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Archive for January 4th, 2010

 While American politicians are experts when it comes to squandering money, they may be just amateurs compared to the kleptocrats at the European Commission. The overall burden of government is heavier in Europe, so that certainly suggests that there are greater opportunities to waste money, but what makes the European Commission special is that it is insulated from democratic accountability and there is no system of checks and balances. So even though the actual amount of money spent by Brussels is small compared to what is wasted by national governments in Europe, the outcomes are especially obscene. Here’s a story from the UK-based Daily Mail, reporting on a program (no joke) to fund activities such as basket weaving and siestas:

British taxpayers are helping to fund basket-weaving and slapstick acting workshops for young people across Europe. The projects, which include meetings about folk dancing and even a scheme to promote afternoon siestas, are part of an £800million EU programme to help people aged 13-30 ‘feel European’. Because the UK Government provides ten per cent of the EU’s central budget, it is likely around £80million of the cash used to run the Youth In Action programme could have come from British taxpayers… One Serbian project that received £21,000 involved using silent-movie slapstick to promote ‘non-verbal communication’. Another venture in Finland received thousands to support a coffee house which offered ‘everyone the chance to have a sleep for free’. It aimed to encourage afternoon naps to reduce stress. ‘Youth exchange participants’ also flocked to Macedonia last year for a meeting entitled Stories And Legends, receiving £18,000 to explore storytelling. …An EC spokesman said the projects were about exposing young people to other cultures and increasing their participation in  society. He added: ‘I don’t see anything wrong with basket-weaving or music-making if it encourages young people to meet other Europeans and learn a new skill from another part of Europe.’

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The Wall Street Journal has more details about the sordid redistribution of our money to the insiders at Fannie Mae and Freddie mac:

…there’s still some ugly 2009 business to report: To wit, the Treasury’s Christmas Eve taxpayer massacre lifting the $400 billion cap on potential losses for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as well as the limits on what the failed companies can borrow. The Treasury is hoping no one notices, and no wonder. Taxpayers are continuing to buy senior preferred stock in the two firms to cover their growing losses—a combined $111 billion so far. When Treasury first bailed them out in September 2008, Congress put a $200 billion limit ($100 billion each) on federal assistance. Last year, the Treasury raised the potential commitment to $400 billion. Now the limit on taxpayer exposure is, well, who knows? …The loss cap is being lifted because the government has directed both companies to pursue money-losing strategies by modifying mortgages to prevent foreclosures. Most of their losses are still coming from subprime and Alt-A mortgage bets made during the boom, but Fannie reported last quarter that loan modifications resulted in $7.7 billion in losses, up from $2.2 billion the previous quarter. The government wants taxpayers to think that these are profit-seeking companies being nursed back to health, like AIG. But at least AIG is trying to make money. Fan and Fred are now designed to lose money, transferring wealth from renters and homeowners to overextended borrowers. Even better for the political class, much of this is being done off the government books. The White House budget office still doesn’t fully account for Fannie and Freddie’s spending as federal outlays, though Washington controls the companies. Nor does it include as part of the national debt the $5 trillion in mortgages—half the market—that the companies either own or guarantee. …This subterfuge also explains the Christmas Eve timing. After December 31, Team Obama would have needed the consent of Congress to raise the taxpayer exposure beyond $400 billion. By law, negative net worth at the companies forces them into “receivership,” which means they have to be wound down. Unlimited bailouts will now allow the Treasury to keep them in conservatorship, which means they can help to conserve the Democratic majority in Congress by increasing their role in housing finance. …All of which would seem to make the CEOs of Fannie and Freddie the world’s most overpaid bureaucrats. A release from the Federal Housing Finance Agency that also fell in the Christmas Eve forest reports that, after presiding over a combined $24 billion in losses last quarter, Fannie CEO Michael Williams and Freddie boss Ed Haldeman are getting substantial raises. Each is now eligible for up to $6 million annually. Freddie also has one of the world’s highest-paid human resources executives. Paul George’s total compensation can run up to $2.7 million. It must require a rare set of skills to spot executives capable of losing billions of dollars. Where is Treasury’s pay czar when we actually need him? You guessed it, Fannie and Freddie are exempt from the rules applied to the TARP banks.

