Thursday, October 9, 2008

On John McCain And Earmarks

In his recent debate with Barack Obama, John McCain took him to task for his earmarks. He specifically singled out "$3 million for an overhead projector at a planetarium in Chicago, Illinois." This isn't the first time McCain has mentioned the earmark and a number of science bloggers have complained about McCain's complaints.

There's an insteresting twist to the earmark story. The Adler Planetarium recently released a statement (PDF link) on the debate and it turns out that they never actually received an earmark:
To clarify, the Adler Planetarium requested federal support – which was not funded – to replace the projector in its historic Sky Theater, the first planetarium theater in the Western Hemisphere. The Adler’s Zeiss Mark VI projector – not an overhead projector – is the instrument that re-creates the night sky in a dome theater, the quintessential planetarium experience. The Adler’s projector is nearly 40 years old and is no longer supported with parts or service by the manufacturer. It is only the second planetarium projector in the Adler’s 78 years of operation.
However, the Adler has never received an earmark as a result of Senator Obama's efforts. This is clearly evidenced by recent transparency laws implemented by the Congress, which have resulted in the names of all requesting Members being listed next to every earmark in the reports that accompany appropriations bills.

It's interesting to see how the presidential campaign has unfolded over the years (that's right, people have been running for president for two freakin' years). John McCain seems determined to find specific examples of government waste that to attack. Besides the planetarium, McCain has also complained about an earmark for studying bear DNA. But we are talking about relatively small amounts of money compared to the overall federal budget. $3,000,000 may seem like a lot to you and me—and to John McCain but it's nothing compared to the almost $3,000,000,000,000 total federal budget. All of the total earmarks in the federal budget amount to exactly $16,501,833,000—a large number to be sure, but only a fraction of our country's entire federal budget. 

I think that earmarks are a lot like the Mad Magazine cartoon which I've inserted in this post. Most people have trouble visualizing really huge numbers. I certainly do. Earmarks are smaller but nevertheless large chunks of cash which often turn out to be wasteful. They are also highly visible because they are often spent on a things like museums, roads, and bridges. Because of this, earmarks are easy to visualize and can be easily turned into symbols of government waste. But ultimately, they are little more than symbols because most of the federal budget is spent elsewhere.

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