Big bleg: Let’s help Obama crowdsource-out the pork

by on December 11, 2008 · 20 comments

ap_main_st_recovery_081208_mn.jpgThe stimulus plan President-Elect Barack Obama has recently described would help jump-start the economy at the same time it renews our country’s vital infrastructure. And the president-elect is serious about making smart investments. Here he is on Meet the Press last Sunday (emphasis mine):

Well, I think we can get a lot of work done fast. When I met with the governors, all of them have projects that are shovel ready, that are going to require us to get the money out the door, but they’ve already lined up the projects and they can make them work. And now, we’re going to have to prioritize it and do it not in the old traditional politics first wave. What we need to do is examine what are the projects where we’re going to get the most bang for the buck, how are we going to make sure taxpayers are protected. You know, the days of just pork coming out of Congress as a strategy, those days are over.

Well, it’s not just the governors that have “shovel-ready” projects lined up for federal funding, the nation’s mayors also have plenty of projects at the ready. You can see what these projects are at the U.S. Conference of Mayors site where they have published a “MainStreet Economic Recovery Report” along with a database of the projects, their cost, how many jobs they are expected to create, all sorted by state.

As Reason’s Robert Poole points out in the Wall Street Journal, however, not all of the 11,391 ready-to-go projects would qualify as smart investments:

What vital infrastructure projects would cash-strapped taxpayers get for their $73 billion? Here’s a sampling:

- Hercules, Calif., wants $2.5 million in hard-earned taxpayer money for a “Waterfront Duck Pond Park,” and another $200,000 for a dog park.

- Euless, Texas, wants $15 million for the Midway Park Family Life Center, which, you’ll be glad to note, includes both a senior center and aquatic facility.

- Natchez, Miss., “needs” a new $9.5 million sports complex “which would allow our city to host major regional and national sports tournaments.”

- Henderson, Nev., is asking for $20 million to help “develop a 60 acre multi-use sports field complex.”

- Brigham City, Utah, wants $15 million for a sports park.

- Arlington, Texas, needs $4 million to expand its tennis center.

- Miami, Fla., needs $15 million for a “Moore Park Community Center, Tennis Center and Day Care” facility. The city is also desperate for $3.6 million to build a covered basketball court and a new tennis court at Robert King High Park. Then there’s the $94 million Orange Bowl parking garage you are being asked to pay for.

- La Porte, Texas, wants $7.6 million for a “Life Style Center.” And Oakland, Calif., needs $1 million for Fruitvale Latino Cultural and Performing Arts Center.

And you thought infrastructure investment meant roads, bridges and schools. It is clear that any infrastructure stimulus money given to the country’s mayors will lead to thousands of tennis centers to nowhere.

Here is my bleg: Let’s help President-Elect Obama do what he is promising. Let’s help him “prioritize” so the projects so that we “get the most bang for the buck” and identify those that are old school “pork coming out of Congress”. We can do this through good clean fun crowdsourcing. Who can help me take the database on the Conference of Mayors site and turn each project into a wiki-page or other mechanism where local citizens can comment on whether the project is actually needed or whether it’s a boondoggle? How can we create an app that will let citizens separate the wheat from the pork and then sort for Congress and the new administration the project in descending order or relevancy?

I have some technical chops, but in many ways I wouldn’t know where to start. Any takers? If there are, my colleagues and I would love to dive into this and we can probably scrounge up some resources. Who’s with us?

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    It's a great idea, Jerry. But I do think you're missing the point (in terms of understanding where the New Deal 2.0 crowd is coming from) when you say: “not all of the 11,391 ready-to-go projects would qualify as smart investments.”

    That crowd doesn't necessarily care about whether something is a “smart investment.” If you're a serious Keynesian (as some, though certainly not all, in that camp seem to be), the goal is simply to spend, spend, spend our way to prosperity. No?

    Now, perhaps some people might come to see that it's just plain stupid to waste money on the kinds of pointless “infrastructure” projects we built in the 1930s or that the Japanese in the 1990s as they attempted (unsuccessfully) to spend their way out of a recession. But I'm a bit skeptical that, no matter how stupid these projects seem, the masses will really come to understand Bastiat's broken window fallacy–that every dollar spent on “stimulus” would have been spent on other, more productive uses, such as actual investment–not merely government spending that the socialists like to call “investment.”

  • dm

    You think parks are a bad thing? Seriously?

    Sure, they don't make it easier to get products delivered to grocery stores, nor crops to market, but people do seem to enjoy visiting them and like to have them around.

  • Number9

    I'm not technically inclined either, but I think the basic outline should be for you to establish a Digg for infrastructure projects:

    1. Find that list of all the projects eligible for money
    2. Set up a Digg clone to list them all
    3. Let people vote them up and down

  • http://thevitaminkid.blogspot.com autodidact

    Is there anything that's happened in Washington in the past two years that indicates Congress and the White House are actually interested in knowing what the people think or want? It's true, the people shutting down the switchboards at the Capitol seemed to have stopped the immigration reform bill, i.e. amnesty. (But they've subverted the people's will by dragging their feet on the border fence — which remains a joke.) We The People did not want most of the bailouts, and most taxpayers do not want the automobile industry bailout. Yet these will be crammed down our throats and we will be told it is good for us.

    So it will go with the multiple bridges to nowhere that will be built with the new infrastructure program. They don't care what you think. With this bunch, the efforts you make to divert pork from its intended destination will be a waste. Good luck to you on proving me wrong!