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In the ongoing contest to see which group of politicians can squander money in the most obscene fashion, it appears that the bureaucrats at the European Commission in Brussels might be surpassing their counterparts in Washington. Here’s a story from the UK’s Daily Telegraph, reporting that the European Commission is subsidizing a ski trip for the children of European politicians, and that the subsidies even go to households with income equivalent to about $175,000:

Taxpayers will heavily subsidise a skiing holiday in the Italian Alps for the children of MEPs and European Parliament officials in February. …The eight-day skiing trip for 80 children aged between eight and 17 is timed to begin over the weekend of St Valentine’s Day, providing some romantic time off from parenting for officials.  Costs, the holiday is priced at 920 euros (£822), are generously subsidised by the parliament’s budget. Households receive different levels of subsidy depending on their monthly income but even those on a income of over £108,000 get a discount. There is reduction of up to 52 per cent for officials earning £69,620 a year and an MEP, earning £86,000, is eligible for a subsidy of 45 per cent. …The children will enjoy full board in a three-star hotel in the beautiful village of Spiazzi. The trip includes “workshops” in a “multilingual environment” on the themes of “the mountain, its snow, its nature”. Four hours each day will be spent on the ski slopes and three hours on lessons, such as an “exercice (sic) with snow dogs” as well as “open air games” and a “torchlight procession”.  The parliament’s spokesman declined to comment on the holiday.

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One of the dirty little secrets of Washington is that Republicans and Democrats have more in common with each other than either party has with ordinary Americans. Tim Carney has an excellent (but depressing) column in the Washington Examiner exposing how both Democrat and Republican lobbyists are raking in big buck from General Motors, even though the car company only exists because of massive government subsidies. As Tim writes, this scam redistributes wealth from you and me to well-connected millionaires:

If you’ve flown into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport and your plane took the northern approach coming down the Potomac, you may have looked out the window at the five-, six- or seven-bedroom homes on both the Maryland and Virginia sides of the river, with three-car garages and swimming pools. Thanks to the Obama administration and General Motors, your tax dollars are now subsidizing the millionaire lobbyists who live in these neighborhoods. GM, the failed carmaker whose $400 million in monthly losses is borne mostly by U.S. taxpayers, has in recent months hired high-priced K Street lobbyists to petition Washington for subsidies, special tax breaks and other government favors on top of the $52 billion in aid the Treasury has already provided. …GM has since rehired two of its old K Street firms, the Duberstein Group and Greenberg Traurig, and picked up new representation in the firm GrayLoeffler. Rounding out GM’s K Street quartet is the well-connected Washington Tax Group, which began representing the company in 2007 and kept its affiliation with GM over the summer, according to a search of the House and Senate lobbying databases. …Among the four firms, 18 lobbyists are registered to represent GM, including many wealthy and well-connected revolving-door players from both parties. Former Reps. William Gray III, D-Pa., and Jim Bacchus, R-Fla., are both on GM retainer, as are fabled Republican and Democratic operatives Ken Duberstein (White House chief of staff under Ronald Reagan) and Michael Berman (counsel to Vice President Walter Mondale and campaign aide to every Democratic presidential nominee since LBJ). …GM, of course, is still owned mostly by the federal government and is still losing money — $1.2 billion in the third quarter. That means the company’s expenses are the taxpayer’s expenses. That means you are paying these lobbying fees. Put another way, the Obama administration, through GM, is transferring wealth from average Americans to millionaire former public officials. …I contacted the White House and the Treasury Department to ask whether the administration found this arrangement appropriate, but neither returned my calls and e-mails. None of the lobbying firms returned calls or e-mails, either. …The auto bailouts of Presidents Bush and Obama teach us once again that when government gets bigger, it’s the well-off who fare the best.

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