Now Playing at Reason.tv: Earmarks—The Alien Menace

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Taxpayers are shelling out over $17 billion for more than 11,000 Congressional earmarks in FY 2008. One such project is a $1.6 million earmark in this year's defense spending bill. The money is going to the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI), a program that searches for evidence of life elsewhere in the universe.

That alien pork project is just one example of how elected officials use earmarks to funnel federal tax dollars back to powerful interests in their districts. While politicians and a few of their most well-connected constituents benefit from earmarks, the costs fall on individual taxpayers. Since 1991, Americans have paid over $271 billion for pork projects.

In this new Reason.tv video, Senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla)—who is known as  the Senate's "Dr. No" for his aggressive opposition to earmarks—explains how taxpayers are being fleeced by Washington's insatiable appetite for pork.

Click below to watch this video.

For more background information and links, and to embed this video at your website, go here.

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  1. 1.6 million? That’s nothing. Given the potential value of SETI’s research, sounds like a bargain to me. If anything, this is the earmark counter example- money earmarked for pure research? Cool!

  2. 17 billion a year is chump change. Your worrying about the small stuff when the Bankers and the Military industrial complex steal 17 billion in a day. This weekends bailout of the Bankers and RE industry alone makes 17 billion look like nothing.

  3. with the usual disclaimers that I agree that 1 million here, a million there your talking aobut real money, for perspective:

    1.6 million is about what it costs for 2-3 “quality of life” port visits for a small warship (SSN/DDG/FFG), and doesn’t quite cover 1 such visit for a large deck (gator/cvn)

    And the usual comparison these days, about 1 hour of Iraq.

    I don’t think it’s a gateway drug anymore (or less) than MJ is. In fact, like MJ, earmark abusers exists on a totally plane than the really hard core warfare/welfare junkies. ‘Earmark reform’ just feels to me like a distraction, because (ironically?) it’s logic of the type:

    “we must do something about spending” ->

    “earmarks are something” ->

    “therefore we are doing something”

  4. If people thought of themselves as taxpayers rather than beggars, we wouldn’t have this multi-billion dollar earmarks problem. And taxes would be lower.

  5. Man I wish the IRS gave me a form which showed me which government program my taxes could be directed to. I’d throw it all at SETI. Atleast they’re not terrorizing anyone on this planet.

  6. I find it rather surprising that you’d single out a mere 1.6 mil for SETI for special mention. There must be thousands of government expenditures that are much more objectionable than that one.

    Complaining about SETI expenditures is like tackling the “crime problem” by ticketing jaywalkers. Can’t you at least focus on arson, rape, and bloody murder?

  7. Why are you worrying about a Mickey Mouse operation like SETI when, if you want to talk about space and waste, you could mention NASA?

    I of course cannot WTFV, but I have a feeling that it’s Coburn (who does good work but is still a social conservative) who objects to spending anything on “little green men” and that’s why it’s mentioned so prominently in the lede here.

    SETI can be useful, because it’s important that we encounter the Tymbrimi first, or the Tandu, Soro, and Thennanin will wipe us out.

  8. Complaining about SETI expenditures is like tackling the “crime problem” by ticketing jaywalkers. Can’t you at least focus on arson, rape, and bloody murder?

    Must be Reason’s “Broken Window” Theory.

  9. @t3knomanser

    $1.6m for a worthwhile project is nothing BUT the point is is that the money shouldn’t be in a DoD funding bill. Let it get voted on its merits and not some sleazy package deal.

    Earmarks are like Communism, looks great on paper IF IT WORKED but, with crystal clear vision, both completely fail in the real world.

    Would an amendment to the US Constitution stop earmarks? What would because we need something.

    Good video. It addresses how even “good” earmarks for worthwhile programs still don’t justify using such a totally broken system. Besides, if SETI is taking US Govt money can’t the Feds start calling the shots? The more you look into it the more we realize just how bad and corrupt the earmark system is.

    Also “optical SETI” looks like it might be more effective than the current radiowave version. Thankfully private donors can decide which project is better much, much fast than the Feds ever could.

    Something to ponder …

  10. Earmarks are nothing compared to the drug war, bailouts, or Iraq.

  11. @Grapple

    The problem is that earmarks are part of a “Quid Pro Quo” system to get local politicos and other recipients to campaign for the incumbents over challengers using taxpayer funds. Yes, all waste has to be addressed but earmarks, regardless of their current portion of the US Fed budget, are partly subverting the election process which makes it a concern.

    That which is done in the light suffers less chance of corruption. Note I said less. =)

  12. @Mr. Williams

    And you don’t think that the hundreds of billions to the Banks and Military Industrial complex are not part of a “Quid Pro Quo” system ? You don’t think that the Congressman who gets a million for the hula hoop museum is not also part of getting a billion or ten for their favorite corporation or country. You don’t think that Senator Dodd is not the Banking Industry representative to the Senate?

  13. Note that this post is unsigned, which is highly unusual for H&R posts. Which Reason staffer wrote this?

  14. Given a $400B (and growing) annual deficit that is used to fund a $2.7T budget…I just can’t get worked up over $17B anymore.

    Sorry, but people chasing earmarks are wasting their time ignoring a far bigger issue.

  15. I hate earmarks. I think they are a drug on the economy and on the people that depend on them. Obama needs to veto anything with any earmark on it next year (as if that would happen).

    That said SETI is one of very few projects that, if successful, would lead the human race to a new plateau where religion, nationalism, and war can be viewed as the dead ends they have become and we can find way out of our medieval ways of thinking.

