Stimulus and Boondoggles

The New York Times has a story on some of the more controversial ways in which state and local government are using so-called federal “stimulus” dollars.  If anything, it provides some interesting background on the history of the word boondoggle (not surprisingly, it entered the American lexicon during the New Deal).  The gist of the piece is that one person’s boondoggle is another person’s…turtle crossing…skateboard park…or airport for an island in Alaska with 170 people on it.  One New Dealer found this out decades ago:

Robert D. Leighninger Jr., a sociologist who wrote “Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal” (South Carolina University Press, 2007), recounted the story of a Works Progress Administration official in Arizona who went off in search of boondoggles, and discovered that the towns he visited seemed to like their own projects but questioned those of their neighbors.  “I’ve been hunting all over the state for one, but everywhere I go I’m told it’s in the next county,” the official was quoted as saying in a 1936 newspaper article. “So far I haven’t been able to catch up with a real, live one.”

Naturally, that attitude is alive and well today.  I know more than a few folks in central Pennsylvania who thought Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” was a waste of their federal taxpayer dollars but the “Road to Nowhere” in their own backyard was other people’s money well spent.  Of course the folks in central Pennsylvania don’t like being taxed by the federal government to pay for a bridge in Alaska – they don’t benefit, but bear a portion of the cost.  And that’s a fundamental problem with federal subsidization of activities that are – at most – the proper domain of state and local government.

Set aside the fact that the Constitution never intended for the federal government to make such expenditures.  While any of these controversial parochial projects will technically have benefits, sound economic decision-making would seek to optimize those benefits versus the costs.  In the politicized world of the congressional sausage factory, costs scarcely factor into the equation given that the burden is borne by million of taxpayers spread out across the country.  Therefore, I think the few in Congress who crusade against these perceived boondoggles should spend more time trying to educate their colleagues (don’t laugh) and the public on the need to limit the federal government’s ability to spend the money in the first place.

For more on the problems with the federal subsidization of state and local government, please see this Cato Policy Analysis from my colleague Chris Edwards.