Ted Bobrow

Follow the money

By - Mar 16th, 2009 10:38 am
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When the economy entered its freefall towards the end of 2008, nearly every economist agreed that a vast infusion of government spending was necessary to avoid a catastrophic meltdown such as the nation hasn’t seen since the Great Depression.

In a democracy like ours, that meant getting something like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 through both houses of Congress and signed by the President.

Nobody can be completely satisfied by the sausage making-like process that goes into the drafting, negotiating and passing of a $787 billion piece of legislation.

Ask the great economic and political minds of our day the following questions and no consensus emerges.

Is it too much or too little? Does it have too many or too few tax breaks? Is it going to create enough jobs right away or is too much of the spending going to roll out in 2010 or later? Is the money going for things that we really need or have our political leaders used this opportunity to push through pet projects?

A whole bevy of mainstream media prognosticators, bloggers all across the ideological spectrum and assorted navel-gazers have weighed in but the truth is nobody really knows.

True to form, Joe the Vice President once again violated the First Commandment of political discourse when he deviated from his talking points and suggested that there’s about a 30 percent chance that this will fail.

Given the uncertainty most of us are feeling about the economy, a 70 percent chance of success sounds pretty good to me. When dealing with something this complicated, does anyone actually expect a 100 percent chance of success?

As we’ve come to expect, President Obama has found just the right terminology to describe the stimulus package. It’s not whether it is too big or too small, too liberal or too conservative, what counts is whether it works.  Inaction was not an option and this package is what emerged from this very complicated and somewhat ugly process.

One element of the stimulus package that is probably getting too little attention is the decision to turn much of the money over to states and cities to spend as they see fit. Arguably, this was seen as the most efficient and least controversial option but it isn’t without its problems.

The mad rush for the money reminds me of the classic cinematic celebration of a certain search for a big “W.”

As Mayor Barrett put it in his State of the City address, the money is going to be spent somewhere so he’s going to do everything he can to make sure a good portion is spent addressing Milwaukee’s needs.

Now you have to admire Gov. Doyle and Barrett for their aggressive advocacy on behalf of their constituents in pursuing these federal dollars. And you have to wonder about the sanity, principled or otherwise, of Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker who opposed accepting stimulus dollars because he thought it should have all gone for tax cuts.

You also have to wonder about Walker’s political acumen since almost everything he does seems motivated by his desire to run for governor next year. While this kind of anti-government posturing may appeal to the Republican base necessary to win his party’s nomination, you have to wonder how many sensible Wisconsin residents will be impressed by such a shortsighted position.

Especially when he was so obviously punked by Mayor Barrett, Sen. Kohl and Rep. Obey who included language in the package dividing the $91.5 million in federal transit funds between the city and county.

Walker and Barrett’s inability to agree on a transit plan continued a longstanding impasse between the two Milwaukees concerning how best to spend this money.

We won’t know for several years, if ever, whether Barrett or Walker were right on this but few would argue that leaving this money in a federal account was doing anything to meet the needs of the people of Milwaukee.

This episode, reminiscent of the faulty logic employed by Solomon to smoke out the real mom in that Biblical allegory, brings me back to the main point of this essay.

Reasonable people can differ on how best to spend this enormous amount of money but the one thing I think everyone can agree on is that inaction is the least desirable option.

President Obama, to his credit, has focused on the importance of transparency to keep this program on the straight and narrow.

So feel free to visit www.recovery.gov and learn more about this ambitious and complicated program. And visit www.recovery.wisconsin.gov to see how the funds are being spent here in Wisconsin.

The guy who is responsible for making sure that this money is spent properly may have the toughest job of all.

For if there’s anything those of us who came of age in the ’70s learned, it’s to “Follow the money.”

0 thoughts on “Follow the money”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Read the current Atlantic to see how the fortune cookie crumbles in China! Americans are way too focused on their own navels…stella

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