Pork or a chance to bring home the bacon?

Republicans say we don't need a stimulus. From Berkeley, Calif., to Texas, local governments disagree.

By Andrew Leonard

Published February 4, 2009 3:22PM (EST)

The new chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, says "we don't" need a stimulus. The economy will recover on its own, he told Fox News, so what's the worry?

"I think if the government were to get out of the way and let the small business community and corporations of America weed themselves through this process, it's survival of the fittest," Steele said.

To most people mindful of the results of the recent presidential election, not to mention the last two congressional elections, Steele's pronouncements might seem incomprehensible, especially in light of the latest economic news: the U.S. economy is likely to register another half a million jobs lost in January, and possibly another 1 million to 2 million in the next few months. Meanwhile, TimeWarner announced on Wednesday a fourth quarter loss of $16 billion. But Republicans have somehow managed to put the Obama administration on the defensive -- the "stimulus" bill is now a "spending" bill, and efforts to create jobs quickly are derided as pork.

By every available indicator, the economy is caught in a vicious liquidity trap, in which collapsed spending is causing further business retrenchment, leading to more layoffs, and even less spending. The U.S. may well have engaged in an unsustainable debt-fueled consumption binge for decades, but now there's a real danger that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. If government "were to get out of the way now" the human suffering will be extreme.

So how is it that Republicans can lose elections and win the war on rhetoric? Because one man's pork is another woman's opportunity to bring home some desperately needed bacon.

For example, in Berkeley, Calif., my hometown, city leaders met on Monday to discuss possible projects that would qualify for federal funding that may be disbursed in block grants to states and local governments. One possibility, reported the Daily Californian, was the city's plan for a Zero Waste Facility:

Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said the city's Zero Waste Facility will likely receive funds because of its sustainable practices and project readiness.

"We already had consultants, design work, specifications. That's something with a fair amount of thinking already," Wozniak said.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that the national list includes such things as a 36-hole Frisbee golf course in Austin, Texas, and a "3 million dollar environmentally friendly clubhouse" for a municipal golf course in Lincoln, Neb.

I can well see how there would be differing views on how these projects rate on the pork scale. My own ranking would put advanced recycling facilities above Frisbee and golf. How can you not like a "shovel-ready" project that will help us avoid digging more landfills? But anything that employs workers will provide some kind of stimulus to the economy, and if you believe, as many people do, that the economy is teetering on the brink of a really severe meltdown, then the emphasis should be on delivering a speedy jolt to the economy, rather than refighting rhetorical battles that should have been settled by the last couple of elections.

Besides, more people should be playing Frisbee. It's good for you.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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