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Air Traffic Control vs Anti-Poverty Programs

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Think Progress economic policy editor Bryce Covert continues a silly meme: “12 programs that Congress cares less about than averting flight delays.” She points to a post she co-authored with Travis Waldron on “12 Programs Congress Refuses To Save From Automatic Spending Cuts” that lists everything from long-term unemployment benefits, Head Start, cancer treatment, low-income housing, and student aid.

One can argue the merits of all of those programs. Or, indeed, of fiscal austerity in the midst of a stagnant economy with a liquidity trap. But too few air traffic controllers is simply a different type of problem than too few dollars going into anti-poverty programs or wellness research. Namely, those programs are aimed at ameliorating pre-existing conditions–poverty, inequality, sickness, etc. whereas the lack of air traffic controllers in a government-created problem.

To be sure, the creation of an air traffic control system was aimed at ameliorating a prior condition, too: a public safety hazard stemming from unregulated air space. But, having created a regulatory system where planes can only fly when a specified number of controllers are present and making said controllers government employees, furloughing those workers creates a negative condition that wouldn’t exist in the absence of government.

This isn’t a matter of “caring” more. Congress is correcting a negative externality of its own making; it’s only reasonable that they’d take quick action to fix it. Especially since cuts to the number of air traffic controllers is almost surely not on the table; we agree as a society that we need that service and that providing it is a proper role for the federal government. Conversely, the whole reason we’re in this sequester mess to begin with is that there’s no bipartisan consensus on which programs ought to be on the chopping block or what the proper ratio of spending cuts to tax hikes ought be.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Nikki says:

    …we agree as a society that we need that service and that providing it is a proper role for the federal government.

    I don’t think you’ve successfully differentiated the air-traffic controller problem from all the other Congress-created problems you’ve listed. The sequester is not helping anyone or anything and needs to go.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 29 Thumb down 2

  2. Moosebreath says:

    “But too few air traffic controllers is simply a different type of problem than too few dollars going into anti-poverty programs or wellness research.”

    True. Air traffic control problems affect the 1%, and Congresspersons, directly. The others do not. The rest is just window dressing.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 1

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Nikki: I agree that the sequester is a bad idea. But, no, the programs are not equal. There’s near-unanimous, bipartisan agreement on air traffic control. Entitlement spending, student loans, and most of the other programs on the list are highly contentious.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 26

  4. Stan says:

    I don’t see the logic of this post. Cuts to federal aviation agencies result in more flight delays. Cuts in anti-poverty and other social welfare programs mean more delays in getting help to the poor. Congress is willing to address one problem and not the other because of who’s affected. This is cui bono, pure and simple.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 39 Thumb down 1

  5. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “There’s near-unanimous, bipartisan agreement on air traffic control. Entitlement spending, student loans, and most of the other programs on the list are highly contentious.”

    Right. And that’s because Democrats believe that all of this is a bad idea. Republicans believe only that cuts which harm the rich are a bad idea (and generally seem to believe that cuts that harm the poor are a good idea, though you will rarely catch them admitting that). So again, you only get bipartisan agreement on air traffic control because the rich are affected.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 1

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Moosebreath: While the wealthy fly more than most and the poor can rarely afford to fly, the fact is that this is a middle class issue. It’s one that’s obviously outrageous to even infrequent fliers.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 23

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Stan: The point is that the flight delays are a creation of the government. It’s the reason why people are outraged by long lines at the DMV but tolerate them at Disneyland.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 20

  8. Crusty Dem says:

    The point (————– everything else ———————-) James

    I think you missed it, James.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 1

  9. James Joyner says:

    @Crusty Dem: Since I have no idea what you’re trying to convey, you’re likely right.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  10. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    “the fact is that this is a middle class issue.”

    Because Congress is so quickly responsive to middle class issues? Which country’s politics have you been observing, James?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 1

  11. Nikki says:

    It’s the reason why people are outraged by long lines at the DMV but tolerate them at Disneyland.

    James, you should go back and take a good long look at your apples/oranges picture. The reason the lines are more tolerated at Disneyland is the people at Disneyland are expecting a very different outcome at the end of the long line than they are at the DMV.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 0

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Nikki: Sure. But we resent the inconveniences of the DMV because they’re imposed on us by government. We’re trapped there because we simply have no other palatable option: if we want to drive our cars, we have to submit to the indignities of the DMV.

    Similarly, nobody ever bitched about security lines at the airport in the old days. Now, though, it’s government agents doing the searching. That makes it more annoying, especially when it’s slow and making it hard for us to catch our flights.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 11

  13. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    There’s near-unanimous, bipartisan agreement on air traffic control. Entitlement spending, student loans, and most of the other programs on the list are highly contentious.

