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Fun with stimulus

Last week, John McCain and Tom Coburn put out a list of supposedly dumb projects that had been funded with stimulus dollars. A lot of the items focused on grants for scientific studies, as they can sound sort of funny when explained. But as Emily Badger demonstrates, things like studying ant colonies and the atmosphere around Venus only sound funny until you take a moment to understand why we're doing it (hints: global warming, antibiotic preservation, biodiversity).

To be more generous to the McCain/Coburn report than it probably deserves, its implicit attack is against the use of stimulus funds for projects that are aimed at long-term growth rather than short-term stimulus. Some of that isn't the fault of Democrats. Arlen Specter, then a Republican, demanded billions for the National Institutes of Health as a precondition for his vote. But the Democrats pushed some of these policies, too, with health IT, comparative effectiveness review, educational technology and other programs aimed at helping tomorrow's economy rather than stimulating today's.

The decision to push some long-term investments in the stimulus bill as a way to accelerate long-term growth never quite penetrated in the public discussion. As such, those policies, though defensible on their own terms, have provided an opening for Republicans who want to argue that the policy was badly designed.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 9, 2010; 2:32 PM ET
Categories:  Stimulus  
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Comments

"But as Emily Badger demonstrates, things like studying ant colonies and the atmosphere around Venus"

How is studying the atmosphere around Venus going to help Muslims understand that we know how much Islamic countries contributed to math and science 1300 years ago?

More Muslim outreach, less "studying far off planets" and other silliness. That's what I say.

"have provided an opening for Republicans who want to argue that the policy was badly designed"

Nothing in the world is protected from clever rhetoric, much less outright misrepresentation. Other than planning better defenses, there's not much that can be done to prevent such attacks.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | August 9, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

One of my favorites on the list -- and one that's now under investigation -- was #93, which used stimulus funds to promote the stimulus (a prohibited act):

93. NIH Spends Stimulus Money to Promote the Impact of Its Stimulus Projects (Silver Spring, MD) - $363,760

When does a federal project cross the line from simple self-promotion into propaganda? Palladian Partners Inc. of Silver Spring, Maryland was awarded $363,760 to promote the good things being done with stimulus money by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The project requires Palladian to develop “web-based real life stories that underscore job and infrastructure creation and accelerated ARRA research findings.” Indeed, interested citizens can go to the NIH Recovery Act website and learn about the $12.2 million stimulus grant NIH is spending on “Facebook for Scientists” and another story on how “Researchers Pull in Big Bucks Under Recovery Act.”

Posted by: rmgregory | August 9, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

As Ezra points out, you can probably reduce most scientific research down to a five word, pithy phrase that disparages the real intent of the work. This kind of demagoguery really pisses me off because it reveals either a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of research and innovation, or it displays a willingness to discredit research in the public discourse to score political points.

In any serious efforts to undertake basic science research or real technology innovation, you're going to have to be willing to fund a number of studies that will NOT produce a direct, positive outcome in order to get to one or two that do. When politicians point to the research at the fringes and disparages research generally, they are operating under the assumption that with better oversight, you can strip out the research that doesn't produce "useful" results while keeping the real groundbreaking and transformative research. In fact, if you cut 30% of research funding, you'll cut 30% of both the "useful" and the "wasteful" research....which highlights the problem with even calling these projects "wasteful" in the first place.

I am a Research Scientist, and I recently find myself working for a large company that seems to share McCain's believe that profitable research can be identified a priori...I can definitely say that this attitude is very unlikely to produce any kind of transformational innovation. If this approach had guided US investment in publicly funded research and corporate research strategies over the last 50 years, we would have missed out on a lot of technologies that most of take for granted today.

Ever since Senator McCain started using a throwaway line disparaging studying the DNA of bears in his stump speech during the 08 campaign, I have longed to have someone call him out on this point...

Posted by: AnonymousInMA | August 9, 2010 4:09 PM | Report abuse

this smacks of "volcano monitoring"

Posted by: Quant | August 9, 2010 4:14 PM | Report abuse

I'm with the liberals on this one.

The attacks on science in particular are why I can never be a Republican.

"Oh my gosh, scientists are studying other planets what a waste of money lol".

Studying other planets have provided a lot of insight about our own world (although this insight can include things like Venus demonstrating how the greenhouse effect can turn an otherwise Earth-like world into hell, which I'm sure conservatives in general might prefer not to know).

