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Cook: Waste, politics and missed opportunity

The most overused promise in politics is that someone is going to ěcut government waste.î
Itís a great applause line, and no one wants waste. But on the campaign trail, the promise is a vague throw-away. Itís like calling yourself ěconservativeî in Rowan County. Everyone says it to get elected. Itís a prerequisite.
As a voter, I want to know what, exactly, candidates believe should be cut. Whatís wasteful in one personís eyes might be a vital service in anotherís.
Besides, some areas of government eliminated the extras long ago.
I tried to explain this to a friend recently after saying I was sick and tired of people talking about cutting government waste.
He came back later with, ěYou said you were sick of hearing ëcut spending.í…î
Itís not the cutting that I oppose as much as the rhetoric about it. When revenues shrink, somethingís got to give. There is no deficit fairy.
Cutting spending, though, is not always cutting waste. If Rowan County government has to cut its spending further next year ó which it may ó I doubt commissioners will be rooting out ěwaste.î Theyíll be pulling back services.
Having the library open on Sunday was not a ěwaste.î Sunday was a valuable time for students and others to use the resources there. But library doors are locked on Sunday now.
Allowing senior citizens to camp at Dan Nicholas Park without paying a fee was not a ěwaste.î It was a well-deserved break for people living on fixed incomes. But they have to pay now.
What weíre experiencing in government and business is the need to restructure in reaction to new realities.
If thereís waste, it certainly needs to go. But weíre having to cut deeper than that and reset priorities.

Now, is there government waste? You betcha. The bigger the government, the bigger the waste.
Republican Sen. Tom Coburnís ěWastebook 2010î ó listed $11.5 billion worth of questionable uses of federal dollars. For example, the University of California at Irvine received a $3 million grant that will have researchers playing video games. The purpose? ěTo study how emerging forms of communication … can help organizations collaborate and compete more effectively in the global marketplace.î
The university has a Center for Computer Games and Virtual Worlds and could probably put a positive spin on that. But most of us would consider the grant wasteful.
Then there are the studies whose findings seem obvious from the start, such as the National Science Foundationís $216,000 study of whether politicians ěgain or lose support by taking ambiguous positions,î according to Coburn.
But focusing on questionable grants does not get to the big issues of federal spending ó defense, entitlements, transportation and so on. Those grants are distractions.
And some examples of waste are out-and-out distortions ó like the infamous $16 muffins supposedly served at Justice Department conference.
The $16 serving covered meeting space, coffee, fresh fruit, assorted baked goods, taxes and tip. So there was no $16 muffin. But why let the facts get in the way of a good political story?

Have you heard of the Campaign to Cut Waste? Itís not a Republican Party initiative, nor a tea party rallying cry.
In June, President Obama and Vice President Biden launched the Campaign to Cut Waste to ěhunt down and eliminate misspent tax dollars in every agency and department across federal government.î
The White House says it is cutting contract spending, shutting down duplicative data centers, getting rid of excess federal real estate and identifying $3 billion in information technology savings.
Hmmm. Equal-opportunity political strategy? Or bipartisan effort?
Obama and Senator ěWastebook 2010î Coburn worked together on an online federal spending database and a crackdown on no-bid contracting at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

So, back to the friend who challenged my comment on government waste.
The real waste, he said, is the wasted opportunity all around us in Salisbury-Rowan ó unmotivated teens who drop out of high school, rigid governments that stand in the way of business, complacent residents who donít want anything to change.
Good is the enemy of great.
Where to begin? I donít have the answer to those problems. Maybe some of our candidates will this fall ó once they finish talking vaguely about government waste.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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