    Wow, there’s near-unanimous, bipartisan agreement among a group of wealthy people who fly a lot that a program that benefits them directly shouldn’t be cut, while there’s a lot more disagreement about programs that don’t benefit them directly but instead only benefit millions of anonymous poor people?

    I agree this says something — but not perhaps what you think it says.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 30 Thumb down 0

  14. Spartacus says:

    @James Joyner:

    There’s near-unanimous, bipartisan agreement on air traffic control.

    Hence, the observation that Congress cares more about averting flight delays than it does about poverty.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 26 Thumb down 0

  15. Nikki says:

    @James Joyner: Nobody ever bitched about long security lines in the old days because long lines didn’t exist before 9/11 and the creation of Homeland Security and the TSA. Besides, it’s still apples and oranges. The DMV is state government, not federal.

    And you’re still wrong. Congress members chose to take on the FAA because they and people they know (i.e., rich and connected) were being affected. Nothing bipartisan about it. They don’t know any people being affected by the 12 programs Think Progress identified. It really is that simple.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 24 Thumb down 0

  16. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    Similarly, nobody ever bitched about security lines at the airport in the old days. Now, though, it’s government agents doing the searching. That makes it more annoying, especially when it’s slow and making it hard for us to catch our flights.

    What? That’s ridiculous. I used to bitch about security lines in the old days as well, if they were poorly managed and took too long. The fact that it’s government agents doing the searching isn’t what makes it annoying, it’s rather the fact that the process is still so slapdash and inefficient after more than a dozen years of supposed reform. But I’ve encountered the same inefficiency and delay — and more — when dealing with private organizations such as cable and cell providers, the airlines, etc.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  17. Rafer Janders says:

    There’s near-unanimous, bipartisan agreement on air traffic control. Entitlement spending, student loans, and most of the other programs on the list are highly contentious.

    “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind” — Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 0

  18. Stan says:

    @James Joyner: “The point is that the flight delays are a creation of the government.”

    So if we didn’t have a government we wouldn’t have flight delays?

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 21 Thumb down 0

  19. Andre Kenji says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Because Congress is so quickly responsive to middle class issues?

    I think that James is using middle class as something more similar to the French version of the word(Petite burgeoisie) than the American one(working class).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  20. Rafer Janders says:

    @James Joyner:

    It’s the reason why people are outraged by long lines at the DMV but tolerate them at Disneyland.

    No, this is not the reason. The reason is that long lines at the DMV are to complete a chore, while long lines at Disneyland are to get a treat at the end. It has nothing to do with government versus non-government, but rather with the purpose of the line. People don’t love long lines at banks or supermarkets or drug stores, you may have noticed, yet those are not created by the government.

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  21. grumpy realist says:

    James, you’re not getting it. What we’re saying is that of all the stuff that the sequester cuts, there’s a reason that the Republicans have decided to join together with the Democrats and find some money to pay for FAA stuff cut while they haven’t done that for other programs. The reason is that this is one of the few sequester cuts that ends up impacting the upper middle-class/rich.

    In other words, they couldn’t care less about cuts that hurt the poor. It’s only when their own ox is getting gored that they decide to do anything. (And I direct this complaint at both Republicans and Democrats.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  22. Scot says:

    I believe a lot of the problem lies with the way we throw our money into one big pot. Services like air traffic control should be funded by users fees that account for the demanded service level. Public Assistance should be funded by general taxes and funded to levels demanded by the voters. The two should not be competing for money.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  23. Gromitt Gunn says:

    But, having created a regulatory student loan system where planes can only fly when a specified number of controllers are present the only lender is the government, and making said controllers student loan servicers government employees contractors, furloughing those workers cutting funding to student loans creates a negative condition that wouldn’t exist in the absence of government.

    But, having created a regulatory system where planes can only fly when a specified number of controllers are present Head Start is the de facto sole funding source for pre-K education of low-income children and making said controllers government employees Head Start providers dependent upon the government for continued funding, furloughing those workers cutting funding to Head Start providers creates a negative condition that wouldn’t exist in the absence of government.

    I can do this all day, James.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 22 Thumb down 0

  24. anjin-san says:

    @ James

    especially when it’s slow and making it hard for us to catch our flights

    I would not know about that. I just pay more and get through faster.