Not every study is going to be ground breaking or extremely interesting to the public, but general scientific study is important nonetheless. If we're going to have a huge federal government that sucks up tons of private resources (and occasionally spends them on things like pointless wars), a few dollars going towards scientific research is hardly a problem.

Posted by: justin84 | August 9, 2010 5:29 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

You're falling into the same trap as stimulus critics.

Remember your Keynes:

"If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with bank-notes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal-mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is."

In other words: Injecting federal money into a severely depressed economy NOW is good for the economy NOW – no matter how silly the mechanism for injecting the money seems to be. Moreover, there are long-term living-standards benefits simply from narrowing the gap between the growth rate after the economy soured and the previous trend growth rate before the economy soured.

But the administration's stimulus plan did not involve money in old bottles and simply bumping up current growth rate toward the previous trend growth-rate curve. By investing now in some projects that would also bolster the trend-growth rate long-term, the administration was aiming for a two-fer –- and it said it was, remember?

Think of it this way: Paying a contractor to build a road puts the contractor's employees back to work (or prevents them from being laid off) and also does the same for the contractor's suppliers' employees. Those employees spent their paychecks at retailers, movie theaters, restaurants, etc., thus boosting employment at those establishments. And then those establishments' employees have money to spend at other establishments. And so on. Simple Keynesian stimulus, right?

Construction of the road also boosts economic efficiency long-term. That's a two-fer, right?

And so it is with "with health IT, comparative effectiveness review, educational technology" as well as "studying ant colonies and the atmosphere around Venus." Immediate stimulus and long-term economic efficiency. Two-fers.

The only "stimulus" issue with these projects is whether the money is being spent NOW. The long-term benefits of spending for these projects is immaterial in terms of immediate stimulus, which is what the economy sorely needed at the time the stimulus bill was passed and continues to need. It needed, and needs, injections of federal money.

If this is too difficult for people to understand, then perhaps the administration should have opted for the money-in-old-bottles approach.

Posted by: fredbrack | August 9, 2010 6:35 PM | Report abuse

Spending on NIH research has a large multiplier and a large immediate stimulus effect. It puts people to work. Research America has data on this.

Posted by: kenm3 | August 10, 2010 6:35 AM | Report abuse

These projects have not stimulated our economy.

Why does the WaPo pay this kid to type this silliness?

Posted by: susangorgo | August 10, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

That's what we need, journolist to explain the higher purpose of government action (hints: global warming, antibiotic preservation, biodiversity) to the great uninformed.

Of course, he left out the sidewalks to no where, windows in closed building, and did not fully explain why giving drugs to monkeys provides a biodiversity advantage to mankind.

He also did not mention the real purpose of the projects. The payment to the jokers giving drugs to monkey will go away when the money runs out, the bureaucrat that will be hired to administer the money will be there until he retires, comfortably, at an age 10 to 15 years before the rest of us.

Question: Was the journolist formed to help progressive causes or merely to help progressive cover up the tax payer money they funnel public employees and other union goons?

Oh, wait! Funneling tax payer money to public employees and other union goons IS the primary progressive cause in the age of Obama.

Self explaining.

Posted by: TECWRITE | August 10, 2010 9:26 AM | Report abuse

Are you really trying to argue that the money set aside for studying ant colonies couldn't be put to better use? I'll grant that there may be some connection (however tenuous) to global warming. What do you think the probability is that any new understanding of global warming will result from this study, versus another journal article that no one will read.

I'd put my money on the latter.

The thing is, this stimulus is money that people had to work for (or their children and grandchildren will work for). It is money that could have been spent on other things - food, clothing, kids education. Congress has a duty to spend it wisely, on things that there would be broad agreement are beneficial.

So go ahead and argue that any colony research is vital - I remain unconvinced.

Posted by: invention13 | August 10, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

"So go ahead and argue that any colony research is vital - I remain unconvinced."

Here in California, Agriculture is a multi-billion dollar industry, and we protect it jealously. To put it simply, certain types of exotic ants are not good for crops

If you're going to protect an industry that is of vital importance to the largest state economy in America, you better damn well know what your threats are.

Posted by: mezcalero | August 10, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Wow.

The level of disconnect and inappropriate use of tax dollars is stunning.

That some of those commenting could in any way justify the bulk of these projects is mind boggling.

Obviously, the federal gov't is very far out of control. I may just be a poor dumb ole country boy but I fail to see how virtually any of this money is spent constitutionally.

We are indeed on the road to ruin if this profiligate spending keeps up.

Posted by: MOvoter | August 10, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

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