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Archive for the ‘Boondoggle’ Category

Last month, I explained that America’s fiscal problems are almost entirely the result of domestic spending programs, particularly entitlements.

Some critics immediately decided this meant I favored a blank check for the Pentagon, even though I specifically stated that “I’m very sympathetic to the proposition that trillions of dollars that have been misspent on foreign adventurism this century.”

Moreover, if they bothered to do any research, they would have found numerous columns on Pentagon waste, including here, here, here, here, and here.

Indeed, I get especially upset about military boondoggles precisely because national defense is a legitimate function of government.

I want money being spent in ways that will minimize the threat of an attack on the United States, not on the basis of padding jobs in a particular politician’s hometown or in response to clever lobbying by a defense contractor.

Unfortunately, wasting money is what government does best. And it happens at the Pentagon just as often as elsewhere in the federal behemoth.

Let’s look at a recent exposé about Pentagon profligacy in the Washington Post.

The Pentagon has buried an internal study that exposed $125 billion in administrative waste in its business operations amid fears Congress would use the findings as an excuse to slash the defense budget… Pentagon leaders had requested the study to help make their enormous back-office bureaucracy more efficient and reinvest any savings in combat power. But after the project documented far more wasteful spending than expected, senior defense officials moved swiftly to kill it by discrediting and suppressing the results. …Based on reams of personnel and cost data, their report revealed for the first time that the Pentagon was spending almost a quarter of its $580 billion budget on overhead and core business operations such as accounting, human resources, logistics and property management. …the Defense Department was paying a staggering number of people — 1,014,000 contractors, civilians and uniformed personnel — to fill back-office jobs far from the front lines. That workforce supports 1.3 million troops on active duty, the fewest since 1940.

Here’s a rather sobering chart from the story.

Predictably, bureaucrats in the military tried to cover up evidence of waste and inefficiency.

…some Pentagon leaders said they fretted that by spotlighting so much waste, the study would undermine their repeated public assertions that years of budget austerity had left the armed forces starved of funds. Instead of providing more money, they said, they worried Congress and the White House might decide to cut deeper. So the plan was killed. The Pentagon imposed secrecy restrictions on the data making up the study, which ensured no one could replicate the findings. A 77-page summary report that had been made public was removed from a Pentagon website.

Here’s a final excerpt from the story. The “no one REALLY knows” quote is rather revealing.

“We will never be as efficient as a commercial organization,” Work said. “We’re the largest bureaucracy in the world. There’s going to be some inherent inefficiencies in that.” …while the Defense Department was “the world’s largest corporate enterprise,” it had never “rigorously measured” the “cost-effectiveness, speed, agility or quality” of its business operations. Nor did the Pentagon have even a remotely accurate idea of what it was paying for those operations… McKinsey hazarded a guess: anywhere between $75 billion and $100 billion a year, or between 15 and 20 percent of the Pentagon’s annual expenses. “No one REALLY knows,” the memo added. …the average administrative job at the Pentagon was costing taxpayers more than $200,000, including salary and benefits.

Let’s close with some blurbs from other stories.

Starting with some specific examples of waste from a recent story by U.S. News & World Report.

The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction has uncovered scandal after scandal involving U.S. aid to that country, including the creation of private villas for a small number of personnel working for a Pentagon economic development initiative and a series of costly facilities that were never or barely used. An analysis by ProPublica puts the price tag for wasteful and misguided expenditures in Afghanistan at $17 billion, a figure that is higher than the GDP of 80 nations. …A Politico report on the Pentagon’s $44 billion Defense Logistics Agency notes that it spent over $7 billion on unneeded equipment. …overspending on routine items – such as the Army’s recent expenditure of $8,000 on a gear worth $500 – continues.

Let’s also not forget that the Pentagon is quite capable of being just as incompetent as other bureaucracies.

Such as forgetting to change the oil on a ship.

The USS Fort Worth, a Navy littoral combat ship, has suffered extensive gear damage while docked at a port in Singapore. …According to reports, the crew failed to use sufficient lube oil, leading to excessively high temperatures on the gears. Debris also found its way into the lubrication system, which also contributed to failure, Defense News reports. The crew did not follow standard operating procedures.

And accidentally allowing a missile to get shipped to the hellhole of communist Cuba.