  • http://squareone.pheared.net Kevin Dwyer

    You basically need to implement a site like Dell's IdeaStorm. Drop all of the projects in as ideas and let people vote, as a previous commenter wrote.

    First issue is getting the data out though. It looks like it wouldn't be too bad if you screen scraped each of the tables from the “by city” breakdown. The PDF has it all but who knows how hard it is to parse those tables. I'll do it this weekend.

  • http://provocativelyevocative.blogspot.com/ Jesse

    great idea!
    parks and sports complexes are good for communities, but they should really set their focus on essential infrastructure. fixing broken roads, renovating schools and hospitals etc.

  • Number9

    True. But better roads and public transportation make it easier for people to get to work and better power lines make it so that people don’t lose electricity in a storm.

    I think parks are an essential part of our communities and should be expanded and newly built when possible, but there are some items that are more immediately useful. Besides, most of those seem to be “sports centers” and tennis courts rather than parks.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Berin, I think you're missing the point of what I'm trying to do here. Whether we like it or not we're going to get this stimulus spending. I take the president-elect at his word when he says he doesn't want to use the money for pork but instead figure out what will get us the most bang for the buck. To that end, lots of local knowledge, pooled using online tools, about which projects are worthwhile and which are not very useful, should help get us better spending and less handouts to city governments.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Where did I say parks are a bad thing?

    What I'm saying is that the president-elect has promised to prioritize the spending so that it goes to critical infrastructure. He talks about roads, bridges, schoolhouses, etc. He does not talk about dog parks or tennis facilities in wealthy neighborhoods. What I'd like to do is prioritize this list.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    That's a great idea. I'll look into it. Thanks!

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Thanks, I'll do my best!

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    kvn – if you could do it, you'd be my hero. let me know if there's anything I can do to help. i'll start to look for a digg-like software and see if i can set up hosting. make sense?

  • http://squareone.pheared.net kvn

    Sounds about right. I'll do what I can to get the data into a usable format and we can go from there.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Right, that's the part I think is a “great idea.”

    I just wouldn't get my hopes up too much that this project is going to really get through to the people who really don't understand Bastiat's “broken window” fallacy of focusing on the “seen” (all the money spent on “stimulus” that “gets the economy going”) while ignoring the “unseen” (the fact that the money taken to pay for that “stimulus” comes out of the productive private sector one way or another, either by taxes or deficit spending).

    For example, those who really believe that war somehow “gets the economy going” (or that WWII saved us from the depression) really just don't understand economics and probably, at the end of the day, don't much care whether how productive government spending is.

    At the risk of seeming excessively negative here about an idea that I do really like, I would also question the idea that this project would reduce overall spending. The danger with making government work more efficiently is always that you might wind up with even more spending. It's at least possible that it will be easier to spend taxpayer money on infrastructure socialism if the proponents of spending can say, “Ah, but this is SMART spending–and besides, it's direct democracy in action!” I'm not saying we shouldn't take advantage of tools that could easily reduce the inefficiency or wastefulness of government spending; I'm just not sure the net outcome will be a reduction in the size of government.

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    Yeah, I never said this would lead to net reduction of spending, much less that that is what I'm after. And sure, most people succumb to the broken window fallacy, so I guess we should all pack up and go home.

    Anyhow, thanks for letting me know how my project may never work on the very post where I'm asking for technical assistance.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    Now I feel like kind of a jerk. At the risk of digging myself in deeper here, let me try to rephrase what I was trying to say as follows: I think this project could indeed reduce wasteful spending, and for that reason alone, it's well worth pursuing. I'd be happy to help in any way I can.

    At the same time, I do worry a bit that helping to prioritize spending and getting large-scale public participation in the decision-making process *might*, in the long-run, make it politically feasible to increase overall spending on such projects. It's possible that increased transparency into this process might make some people ask why the government needs to do A, B or C, but I fear there may be more people think “Wow, this public spending stuff is great, let's get the government to do D, E & F, too!”

    On a more constructive note, it occurs to me that the platform itself might actually be set up to constantly remind users of the “unseen” cost of every project discussed. For example, what if the site showed, next to every dollar figure of proposed spending, what that amounted to in very real “unseen” costs in the aggregate? You could randomly select units of equivalence for every dollar figure shown on the site. So, a local library that cost $10m might have displayed, next to that figure, how many dinners for a family of four that worked out. I'm just brainstorming here… The trick would be to do this in such a way that really made the user think about the accumulated cost of all of this stuff. Because, of course, the dispersed costs for each project would be small. But what if every time a user voted for a project, that project's cost was added to the total cost of all projects they supported–and *that* number was put into both total annual cost for the average taxpayer or some unit of equivalence?

  • http://squareone.pheared.net kvn

    Alright, I did some work on Saturday and came up with this: http://sites.google.com/a/pheared.net/mayors-mo

    I parsed out all of the projects into a sqlite database. It's trivial now to do any kind of fun manipulations of the data, especially display.

    A little (but not much) more commentary here: http://squareone.pheared.net/2008/12/needy-mayo

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    kvn- you're the man! later today i'll put up another post with my thoughts on an interface and ask for help from others to make it happen. i've been talking to a couple of developers who might be able to help. by all means drop in on that discussion and share your ideas. again, you rock! -jb

  • http://jerrybrito.com Jerry Brito

    kvn- you're the man! later today i'll put up another post with my thoughts on an interface and ask for help from others to make it happen. i've been talking to a couple of developers who might be able to help. by all means drop in on that discussion and share your ideas. again, you rock! -jb

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