Porkbusters, a blog founded by Glenn Reynolds and N.Z. Bear to expose wasteful government spending and organize opposition against it, has scored a major victory. The Senate has unanimously (no Senator would dare oppose this) passed the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparancy Act, allowing itemized information on all federal spending to be publicly available.
Read the links for full details, but this is nothing short of a great coup for the American people, and for the blogosphere that empowered them. Many egregiously wasteful projects will be quickly detected, publicized, and effectively thwarted by bloggers from here on.
How much semi-corrupt wastage of taxpayer money is there? From here, we can see annual estimates of :
2004 : $22.9 Billion
2005 : $27.3 Billion
2006 : $29 Billion
While all pork will not be eliminated, we can assume that for 2006, the $29 Billion could have been trimmed down to $9 Billion, with $20 Billion in savings.
Just for fun, let's get carried away for a bit. I have some crazy ideas on what the federal government could be doing with $20 Billion in taxpayer money per year.
1) Reduce the federal budget deficit. While I don't think the deficit is a ruinous problem due to it being no greater a percentage of GDP than it has been for most of the last 25 years, it would still be nice to reduce it from $300 billion to $280 billion with this spending reduction, and move closer towards future tax cuts.
2) An elite, specialized counterterror organization that effectively acts as a 'bodyguard force' for the public at potential terrorist targets. Rather than mere security guards or police officers, each of these agents would have the combined skills of intelligence officers, investigative agents, interrogation experts, and elite fighters. They would be trained to watch for suspicious behavior or body language to a greater degree than generic security guards, and be capable of conducting a rapid, penetrative interrogation on the spot.
To attract the best candidates, we would have to offer attractive compensation. If the salary, benefits, equipment, transportation, and administrative support of each agent amounted to a total of $250,000 a year, we could use $2 Billion a year to create a force of 8,000 of them. That would be enough to monitor every airline gate at the time of boarding, every entrance to every stadium during major sporting events, every convention center, every subway station, every skyscraper, every water supply, every nuclear plant, etc.
Critics would call this a dangerous step towards a police state, while others lament that this is what they had hoped the Department of Homeland Security would become. I'm sure that if this proposition were put on the ballot for a vote, it would get much more than 50% support. On a sheer financial basis, the 9/11/01 attacks cost the US economy anywhere from $200 Billion to $1 Trillion. This counterterror force would be effectively free, funded purely by a fraction of the money saved from pork elimination.
3) We could create a national scholarship program, or enhance existing ones, that create massive incentives for children to pursue study in science, engineering, and business. The simple approach would be the creation of a new program of $100,000 scholarships awarded to promising high school seniors, to be applied towards four years of tuition, room, and board, for all science, engineering, and business students maintaining a 3.0 GPA at accredited undergraduate degree programs. Refining the selection critera and process is the easy part. If 50,000 new students got this annually, it would still cost only $5 Billion. But we can be far more creative than that.
One of the reasons that the proportion of high-school students indicating an interest in quantitative fields has declined is the 'nerdy' stigma associated with studying these subjects. Thus, the best return on investment would be a scholarship that induced cultural change in American teens, in addition to merely alleviating financial burdens. Hence, the scholarship could be buttressed with a carefully constructed marketing and media campaign to create social prestige associated with the scholarship.
The day on which scholarship awardees are revealed and notified by mail should be nationally announced to build suspense and chatter. Television commercials during programs with large teenage audiences indicating 'who will be next leaders of American ingenuity and industry?' would be run. The commercials would be designed to capture the imagination, such as depicting three high school friends who are awardees, and then jumping ahead to a reunion 30 years later, where one is a top executive, another is a Nobel Laureate scientist, and a third is an astronaut. Other commercials could show an unnoticed, studious boy suddenly becoming popular upon receiving such a prestigious scholarship. Such a marketing campaign could easily be run for under $100 million a year.
If we assume another $100 Million in administrative overhead, this whole program would cost just $5.2 Billion a year.
4) Federal funding for basic and applied scientific research is where the next generation of technology and industry begins. However, it has a very uncertain return in terms of both timing and magnitude, and since it has few powerful lobbies advocating it, is often the first thing to be trimmed when belt-tightening ensues in Washington.
Total NSF funding appears to have increased from $4.9 Billion in 1970 to $60 Billion today, but it is actually constant at about 0.5% of GDP throughout this period. In an increasingly knowledge-based and technology driven world, keeping government research constant as a percentage of GDP is to let other nations close the scientific gap with the US. Adding $20 Billion to NSF expenditures would increase the total budget by a third, and attract several thousand more students from abroad to pursue PhDs in the US, and stay here upon graduation. At worst, the additional research will merely not yield large benefits.
Anyway, dreaming of things that can improve our society is fun, even if they won't happen. Out of a $2.8 Trillion federal budget in 2006, each of these programs is a pittance, and certainly not contingent on pork removal for financing. The total price of doing 2), 3), and 4) combined is just $27.2 Billion. But they haven't happened, or at best, exist in only partial or diluted versions of what they could have been. Even the most creative country in the world is often not creative enough.
But it just shows how much can be done with the removal of some of the wasteful spending that was been occurring for so long. If only....