    On the other hand, I spend time around actual poor people pretty regularly, so I know a little bit about the crap they deal with on a daily basis. How many poor people do you know James? How often do you spend time with them? Any? Or are they just an abstraction to you?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 14 Thumb down 0

  25. wr says:

    @James Joyner: “There’s near-unanimous, bipartisan agreement on air traffic control. Entitlement spending, student loans, and most of the other programs on the list are highly contentious. ”

    Because air traffic control issues directly touch members of congress and the people they socialize with. All that other stuff is for people they don’t know, so it’s not important.

    And apparently, it’s also for people James doesn’t know. Which makes it less important.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  26. wr says:

    @Rafer Janders: I wish I had read your response before posting my own. You nailed it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  27. Scot says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: While I agree with you that there is no difference in these service in the since they are provided by the government, the fact remains that there alternatives to student loans and head start programs even for low income people. I suppose one could argue there are alternatives to flying as well. So, how do we allocate our money. In our current system our representatives ask for money based on what ever service the public will support and never bother to check if we are already providing money for services that would no longer have the same level of support. We need to figure out how to ensure the money is going to services that we are willing to pay for, and not force services to compete against one another as they are now. Again I think the best way is for services to be funded by user fees whenever possible and general taxes fund the rest. It wouldn’t solve the problem, but it would allow us to be more focused on items like military spending vs public assistance…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

  28. anjin-san says:

    People don’t love long lines at banks or supermarkets or drug stores

    I don’t know what you are talking about. America’s market driven, uber efficient corporations are far too streamlined to make people wait. Try calling AT&T when they over bill you and you will see what I mean…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  29. anjin-san says:

    the fact remains that there alternatives to student loans and head start programs even for low income people.

    Drug dealing, petty theft, going hungry…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 0

  30. Crusty Dem says:

    The point, James is that this:

    But too few air traffic controllers is simply a different type of problem than too few dollars going into anti-poverty programs or wellness research. Namely, those programs are aimed at ameliorating pre-existing conditions–poverty, inequality, sickness, etc. whereas the lack of air traffic controllers in a government-created problem.

    Is complete nonsense. If they passed a bill allowing all federal departments to allocate funding in this way, it’s an argument (albeit a weak one), but this is garbage.

    This isn’t a matter of “caring” more. Congress is correcting a negative externality of its own making; it’s only reasonable that they’d take quick action to fix it.

    Tell that to someone losing unemployment. Or seeing a doubling in their student loans. Or losing their lab because NIH funding will include few to no new grants. All of these things have negative externalities, but congress cares about the ones that affect them, not the ones that affect others.

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  31. anjin-san says:

    NIH funding will include few to no new grants

    NASA’s planetary science program is due to take a hit. Where are all the conservatives who were bleating about our “retreat from national greatness” RE: space travel a while back? This program has produced extraordinary results, we are living in one of the, if not the, greatest ages of exploration in history.

    Oh, wait. I forgot. They don’t really give a crap about space exploration (yucky science stuff), they just wanted to get a shot in at Obama.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  32. Scot says:

    @anjin-san:

    Drug dealing, petty theft, going hungry…

    Is that really what you think low income people do? There are lot of people who don’t go to college or are not enrolled in the Head Start program. Also, If you read my posts I do not advocate cutting these programs.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  33. Rafer Janders says:

    @wr:

    Thanks. You said it quite well yourself.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  34. John Burgess says:

    James, my congratulations and condolences. You’ve succeeded in creating a sump for all the leftoid angst on the Internet. While you must bear the burden of half-assed argumentation from emotion, your reward will come in heaven.

    Poorly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 19

  35. Spartacus says:

    @John Burgess:

    James seems to believe that because he can offer a reason for WHY Congress cares more about flight delays than it does about poverty, Congress doesn’t actually care more about flight delays.

    I’m sure after reading all of the comments on this thread, James now realizes that he was wrong in saying that, which is probably why he has commented further. However, even after reading all of the comments you still think James’ argument makes sense. You may not be half-assed, but you certainly seem half-brained.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  36. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    While the wealthy fly more than most and the poor can rarely afford to fly, the fact is that this is a middle class issue. It’s one that’s obviously outrageous to even infrequent fliers.

    When we were debating the degree to which government should treat flight as a Common Good, I tried to find a good cite on the number of times middle class people fly each year. I din’t find really strong data, but the numbers were like 1-2.

    And if you fly 1-2 times per year, an extra hour or two are not going to matter too much.

