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On “pork barrel politics”

[ 2009-02-19 16:14]     字号 [] [] []  
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This week we saw President Obama sign off on the $787 billion stimulus plan with many critics fearing the money would go to “pork barrel projects”.

So what do they mean – does Obama like bacon and sausage BBQ’s?

Well, possibly – we are not sure but we do understand some folks aren’t happy with his shopping list.

To understand the meaning of this phrase, pork barrel, let’s step back in time and imagine what life was like before electricity and refrigerators.

In such times meat was often salted or smoked so it could be preserved then stored in a wooden barrel. Another method was to store it in fat or oil, also in a large container or barrel. Both are examples of real pork barrels. As for the latter just think of that Chinese dish called “yang zasui” 羊杂碎 and you’ll have an idea of the old pork barrel style of keeping meat.

Now when this phrase started being associated to other things, according to answers.com it can be sourced to 1863 and a story, "The Children of the Public," by Edward Everett Hale where it was used as a “homely metaphor for any form of public spending to the citizenry”.

Just think of the very nature of pork, it’s a luxurious meat, pink, fatty, salty, tasty – it has connotations that are positive for most non-Muslim peoples. A pork barrel as such is a desired thing, particularly in those days when life was tough and meat was a luxury.

The phrase has also been traced to “a pre-Civil War practice of giving slaves a barrel of salt pork as a reward and requiring them to compete among themselves to get their share of the handout.” The idea here is of some controlling figure handing out supplies to a group of those in need and then they fight over it.

By the 1870s references to "pork" were also being heard in Congress. In this context to refer to spending that was intended to benefit constituents of a politician in return for their support and these days this is the meaning it carries. Essentially the term is negative and brings up images of waste. E.g. you could say, “Well they helped him get elected so now he’s going to put $10 billion into community projects. Ten billion bucks of pork! What a joke!”

In the 1990’s Japan was famous for “pork barrel” projects which were often related to construction of new roads, tunnels and bridges. Critics say that it is a waste of money though others argue that it is creating jobs, investing in infrastructure and creating long term wealth in the community.

In some ways it reminds me of when I was a child and my father would tell me to do the gardening or polish his shoes so he could watch the football on TV. At the end I would get 20 cents to buy an ice-cream and he could buy himself some peace and quiet.

Perhaps though, in the world of big business, politics and increasing transparency – finding a moment of peace for politicians is getting increasingly harder to buy.



About the author:

On “pork barrel politics”

About the author: Brendan has taught at universities, high schools and primary schools in Japan,the UK, Australia and China. He is a Qualified Education Agent Counsellor and has extensive experience with International English Language Examinations. In the field of writing Brendan has been published in The Bangkok Post, The Taipei Times, Inflight magazines and the Asia News Network. He can be contacted at brendanjohnworrell@hotmail.com.