Saturday, March 14, 2009

Political Conservatism And Bees

Jamison Foser's weekly "Media Matters" column focuses its attention on what he calls the "stupidity" of Republican talking points concerning the $410 billion supplemental budget bill passed by Congress and the presence of "earmarks", specifically on the national media's transcription of so many of these Republican talking points without serious research or considerations of scale or relevance or importance.
For weeks, the news media have been buzzing about earmarks in the recently signed omnibus spending bill. We've been told over and over that the bill is "loaded," "filled," and "stuffed" with earmarks. Since earmarks made up less than 2 percent of the bill's total spending, this is a little like saying Alaska is "filled" with people.

But John McCain doesn't like earmarks, so that's where the media have focused their attention. (OK, there's more to it than that, but not much.) Unfortunately, they've done so in the most juvenile way possible. Following McCain's lead, the media's assessment of the earmarks consists of nothing more than sarcastically listing them, as though they are self-evidently a waste of money. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently described the approach McCain and the Republicans have adopted:

The intellectual incoherence is stunning. Basically, the political philosophy of the GOP right now seems to consist of snickering at stuff that they think sounds funny. The party of ideas has become the party of Beavis and Butthead.

And the media have gone right along with it, producing news reports about the spending bill that are no more substantive than an adolescent chortle: Heh, heh, he said "pig waste." Heh.

Foser zeroes in on the inclusion of federal money for support of honeybee research.
Consider, for example, the honeybee. If you have watched television news or picked up a newspaper in the past several weeks, you've probably heard about federal funding for honeybees.

The assault on the honeybee began with the stimulus package, when CNN and other news organizations dutifully repeated GOP attacks on the inclusion of $150 million for "honeybee insurance." Columnist Charles Krauthammer went so far as to call the bill an "abomination" for including the honeybee insurance.

Now, there are a few things you need to know about the honeybee insurance. First, there was no such funding, according to Los Angeles Times business columnist Michael Hiltzik. Second, if the funding did exist, it would have amounted to somewhere around two one-hundredths of 1 percent of the stimulus package. Third, if the funding existed, it might well have been a wise use of money.

Foser goes on to make the not-insignificant point that the honeybee population is dying off; both "domesticated" and wild bee populations are used not just for producing honey for commercial sale, but also for pollination of various commercial crops; the demise of so much of the bee population is already putting a multi-billion dollar dent in certain segments of agriculture. Further research into the rather dull name of "Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder" should seem a no-brainer; which, it seems, is Foser's point. Much of the criticism of funding here is not based in any philosophical opposition to federal funding for scientific research as such; nor is it linked to some kind of federalism, in which it would be preferable that the states where this problem exists would be far better equipped both to target the funds and to see a direct benefit from such research. Sadly, the latter two points have neither been argued nor even made an appearance. It is, sadly, all about laughing about stuff that sounds funny.

Now, one point Foser makes is that most Americans not only do not know about the importance of the honeybee to agriculture, it would be almost impossible for them to know this.
Now, you can't expect most Americans to know this. Most Americans don't give much thought to bees beyond hoping they don't get stung by one. And that's fine: The life cycle and migratory patterns of bees, and their resultant effects on avocado and cucumber growth, are fairly obscure subjects. We can't, and shouldn't, expect the typical American to know about or act upon these things. After all, there are a lot of obscure but important things that, as a nation, we need to know about and act upon. We can't know about and act upon them all individually; it's literally impossible.

It isn't just the media who could or even should find out if such federal funding is either important or even defensible. It might be thought that members of Congress who laugh like drunk frat boys at fart jokes about this kind of thing have highly paid staffs at their disposal who could use this newfangled thing called Google and discover the nature of the spending proposal.

Of course, they don't do that. And the press neither reports their not so doing, nor does it on its own. Indeed, the entire process of political discourse has become a weird kind of joke. On the one hand, you have Pres. Obama and some Democrats (although not all) raising serious questions, insisting on accountability, treating the American people like adults who are facing numerous problems that will not be fixed either easily or quickly. On the other hand, you have people like John McCain who Twitter about bee research, with a smirk and a nudge to their neighbor, without ever really doing the job they were elected to do - find out if the money is either proposed well, or serves a broader public good. A conservative argument can certainly be made about funding for bee research, or hog-waste odor control (another line-item earmark) or any of the hundreds of proposed spending plans that are the target of the "Nyuck-nyuck" crowd.

They aren't doing so. Political conservatism, it is sad to say, has nothing serious to offer as an alternative. All they have are the public equivalent of fart jokes, which while funny (sometimes) are what they are - juvenile humor. Meanwhile, there is on offer some funding for research in to why an important part of the web of agriculture is disappearing, and all the Republicans can do is snicker at it.

Is it any wonder the Republicans no longer hold any serious power? We have all sorts of problems, and we get sniggers about bees and pig shit.

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