Thursday, September 8, 2011

Earmarks and Agricultural Research

Sometimes the press isn't good at connecting stories, particularly when those stories don't match up with the journalists' rather constrained world-view. One of the most reliable examples is the coverage of earmarks. The very fact that earmarks are reported as budget stories is troubling, showing how easily reporters can be manipulated into wasting time on trivia, but as bad as these stories are on a general level, the specifics may be even worse.

Like so many bad trends in journalism, the archetypal example comes from Maureen Dowd, this time in a McCain puff piece from 2009. Here's the complete list of offending earmarks singled out by the senator and dutifully repeated by Dowd:

Before the Senate resoundingly defeated a McCain amendment on Tuesday that would have shorn 9,000 earmarks worth $7.7 billion from the $410 billion spending bill, the Arizona senator twittered lists of offensive bipartisan pork, including:

• $2.1 million for the Center for Grape Genetics in New York. “quick peel me a grape,” McCain twittered.

• $1.7 million for a honey bee factory in Weslaco, Tex.

• $1.7 million for pig odor research in Iowa.

• $1 million for Mormon cricket control in Utah. “Is that the species of cricket or a game played by the brits?” McCain tweeted.

• $819,000 for catfish genetics research in Alabama.

• $650,000 for beaver management in North Carolina and Mississippi.

• $951,500 for Sustainable Las Vegas. (McCain, a devotee of Vegas and gambling, must really be against earmarks if he doesn’t want to “sustain” Vegas.)

• $2 million “for the promotion of astronomy” in Hawaii, as McCain twittered, “because nothing says new jobs for average Americans like investing in astronomy.”

• $167,000 for the Autry National Center for the American West in Los Angeles. “Hopefully for a Back in the Saddle Again exhibit,” McCain tweeted sarcastically.

• $238,000 for the Polynesian Voyaging Society in Hawaii. “During these tough economic times with Americans out of work,” McCain twittered.

• $200,000 for a tattoo removal violence outreach program to help gang members or others shed visible signs of their past. “REALLY?” McCain twittered.

• $209,000 to improve blueberry production and efficiency in Georgia.
Putting aside the relatively minuscule amounts of money involved here, the thing that jumps out about this list is that out of 9,000 earmarks, how few real losers McCain's staff was able to come up with. I wouldn't give the Autry top priority for federal money, but they've done some good work and I assume the same holds for the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Along the same lines, I have trouble getting that upset public monies spent on astronomical research. After that, McCain's selections become truly bizarre. Urban water usage is a huge issue, nowhere more important than in Western cities like Los Vegas and it's difficult to imagine anyone objecting to a program that actually gets kids out of gangs.

Of course, we have no way of knowing how effective these programs are, but questions of effectiveness are notably absent from McCain/Dowd's piece. Instead it functions solely on the level of mocking the stated purposes of the projects, which brings us to one of the most interesting and for me, damning, aspects of the list: the preponderance of agricultural research.

You could make a damned good case for agricultural research having had a bigger impact on the world and its economy over the past fifty years than research in any other field. That research continues to pay extraordinary dividends both in new production and in the control of pest and diseases. It also helps us address the substantial environmental issues that have come with industrial agriculture.

As I said before, this earmark coverage with an emphasis on agriculture is a recurring event. I remember Howard Kurtz getting all giggly over earmarks for research on dealing with waste from pig farms about ten years ago and I've lost count of the examples since then.

And interspaced between those stories at odd intervals were other reports, less flashy but far more substantial, describing some economic, environmental or public health crisis that reminded us of the need for just this kind of research. Sometimes the crisis is in one of the areas explicitly mocked (look up the impact of industrial pig farming on rural America* and see if you share Mr. Kurtz's sense of humor). Other times the specifics change, a different crop, a new pestilence, but still well within the type that writers like Dowd find so amusing.

Here's the most recent example:

Across North America, a tiny, invasive insect is threatening some eight billion trees. The emerald ash borer is deadly to ash trees. It first turned up in Detroit nine years ago, probably after arriving on a cargo ship from Asia. And since then, the ash borer has devastated forests in the upper Midwest and beyond.

* Credit where credit is due. Though not as influential as Dowd, the New York Times also runs Nicholas Kristof who has done some excellent work describing the human cost of these crises.

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