    And if you think that SETI is a huge concern think of this. There are only five operating SETI stations on planet earth and one of them (my own) was built for a few thousand dollars and is manned by one person. Not exactly a drain on the economy (see http://www.SETI.Net).

    For such a large payback you would think that we would become serious about it.

  16. When I saw ID in the theaters and the aliens blew up the white house, there were many cheers. And I believe there in the aftermath of OKC that it was all attributed to Clinton haters.

    I have no doubt if the movie was released today, they would be even more cheers for the white house’s destruction.

    See bi-partisanship can be good!

  17. The American people feel about earmarks similarly to how they feel about their own congressmen.

    Congress’ approval is at 14%, but people keep electing the same criminals over and over again. It’s just other congressmen they don’t like.

    Everyone outside Alaska was horrified by the Bridge to Nowhere, but try taking away the earmark to their own district and see how they feel.

  18. What an odd thing to single out. The line “alien pork” pushes this post close to Onion territory.

    I wouldn’t have put my name on this post, either.

  19. That alien pork project is just one example of how elected officials use earmarks to funnel federal tax dollars back to powerful interests in their districts.

    SETI is an example of a “powerful interest”? We must have slipped to one of those parallel worlds Bailey warned us about yesterday. I take it William Proxmire was a noted liberal community organizer in this Earth?

  20. Good video. And sure, I agree with a lot of others here that the mortgage bailouts are definitely pretty bad but you guys still gotta agree that pork spending has been at an all-time high and completely out of control since Bush took office. Along with the cost of Iraq and the war on terror, earmarks simply add insult to injury and is also a telltale sign of this type of “legal bribery” which has been less and less covert in the last 10 years.

    And I have a lot of respect for Coburn, despite his views on gays and sex (which leans towards the neo-con’s Bible belt) I’m glad he’s in office.

  21. SETI is arguably one of the few projects that is worthwhile and should be funded, by both public and private sources. If we don’t look, we won’t find anything. PERIOD! I agree with James Brown, in that SETI could lead to changing the game of the world in so many important ways; as such I’d suggest we pump an astronomical amount into the project not the mere chump change we current put into it.

    The focus SHOULD BE ON CORN subsidies! 300 BILLION dollars! That’s money! That’s 42 senators from Farm states voting for Ethanol, which is simply DUMB! The focus should be on the welfare state, and wasted programs that help no one. Not basic science research which in nearly all forms, SETI or not, can have big advantages to the R&D in private business down the road.

  22. “””Would an amendment to the US Constitution stop earmarks? What would because we need something.”””

    Cutting off their ability to get revenue from the citizenry. Or at least, greatly reducing that ability.

  23. So the feds spend $1.6 million to search for sentient life in the heavens. Yet another reason why Libertarianism trumps Atheism among my priorities.

  24. That being said, I wouldn’t be sad if SETI went entirely private–the private effort is already pretty advanced.

    But “powerful interest”? I suppose libertarians are also a powerful interest group within the Republican party, which explains how well we’ve done in the past seven years.

  25. It’s time to bring back the line item veto. It won’t actually do much, seeing as how earmarks are less than half a percent of the federal budget, but every little bit helps.

    What the federal governement really needs is a balanced budget amendment. But we don’t really need that either. We have a central bank which can push inflation just high enough to make sure we never actually need to pay pack the national debt.

    In summation, I’ve learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

  26. Sandy, private Seti programs would be great. I just don’t want tax dollars going to it.

  27. “””It’s time to bring back the line item veto. “””

    It’s unconstitutional, that’s why it went away. The executive can not pick and choose the parts it likes. It must accept or refuse what the legislative branch passes.

  28. SETI is a waste. NASA’s planned manned expeditions to the moon and Mars are bigger wastes.

    A GOP congress tried to give a Democratic president line item veto in 1996. I’d support an amendment that reverses the SCOTUS ruling on it. Other than that, pork will be with us forever. It doesn’t matter what party is in charge. If Libertarians got the majority (yeah, right) in both houses, pork barrel spending would still exist.

  29. I crunched a prodigious number of work units when the SETI-at-home “grid computing” experiment made its debut. I was happy to do this, and I thought this exemplified the best “citizens be doin’ it for deyselves” attitude. How could I, as a libertarian who supported space exploration NOT contribute? But I have been very disappointed with their continual suckling at the government teat, in addition to exhorting geeks to contribute in-kind computation cycles. SETI, I’ll gladly contribute the latter kind of charity (call it a citizen’s research endowment), if you’ll quit seeking the former type of welfare.

  30. Why is this even debatable?

    We should pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to in order to assure the survival and the success of me and my Tibetan brothers.

    What was that. SETI?

    S-E-T-I?

    Oh, that’s very different..

    Never mind!

  31. Who is the Department of Defense going to give this paltry amount of money to? The SETI Institute? U.C. Berkeley? Harvard? NASA? University of Kentucky? Or is it for their own project and a contractor? There are a number of entities doing SETI science research. This little amount of money would only buy 1 small dish for the 350 dish Allen Array. What SETI dicipline is it to be spent on? Radio science, Optical SETI, astrobiology, astrogeology, message coding? There isn’t enough information about this. And frankly, don’t the conspiracy theorists expect the DoD to have a hand in this business anyway? :^) I don’t think you can have a big staff of Men-in-Black for 1.6 million. Are they going to ride black skate-boards?
    Jason H.

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