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Archive for July 3rd, 2013

Political cartoonists like Michael Ramirez and Chuck Asay are effective because they convey so much with images.

But we need more than clever cartoons if we’re going to educate the general population about how government harms the economy and undermines freedom.

He just turned 83, and let’s hope he has another 20 years of columns to write

And that’s why Thomas Sowell is so invaluable. He’s one of the nation’s top economic thinkers, but he also writes for mass audiences and his columns are masterful combinations of logic and persuasion.

His latest column about poverty is a good example. In this first excerpt, he succinctly explains that official poverty is not the same as destitution.

“Poverty” once had some concrete meaning — not enough food to eat or not enough clothing or shelter to protect you from the elements, for example. Today it means whatever the government bureaucrats, who set up the statistical criteria, choose to make it mean. And they have every incentive to define poverty in a way that includes enough people to justify welfare state spending. Most Americans with incomes below the official poverty level have air-conditioning, television, own a motor vehicle and, far from being hungry, are more likely than other Americans to be overweight. But an arbitrary definition of words and numbers gives them access to the taxpayers’ money.

He then makes a very important point about economic incentives.

Even when they have the potential to become productive members of society, the loss of welfare state benefits if they try to do so is an implicit “tax” on what they would earn that often exceeds the explicit tax on a millionaire. If increasing your income by $10,000 would cause you to lose $15,000 in government benefits, would you do it? In short, the political left’s welfare state makes poverty more comfortable, while penalizing attempts to rise out of poverty.

Since columnists are limited to about 800 words, Sowell doesn’t have leeway to give details, but his explanation of how the government traps people in poverty is the rhetorical version of this amazing chart.

He concludes with some powerful observation about who really benefits from the welfare state.

…the left’s agenda is a disservice to [the poor], as well as to society.  …The agenda of the left — promoting envy and a sense of grievance, while making loud demands for “rights” to what other people have produced — is a pattern that has been widespread in countries around the world. This agenda has seldom lifted the poor out of poverty. But it has lifted the left to positions of power and self-aggrandizement, while they promote policies with socially counterproductive results.

But his main message (similar to this video and illustrated by this chart) is that the welfare state hurts the poor even more than it hurts taxpayers.

P.S. As a big fan of Professor Sowell, I’ve cited his columns more than 20 times. My favorite examples of his writing can be viewed here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, hereherehereherehereherehereherehereherehere, and here. And you can see him in action here.

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Notwithstanding the title of this post, I’m not writing about how the government wastes foreign aid money in an attempt to bribe foreign governments into supporting the United States.

Instead, this is a story about how politicians and bureaucrats throw our money down the toilet.

Let’s start by looking at some aggravating and nauseating example of government boondoggles.

Every one of these stories is a disgusting example of how the political class in Washington squanders our money in a frivolous manner, generally in ways that line the pockets of well-connected insiders.

And as you might imagine, every day brings new revelations of waste. The latest boondoggle to catch my eye is from the State Department, which has been pissing away money in an attempt to “buy friends.”

Here’s some of what Foreign Policy reported on this scandal.

…web-savvy State Department employees spent $630,000 to earn more Facebook “likes,” in an effort that struggled to reach its target audience, according to a searing Inspector General’s report… Between 2011 and March 2013, the department’s Bureau of the International Information Programs, tried to boost the seeming popularity of the department’s Facebook properties by advertising and page improvements. But the results weren’t so good… “Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaigns as ‘buying fans’ who may have once clicked on an ad or ‘liked’ a photo but have no real interest in the topic and have never engaged further,” reads the Inspector General report.

Gee, isn’t this just great. My tax dollars are being flushed down a toilet so some geeks at the State Department could create the illusion that more people liked some propaganda pages.

But we’re talking about government, so let’s not forget mindless duplication.

The IG report stings — especially because the Bureau of International Information and Programs is supposed to be Foggy Bottom’s epicenter of online savvy. …overlap and coordination issues trouble the various bureau’s 150 social media accounts. The report also mentions a “pervasive perception of cronyism” exacerbating its already “serious morale problem.” …Some of the issues are rather tedious, like whether embassy staffers should go to the Office of Web Engagement or the Office of Innovative Engagement for advice on social media.

Perhaps I’m just old fashioned, but why on earth am I paying for an “Office of Web Engagement” and an “Office of Innovative Engagement.” Not only that, but I’m paying for them to squabble over who gets to hold more meetings and produce more memos?!?

Since I’m a peacemaker, I have a very simply solution to that controversy. Let’s abolish both of those worthless parts of the federal behemoth.

Let’s close by looking at the big picture. My leftist friends, when confronted by this boondoggle, or other examples of government waste, have a formulaic response: “You’re fixating on a trivial issue that equals only an infinitesimally small share of the budget,” they say, “entitlements account for the lion’s share of federal spending.”

That’s true, but since they oppose genuine entitlement reform, I’m not sure that point they’re trying to make.

But even if entitlements somehow didn’t exist and the overall fiscal outlook was positive rather than negative, would that justify waste in government?

It’s never a good idea to give more money to the crowd in Washington. They have no incentive to behave in a prudent fashion. Reminds me of these wise words of advice from Milton Friedman.

There are four ways to spend money.

1. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why you really watch out for what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money.

2. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well then, I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost.

3. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m going to have a good lunch!

4. Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it costs, and I’m not concerned about what I get.

And that’s government. And that’s close to 40 percent of our national income.

P.S. But don’t forget that the bloated government Friedman warns us about also is the major source and cause of corruption in Washington.

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