Folie à deux

A fairy tale about government spending
By AL DIAMON  |  March 18, 2009

Once upon a time in Unrealityland, there were two senators named Olympia and Susan. They were good senators, always looking out for the Unrealists' (for that's what the natives were called) best interests. They fought against a tax on Unrealistic expectations. They sponsored legislation to increase the amount of pie in the sky. They didn't kiss any frogs and turn them into princes, but they did kiss off political opponents and turn them into nonentities.

Unfortunately, even in Unrealityland, problems can arise. An evil troll put a hex on the economy. The stock market lost its magic. The spell banks were suddenly spellbound. Tooth fairies couldn't borrow cash to leave under pillows.

To combat the troll's incantation, the country's new king proposed a stimulus package to improve the supernatural infrastructure, create work for wizards, and exorcise the demons of distress. The king's opponents dismissed it as mumbo-jumbo and vowed to block his black magic in the Unrealityland Senate.

The king's allies turned to Olympia and Susan for help in conjuring up a compromise. But the two senators looked upon the stimulus bill and were not pleased.

"A Christmas tree" of unnecessary items that won't aid the economy, Susan told reporters. (Capitol News Service, January 29.) It's "bloated" with unnecessary spending provisions. (Portland Press Herald, February 8.) "We don't have any money to waste." (Lewiston Sun Journal, February 6.)

Olympia was equally firm. "[W]e really need to ensure that we develop a process that adheres to strong principles and maintains the integrity of the programs for which it has been designed," she said. "We can't put everything but the kitchen sink in it." (Boston University Washington News Service, January 30.) "[W]e cannot afford to insert programs and expand programs [that] otherwise should go through the appropriate budget process." (Sun Journal, February 6.)

To accommodate Olympia and Susan, the king and his friends agreed to remove the voodoo economics from the bill. Still, Susan had concerns. "The temptation is going to be for everyone to add their favorite program to the stimulus," she said. (Capitol News, January 29.) "I'm very leery of having an enormous package that would not be necessary and would just boost the federal deficit." (Sun Journal, February 6.)

Olympia, too, had doubts. "When you're going to spend to the tune of $800 billion, you better get it right," she said. (BU Washington News Service, February 6.)

Eventually, though, both Olympia and Susan voted for the king's modified plan, and it became the reality of Unrealityland. Soon thereafter, cash started to flow to "wand-ready" projects. Construction began on gingerbread houses. Employees returned to work at the pumpkin-coach factory. And fairy godmothers had their retirement accounts restored.

But there was more to be done. The Senate still needed to pass a $410 billion budget bill to keep most of the government functioning. And those evil senators who'd been thwarted by good Susan and faithful Olympia were intent on using that measure to advance their personal projects, by employing a form of necromancy known as "earmarks."

Into a giant cauldron, they cast ear of newt and mark of trail. The mixture bubbled up and spewed forth 8000 earmarks that would cost more than $5.5 billion.

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Related: There is no mystery to the debt crisis. Plus: Scott Brown, and the Boston Foundation, Chafee’s number, Indentured servitude and other keys to the Rhode Island recovery, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Politics, Public Finance, Domestic Policy,  More more >
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