Friday, April 20, 2012

Keeping Government Waste in Perspective

A brief response to an article in today's Chronicle on Congressional earmarks for university research:

I'm as much against government waste as the next person - heck, I probably regard a broader range of government spending as "wasteful" than many. But $44 million is, in all senses, chump change. Obviously, from the perspective of the US government budget (north of $2 trillion and rising), this is a rounding error. But even for universities, it's almost nothing. My own university, a mid-sized state institution that does a reasonable amount of research, pulls in nearly $40 million per year in competitive research grants all by itself. There are dozens of institutions like mine across the country. Large, major research universities - and there are a goodly number of those - pull in ten times as much or more.

I've always been uncomfortable with legislative earmarks - they are basically spending public money at the behest of a particular legislator on some pet project. A previous college I worked for got a chunk of money this way from a state legislator who was retiring. I can't say that the state in question got any public good for its expenditure of a half a million or so taxpayer dollars - especially given that the institution in question was a private school, and had no clear plan for what to do with the money. That always struck me as shady - a means by which an outgoing legislator could thank his friends.

So I'm no fan of earmarks, especially for colleges and universities. But if we've gotten down to only $44 million in research earmarks, we should be celebrating. After all, how often is it that government measurably improves its performance?

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