November 6, 2007  ·  Lessig


The good folks at Sunlight Foundation have build this cool little viewing tool to let you see where the House “earmarks” are. “Earmarking” as you likely know is the ability of a member to tag funds for a “particular use or owner.” It will be a focus of my research. But long before I figure out anything interesting about this bizarre institution (a big assumption, I realize), you can see the where and how of this if you’re willing to let Google Earth be your viewer. Very cool.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    It will be a focus of my research.

    Ooowww ..

    Please realize that the first “earmark” investigation turned into a right-wing partisan political tool to attack Democrats and labor. It was dark comedy.

    I know, I know, it’s ironic, the people who proposed the project had good intentions (which made it worse – much worse). But it’s what happened. That matters, it was a road to hell hijacking their good intentions.

    I’m bad at politics – my loathing of it colors what I say here. But you’ve got to develop some political sophistication, or:


    And that would be such a shame. You have such a rare privilege to study, free from the market strictures which silence almost everyone. What a loss if you get captured by the Noise Machine :-(.

    [P.S. earmarks aren't bizarre. Little bits of pork are as old as politics itself. In the vast scale of things, they're pretty minor, especially compared to, say, war profiteering].

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Argh. That was supposed to be:


  • Jim Zellmer

    Well, I disagree with Seth’s assessment. Both parties feed extensively at the trough.

    Dead of night earmarks are essential payback tools that reinforce the power of incumbents. I find it interesting that earmarks continue from both sides regardless of who chairs a committee.

    Some years ago, a staffer for a Democratic Senator described the game to me vis a vis campaign assistance.

    Finally, just after the November 2006 elections, an exec with a major contractor replied to my question regarding how things would change with “not at all, we’re in deep with both parties.”

    Numerous links here:


    I’ll close with a Doonesbury link:

  • Joe Buck

    Earmarks can certainly serve as a form of corruption, but there’s also a problem with eliminating benchmarks in the current political environment: it would shift still more power away from Congress to the President. That’s because items in the budget as proposed by the President aren’t counted as earmarks, even if their purpose is the same (to get ill-considered proposals enacted by spreading the pork around to as many congressional districts as possible). Big military projects are often designed to distribute work to literally hundreds of congressional districts.

    For better or worse, politicians campaign on their ability to help the people that they represent, and some earmarks are completely justified, while others are complete pork, and others fall in between. For example, Robert Byrd got a lot of routine paperwork jobs moved from the DC suburbs to West Virginia. This work had to be done somewhere; was it so bad to move it to a desperately poor state? On the other hand, many earmarks are to fund useless military toys that the Pentagon says it does not want. That can’t be justified; it would be less wasteful just to order Congress to mail checks to everyone in the district.

  • Seth Finkelstein

    Jim, I didn’t say Democrats were good while Republicans were evil (though given the existence of pork, I’d rather it be larded out in terms of social services than military spending). My point is that these data-mining projects exist in a political context. And even if the originators aren’t partisans, partisans will find – and exploit – the effort. One possible reply is of course not to deal with the issue. But I’m saying when a bunch of raving reactionaries are the biggest fans, that’s probably a strong hint to at least be aware of that political context. And what an irony it would be for corruption studies to be twisted into a tool of plutocrats.

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