New-Age Earmarks

Yesterday, Joe Biden was holding forth on how the Obama administration will ensure that earmarks are kept out of the various economic-stimulus bills that the administration will be introducing.

It’s actually possible that he means what he says, as far as the traditional kind of earmark goes–that is, a provision for specific spending, in a specific geographical area, at the behest of a particular Congressman.

But in a broader sense, much of the economic policy of the incoming Obama administration seems to be centered around earmarks, albeit earmarks of a different kind. Instead of Congressional-district-based earmarks, we will have SIC-code-based earmarks (SIC code=standard industrial classification), providing benefits to particular industries, and reverse-bill-of-attainder earmarks, directed in favor of particular named companies or small groups of companies.

Traditional earmarks tended to politicize certain kinds of businesses, such as local construction companies. The new-age earmarks will tend to politicize all types of business, throughout the entire national economy. Your business success if you are an executive or business owner–your employment if you are a worker–your returns on investment if you are a shareholder or bondholder–will increasingly depend on the political rather than the business astuteness of company management.

5 thoughts on “New-Age Earmarks”

  1. I worry that we are one the path to having a system like that of the 3rd world in which no one can prosper unless they are connected to powerful politicians. Our society will devolve into balkanized patronage networks all competing against one another for an ever shrinking pie. Throw in ethnic divisions and you have a recipe for disaster.

  2. And we are back to tribalism – tribalism defined a bit differently perhaps, but tribalism nonetheless. The stern old rules against nepotism hurt people in certain areas (academic ones, for instance) since people tend to breed and marry people with like interests and like skills. And family businesses could show how much more productive working together as a family can be and how much honoring the father can mean honoring the business – and keep the spirit going.

    I’ll allow for all that. But I remember how my mother drove twenty-five miles in Nebraska weather to not teach at the school her children attended – because she feared they or she might be seen as non-objective. (My mother could be fanatic and was not very warm; she knew, however, what she believed.) This thinking has disappeared. And I am sorry for it.

    A few years ago, we attended the awards ceremony for a local department at the big school. Every undergraduate award went to the wife of one of the profesors (who was heading out to Ivy League grad school – partially because professors don’t marry their stupid students but their brilliant ones and partially because the recommendations were, of course, glowing) – and most of the grad ones went to another faculty member’s wife – who may have been quite competent though she was never tried outside the school in which she had managed to capture an often-roving professor over twenty years her senior who had, before her, always returned to his wife and children.

    I acknowledge a certain spitefulness and even envy on my part; life as a partner has its rewards but marrying an older “protector” has its. But it is also recognition that human nature has not changed while the rules that restrain it have. And some were put in for good reasons – productivity is one of them. True egalitarianism, true diversity are others. Where we are paid by others for work that those who pay us have trouble judging and certainly rejecting, we should be especially cautious.

  3. Are subsidies for various industries, ie, farmers and oil etc, new age or old age earmarks? Or is that another category? Will New Age earmarks replace or add to earlier earmarks?

  4. hpb3…sorry for delayed response. You are correct that what I call “new-age earmarks” are not entirely new, and such things have existed in one form or another for a long time. But now, we’re seeing a political philosophy that basically wants to run the entire economy on this basis.

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