    (We do this things in our heads, when asked how often middle class people work late, or how often they go camping, or how often they fly … we naturally reach for the most recent examples of that activity, in the group. And so we think of the guy who stays late, the guy who camps, and the guy who flies a lot. This “recency” effect prevents us from coming up with good averages.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  37. anjin-san says:

    leftoid angst

    argumentation from emotion

    God forbid I should get upset about things like people sleeping in cardboard boxes in the richest society in the history of the world. If I was a sensible conservative, I would just bask in my own comforts and sneer at anyone who has less than I do. Do people who don’t wear Italian suits even count?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  38. Andre Kenji says:

    The big problem is that is pretty easy to go to the airport and then film and talk to annoyed late passengers. Poverty in the United States is a much more complicated issue. To many Americans, poverty is something that only exists on the so called Third World countries. The poor in the United States are mostly confined to their own neighborhoods and counties, so, most people do not see them.

    It´s very different from a country like, I do not known, Brazil, because you see favelas and poor people even if you are living in the most expensive neighborhoods of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  39. EddieInCA says:

    Dr. Joyner -

    I’m Executive Platinum on American Airlines. I travel more in a year than most people do in a lifetime. Last year alone, I logged 124,000 miles. I have Priority Boarding, a TSA Pre Pass, and a GOES card. I don’t have to wait in line – almost ever. Additionally, I don’t have to take off my shoes, belt, or remove my laptop or iPad from my traveling case. I’m also part of the 1%.

    Having said all that let me now say… your argument is bunk.

    Pure bunk. There is NO reason for Dems and the GOP to alleviate the FAA problems related to the sequester – other than certain constituencies are being slightly bothered.

    You miss your flight? Your flight gets delayed? Your flight gets cancelled? So effing what!! Boo-Fricking-Hoo. A few congressmen/women might be delayed a few hours? A businessman might miss his connecting flight to Tulsa for his meeting? A banker might miss his redeye to NYC and have to take a flight the next day? That pales in comparison to not having enough to eat, or not knowing where you’re going to sleep the next day, or wondering if you can feed your kids the next day.

    So, please, please, please, stop trying to pretend that this somehow effing’ matters, because it’s pure, unadulterated bunk. Human lives, and human dignity are more important that being delayed or inconvenienced at an airport.

    Grow the eff up.

    Highly-rated. Helpful or Unhelpful: Thumb up 34 Thumb down 1

  40. anjin-san says:

    @ EddieInCA

    James’ head nearly exploded once because a flight crew member annoyed him. In case you did not catch his epic “sky waiter” rant.

    James’ Epic Sky Waiter Rant

    Clearly, any no inconveniences or annoyances to the people who matter are not to be tolerated. Poor people who are trying to figure out where dinner is coming from tomorrow? They just don’t matter very much.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 0

  41. Rafer Janders says:

    @EddieInCA:

    Well said, sir. Very well said.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  42. Rafer Janders says:

    @anjin-san:

    Wow. I just read that link and came across this comment from James:

    I’ve got no contempt for waiters and waitresses, who perform a useful and honorable function. But, yes, when I’m in the role of paying customer and they’re in the role of waitstaff, they’re in fact servants and I’m their “better” and expect to be treated accordingly. Customer and waiter are not equals.

    I have just lost an appreciable amount of respect for James as a human being. A simple rule of human behavior: someone who’s nice to you and a jerk to the waiter? That someone is just a jerk.

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  43. anjin-san says:

    @ Rafer Janders

    It certainly was not his finest hour. Back in my restaurant/nightclub days, I had a fair amount of the rich and famous as my customers. A lot of them did treat me as an equal, some to the extent that I hung out with them away from work, had their phone numbers, was a guest in their homes, & so on. It made up for the people that expected to be “treated accordingly”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  44. aFloridian says:

    I see this writing as nothing but the attempt of someone highly educated and privileged to justify why programs that benefit his ilk are somehow “apples and oranges” to programs that benefit the poor. Bogus and illogical. Come on James.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  45. The comments on this story are absurd. Air travel is part of commerce, the engine that drives the economy, and nobody has mentioned that. Without well oiled, high functioning commercial activity there isn’t value created to give away to whomever the bleeding hearts are pining for today. This isn’t an “either/or” situation. It’s an “and” situation that the commentators on this blog are almost universally are blind to.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  46. Rob in CT says:

    http://www.princeton.edu/~bartels/economic.pdf

    Scroll all the way down to figure 3 (page 53, the last page).

    And are we surprised? If you are, I’m surprised at your surprise. OF COURSE congress is more responsive to middle and upper class concerns. Those groups are more involved in politics (voting, donating, etc). You have to be really blatant about it in order to lose elections by ignoring the poor.

    No comment on the morality of this. Expecting morality from politicians is a mistake.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0