patrolling the trails, no one monitoring activity at camp sites, no one checking to make sure we were all right, no one watching out for yahoos knocking over scenic wonders for kicks. It was almost eerie, especially in contrast to last summer, when our visit to Arches National Park was blessed with several positive ranger contacts. There just isn't money for these uniformed naturalists anymore--those that hadn't already lost their jobs to concessions.
Now consider pharmaceutical research. The argument is often made that Big Pharma is investing billions in identifying new medications that will benefit all humankind. That argument does not take into account the bottom line: unless there's an adequate market for a drug, Big Pharma's not interested. Medical conditions that affect only a small percentage of Americans see little or no private research in their behalf. Once the medications that are created come to market, they come with enormous price tags, thanks to the medical monopolies encouraged by American law.
The harsh truth of the matter is that medical conditions that only affect thousands, as opposed to millions, are only studied with funding from the federal government. If there's not enough money to be made, corporate medicine is simply not interested.
The same goes for infrastructure and public education: if it's not going to improve someone's annual financial statement, it won't get done. Corporate dollars coming to education are aimed at preparing children to be corporate drones, to become the kinds of workers who will create the next generation of profit-friendly merchandise. The arts and physical education offer no obvious benefits to this picture, and go unfunded as a result. Without public funding, all that makes school worthwhile to our children dries up.
I could go on with this listing of programs and projects, but I won't. The point I'm making is simply this: all that makes our nation great, that injects the most energy into our economy, that once made us the envy of the world, came from federal, not private, spending. Those federal dollars keep many a state economy simmering, and sometimes boiling, through hard economic times. The research projects that seem like golden fleece to some may be improving the lives of many further down the road, and will do it far more efficiently than any profit-driven corporate work ever could.
And that stemware? What would it say to an ambassador from a foreign power to attend a state banquet at an American embassy and find a "made in China" sticker on a wineglass?
Impressions matter. As true as it might be in today's climate, I'd rather not have that diplomat thinking of the United States as a country so down on its luck that it can't afford a decent piece of crystal.