Because We Clearly Have a Shortage of Archaeologists: More Deficit Hysteria Follies

Once again, we bear witness to the folly of deficit reduction fetishism, which this time is hurting archaeology (and turtles too!; boldface mine):

Delaware received $200,000 to help finance the underwater dig from a federal program that funds transportation-related projects in the 50 states. Since 1992, the program has provided more than $51 million to archaeological projects like the Severn dig and more than $100 million to environmental restoration projects and studies aimed at preventing deadly collisions with wildlife.

But that funding stream is now threatened, as Congress debates the value of the Transportation Enhancements Program (TEP). Last week, a U.S. Senate committee made the first move, significantly modifying the program as part of a plan to reauthorize the government’s $50-billion-a-year surface transport funding system. But TEP faces serious opposition in the House of Representatives from lawmakers who consider it to be wasteful and unnecessary spending. Many archaeologists “are watching the process with bated breath,” Clarke says.

Under current law, states must spend 10% of certain federal transport funds on enhancement projects. Those can include 12 types of activities, including building sidewalks and bike trails, beautifying roadways, and saving historic sites. States can also fund “archeological planning and research” and “environmental mitigation,” including projects to prevent polluted storm-water runoff and preserve wetlands.

In practice, about 2% of overall transport budgets go to enhancements, an amount that has totaled about $12 billion since 1992. About 75% of those funds have gone to walking and biking programs, with environmental and archaeology projects getting less than 1% each. Still, TEP funding has been important to those sparsely funded fields. Archaeologist Clarke, for instance, says “we couldn’t have done the Lewes project without it.”

The existing highway law expired in 2009. Since then, Congress has passed short-term extensions, but efforts to complete a long-term deal have been complicated by a steep decline in gas tax revenues, the law’s main source of money. Many states, meanwhile, complain that the law is too complicated and onerous. Earlier this year, House and Senate leaders pledged to do a major rewrite, sparking debate over TEP’s future.

Last month, for example, Republican senators John McCain (AZ), Rand Paul (KY), and Tom Coburn (OK) each offered unsuccessful amendments to pending legislation to end or scale back the program. One “wasteful” project they repeatedly highlighted was a multimillion-dollar “turtle tunnel” that allows reptiles and other animals to pass under Highway 27 near Lake Jackson, Florida.

Those attacks “were completely misguided,” argues ecologist Matt Aresco of the Nokuse Plantation, a reserve in Bruce, Florida. As a graduate student, Aresco documented that cars were killing tens of thousands of reptiles and amphibians trying to cross Highway 27 and spent a decade spearheading efforts to build fences and passages to end the carnage. Highway officials, he notes, backed the idea because of safety concerns: “You get hundreds of turtles on the road, and people are swerving all over and slamming on the brakes.” In Idaho, Nicholas Sharp, a biologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is using TEP funds to study the threat to both wildlife and humans posed by the moose and elk populations crossing the busy Highway 20. “When you hit a moose, it usually doesn’t end up good for the moose or the driver,” he says.

In last week’s action, the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works stopped short of ending TEP in its bill, dubbed Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century. Instead, the panel approved a plan to consolidate TEP with several other programs as part of a bid to simplify funding and give states a greater say in spending. Under the legislation, the TEP pot could shrink by 25% and be divided more ways.

The program could be in for an even rougher ride in the House. Representative John Mica (R-FL), chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has said that enhancements won’t be included in the reauthorization bill he expects to release later this year. And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) has promised that states “will not be required to spend a specific amount of funding on specific types of projects, such as transportation museums or landscaping.” An outline of the House bill also calls for deep cuts in overall spending.

Such potential outcomes “have a lot of people a little afraid of what is going to happen,” says Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist at the Maryland Department of Transportation’s State Highway Administration. Her state has used TEP funds for some high-profile projects, including $2 million to help raise and study a warship from the War of 1812. Although many states don’t tap TEP funds for archaeology, she predicts that states with a commitment to preservation will continue to fund archaeology and other enhancement projects even if Congress scales back the program: “Some understand the value of cultural and natural resource projects and will continue to invest.”

Ugh. Let’s go through this once again.

If we had an archaeologist shortage–and I must have missed all of the news reports about industry’s desperate search for archeologists–we should eliminate this funding requirement. There’s essential things they could be doing.

If we didn’t like how the money was spent, perhaps stipulating that money shouldn’t be used to train students (too many Ph.D.s!), then make that argument. If we had an overall manpower shortage, let’s say we needed more people to raise crops or build the Great Pyramid of Omaha (yes, I know, but speculate with me), then make that case.

And, of course, if we did something really fucking stupid like peg the dollar to gold, and simply didn’t have enough shiny lumps of metal, then currency could be limiting.

But this isn’t the world we live in. We live in a world (at least in the U.S.) where our basic needs can be met with limited labor. This presents a great opportunity: we can pay people to do interesting, albeit non-essential stuff, like archaeology. All we need is currency, and the U.S. government, being a currency issuer, doesn’t have to worry about running out of money. As I note above, if we had a labor shortage, this could lead to inflation and misallocation of (human) resources, but last I checked the strict measure of unemployment is at nine percent. People aren’t thinking, “Damn! There’s never an archaeologist when you need one!” (but maybe they should!).

The deficit arguments are also lazy and cowardly: rather than admitting you believe Baby Jesus sheds a tear every time an archaeologist turns her shovel, fiscal ‘conservatives’ (who are just conservatives without the balls) blame their reluctance to support this on ersatz budget constraints.

We are still governed by fools who do not understand that one sector’s deficit is another’s surplus.

This is yet another reason why we can’t have nice things.

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