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Joe Conason
Joe Conason
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On Earmarks


It isn't the earmarks, stupid.

Bullying Republican Senate leaders into a "voluntary" ban on earmarks may represent a political triumph for the tea party movement, but as a measure to reduce the federal deficit it is a meaningless substitute for real action. The facts about earmarks — and the deficit, for that matter — are so simple that even the dumbest birther should be able to understand.

Funds directed to specific projects by legislators — which is what earmarks are — account for around 1 percent of any annual budget, so they represent far too little money to substantially reduce the budget. Besides, banning earmarks won't reduce the budget (or the deficit) anyway, because they are drawn from funds that have already been appropriated.

So much for that sideshow, a cynical exercise whose only conceivable purpose is to deceive voters. How would serious people try to reduce the deficit? First, it is essential to understand how and why the deficit grew in the first place.

It isn't the stimulus, stupid. And it isn't the bailouts, either.

Compared with the actual causes of the long-term deficit, neither the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act nor the Troubled Asset Relief Program amounts to much — even though they were successfully demonized by the same people who make noise about earmarks. Most of the TARP expenditures will be recovered eventually. And according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, whose analysis is broadly respected as nonpartisan and accurate, all of the stimulus spending will account for slightly more than $1 trillion between 2009 and 2019, including debt service.

Now a trillion dollars sounds like a lot of money, even over a decade, and it is — except when measured against the far greater costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration.

As many commentators noted at the time, no president before George W. Bush had embarked on a major war — let alone two wars — without raising revenue to pay the costs. The CBPP estimate of the combined cost of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts and the Bush tax cuts adds nearly $7 trillion to the federal deficits between 2009 and 2019, or roughly six to seven times the amount attributed to the stimulus.

Still paying attention? The other underlying causes of the long-term deficit are the lingering costs imposed by the recession, which will continue to eat away at the federal budget for a decade to come, and the rising national bill for health care as the population ages.

No, stupid, that doesn't mean the deficit is caused by health care reform or "Obamacare" — although that has been demonized, too. In fact, the president's attempt to reform America's broken, ridiculously inflated system of delivering medical care is likely to reduce health care costs significantly, but that is only a beginning.

Proposals to reduce the deficit by impoverishing seniors, punishing middle-class families, and neglecting infrastructure and education will do more harm than good. The deepest problem in the U.S. economy is the gross tilt of income and wealth toward the very top and the distortion of policy to favor financial manipulation rather than real growth.

Perhaps it is time to listen again to the only president in recent memory who balanced four budgets and left a surplus for the Republicans to squander. He achieved those goals not by cutting spending, shutting down the government or ending welfare, but raising taxes on the wealthy in his first budget. There will be no progress toward fiscal balance and economic sanity until we acknowledge those facts — and stop listening to stupid.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer ( To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



3 Comments | Post Comment
Joe, I agree with you about much of this. Not all, but much. Earmarks are small potatoes and won't help much. Entitlements and wars are killing us as well as young men and women. We should get out of there and hunker down to defend ourselves. I doubt coerced healthcare will actually be a money saver; that would be contrary to everthing I have learned about government in my life.

But you are so angry. So sarcastic. So caustic. Stupid is used 4 times, dumb once, then you ask if we are "still paying attention?". Have you ever sat in a classroom with a terrible, bombastic, irritated, short-tempered, unfair, and impatient teacher like yourself? Would you hand that teacher a gun before he entered the classroom? How about giving power of life or death to him? Healthcare is a writ of freedom to most Americans. Freedom from political oppression.

You seem exasperated with Americans. I don't think you like us getting in your way. Do you wonder why I might not trust you with my healthcare, my life, the health of my loved ones? Think seriously about the weapon, the hammer, the sword of Damocles you would have us give to angry people like you.

"Policy above people!" should be your motto. You adore the former and hate the latter.

Comment: #1
Posted by: Tom
Wed Nov 17, 2010 9:16 AM
I agree with Tom. Joe - drop the bitter rhetoric. You might have some good points but your one-way misguided anger ruins any hope of any sane person listening to you. You praise Clinton as balancing the budget. Never forget it was a Democratic administration that engineered the deregulation of Wal-Street. Both parties own this current mess.

And if you can't see that, look in the mirror stupid.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Charles
Wed Nov 17, 2010 11:00 AM
Joe, can't you see that earmarks (read bribes) are a symptom of something far worse than the so-called "chump-change" that will be saved. Would you drink "just a little bit of poison" rather than pure water?
Comment: #3
Posted by: David Henricks
Thu Nov 18, 2010 4:26 AM
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