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The wrong way to argue about wasteful spending

Have you ever heard Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complain about "pork barrel" spending? The senator has a trick he's especially fond of: find spending related to
The wrong way to argue about wasteful spending
The wrong way to argue about wasteful spending

Have you ever heard Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) complain about "pork barrel" spending? The senator has a trick he's especially fond of: find spending related to animals, which might sound silly.

In one classic example, McCain blasted "$650,000 for beaver management in North Carolina and Mississippi," asking, "How does one manage a beaver?" Hilarious. In reality, $650,000 hired workers to disrupt beaver dams, which in turn prevented significant flood damage to farms, timber lands, roadways, and other infrastructure in the area.

The money, in other words, was well spent, but when framed in a lazy and sarcastic way, the investment may appear wasteful. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) enjoys playing the same game (via Barbara Morrill).

Right off the bat, we already know Cantor is blatantly lying when he said President Obama "wants to raise your taxes." What Obama actually wants is to close tax loopholes -- nearly all of which only benefit the very wealthy -- and use the revenue to reduce the deficit. It's a policy that congressional Republicans used to support, too.

But putting that aside, we quickly find a beaver-management-style problem. That rascally Obama wants to spend our hard-earned money to pay people to play video games? Outrageous!

And while I suspect most reasonable people would balk at the government spending $1.2 million to pay people to play World of Warcraft, there are, of course, the details Cantor either doesn't know or doesn't want you to know.

In this case, the $1.2 million is a National Science Foundation grant, being used by scholars at North Carolina State University to research cognitive functions among the elderly, exposing them to video-game stimuli to examine how it affects their ability to think, examine, and react. Cantor may find this amusing, but medical research like this isn't wasteful.

Morrill added, "Because there's nothing funnier than medical research on cognitive functioning in seniors. Well, maybe it could be even funnier if it offered insight into the treatment of Alzheimer's and dementia. That would be a laugh riot. But hey, why let facts get in the way of juvenile tweets designed to mislead, eh, Eric?"

Incidentally, Cantor's tweet includes a link to his own site, where he lists a series of expenditures he considers wasteful. The point, obviously, is to influence the sequester debate -- Republicans don't need to strike a balanced compromise with Democrats, since there's so much waste that deserves to be cut.

Of course, at the outset, there's an arithmetic problem -- to replace the sequester, Republicans would need $1.2 trillion in spending cuts, and Cantor's list doesn't even come close to making up the difference.

But the more pressing problem is that Cantor's examples of waste aren't actually wasteful, and medical research into cognitive functions among senior citizens isn't amusing. Jon Chait had a good item on this:

[I]n point of fact, even the handful of wasteful programs that supposedly justify the no-taxes line aren't actually wasteful. Take the $47,000 smoking machine. Sound outrageous -- government bureaucrats buying themselves an expensive piece of machinery to smoke cigarettes while regular folks like John Boehner have to light up by hand, like a sucker! In fact, it turns out to be a piece of medical research equipment used by the Veteran Administration:"VA Researchers are using the smoking machine to cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in mice by the same mechanisms by which the disease occurs in Veterans and others who smoke cigarettes," a VA official told HuffPost in an email."The cessation of smoking does not curtail the progression of the disease and there is currently no effective therapy for the treatment of the condition," the official said. "Using this mouse model of COPD, VA researchers will test potential new treatments for the disease."You see, Mr. Speaker, if you want to study the effects of smoking, you could kidnap some unsuspecting person and force-feed him Marlboros. But the scientific community finds this approach unethical, so machines to test the effects of smoking on mice are considered a standard work-around.

In some respects, Republicans are inadvertently bolstering the Democratic argument. If the right's favorite examples of wasteful spending aren't, in reality, wasteful, maybe the nation really does need more revenue.