Scrutinize the spending

SCRUTINIZE THE SPENDING…. The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd celebrates John McCain’s earmark crusade today, and devotes a full-fourth of her column to re-printing McCain’s Twittered-list of “pork” in the omnibus spending bill. It went back over familiar ground:

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

Now, in reality, we know that the anti-gang expenditure is money well spent. It’s a small investment that makes a big, life-saving difference, and has been heartily endorsed by law-enforcement officials. McCain didn’t know that when he complained about the “pork,” and neither did Dowd when she added it to her column. Neither, apparently, thought to check.

And that’s the problem with cherry-picking earmarks for the purpose of ridicule. Jon Chait explained today that McCain’s anti-earmark technique “is to focus on programs that mention animals or food, or anything that sounds silly. He’s clearly not interested in learning whether any of the programs he targets have merit.”

I don’t know whether or not cricket control is a necessary program. Maybe crickets are doing many times that amount in crop damage every year. Maybe it’s a boondoggle. I don’t know about the astronomy program, either, though I do think there’s a role for federal support of the sciences, even in silly-sounding places like Hawaii.

I do know that the tattoo-removal program is an effective anti-crime initiative — it allows rehabilitated former to reenter society shorn of visible markings that cut them off from middle-class culture. McCain and Dowd don’t know this, and they don’t care. What’s on display is the worst elements of political demagoguery meeting the worst elements of the instant-reaction internet culture. They think the very idea of trying to learn about something before you take a position on it is a joke.

One would like to think they know better by now. In complaining about earmarks, Republicans have singled out money for volcano monitoring, which, when scrutinized, turned out to be money well spent. They singled out marsh-mouse preservation and a high-speed rail between L.A. and Las Vegas, both of which turned out to be non-existent. They thought the notion of spending federal funds on “honeybee insurance” was hilarious, right up until they realized it was a program to offer disaster insurance to livestock producers, which has long enjoyed Republican support.

It’s just more intellectual laziness, and it’s not pretty.