An inert U.S. Hellfire missile sent to Europe for training purposes was wrongly shipped from there to Cuba in 2014, said people familiar with the matter, a loss of sensitive military technology that ranks among the worst-known incidents of its kind. …officials worry that Cuba could share the sensors and targeting technology inside it with nations like China, North Korea or Russia. …“Did someone take a bribe to send it somewhere else? Was it an intelligence operation, or just a series of mistakes? That’s what we’ve been trying to figure out,” said one U.S. official. …At some point, officials loading the first flight realized the missile it expected to be loading onto the aircraft wasn’t among the cargo, the government official said. After tracing the cargo, officials realized that the missile had been loaded onto a truck operated by Air France, which took the missile to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. There, it was loaded onto a “mixed pallet” of cargo and placed on an Air France flight. By the time the freight-forwarding firm in Madrid tracked down the missile, it was on the Air France flight, headed to Havana.

And let’s not forget about the jaw-dropping absurdity of an intelligence chief who isn’t allowed to…um…see intelligence.

For more than two years, the Navy’s intelligence chief has been stuck with a major handicap: He’s not allowed to know any secrets. Vice Adm. Ted “Twig” Branch has been barred from reading, seeing or hearing classified information since November 2013, when the Navy learned from the Justice Department that his name had surfaced in a giant corruption investigation involving a foreign defense contractor and scores of Navy personnel. …More than 800 days later, neither Branch nor Loveless has been charged. But neither has been cleared, either. Their access to classified information remains blocked. Although the Navy transferred Loveless to a slightly less sensitive post, it kept Branch in charge of its intelligence division. That has resulted in an awkward arrangement, akin to sending a warship into battle with its skipper stuck onshore. …Some critics have questioned how smart it is for the Navy to retain an intelligence chief with such limitations, for so long, especially at a time when the Pentagon is confronted by crises in the Middle East, the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula and other hotspots.

The bottom line is that any bureaucracy is going to waste money. And the bureaucrats in any department will always be tempted to care first and foremost about their salaries and benefits rather than the underlying mission.

So I’m not expecting or demanding perfection, regardless of whether the department has a worthwhile mission or (in most cases) shouldn’t even exist. But I do want constant vigilance, criticism, and budgetary pressure so that there’s at least a slightly greater chance that money won’t be squandered.

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President-Elect Trump has picked Ben Carson as his Secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which immediately produced two thoughts.

First, since he had the best tax plan of all the 2016 candidates, too bad he wasn’t named Secretary of Treasury.

Second, I hope his job at HUD is to shut down the department, raze the building, and get the federal government out of the housing business.

Then I realized I was thinking too narrowly. Shouldn’t all Trump appointees start with the assumption that their department, agency, or program is an unconstitutional waste of money? I’ve already written columns explaining why some cabinet-level bureaucracies should be abolished.

Now let’s expand this list by taking  a look at the Department of Energy.

And our job will be easy since William O’Keefe has a very persuasive column for E21. Let’s look at some of the highlights, starting with the observation that the bureaucracy was created based on the assumption that the world was running out of energy and that somehow politicians and bureaucrats could fix that supposed problem.

The Department of Energy (DOE) traces its roots to the energy crisis of 1973, which was made worse by misguided government policy.  …there was, at the time, a firm belief that the world was going to run out of oil by the end of the century. Not only does the world have plenty of oil, but the United States is now a net exporter of natural gas–and would be exporting more if DOE was faster with its approvals. …Prior to DOE, the federal government played a very limited role in energy policy and development.  Presumed scarcity, excessive dependence on OPEC nations, distrust in markets, and the search for energy independence became the foundation for what is now a $32.5 billion bureaucracy in search for relevance.

In other words, the ostensible problem that led to the creation of the department was preposterously misdiagnosed.

The market produced lots of energy once the shackles of government intervention (including those from the Energy Department) were sufficiently loosened.

So what, then, does the department do?

What DOE has done is squander money on the search for alternative energy sources. In the process, it enabled Bootlegger and Baptist schemes that enriched crony capitalists who are all too willing to support the flawed notion that government can pick winners and losers.  For 2017, a large chunk of DOE spending–$12.6 billion, or 39 percent—is earmarked to “support the President’s strategy to combat climate change.” This is not a justifiable use of taxpayer dollars. Over 36 years, DOE’s mission has morphed from energy security to industrial policy, disguised as advanced energy research and innovation.  There is a long and failed history of industrial policy by the federal government.

Here’s the bottom line.

DOE has become the Department of Pork. …Energy firms do not need government subsidies to innovate and develop new technologies.  Horizontal drilling and fracking came from the private sector because the incentives to develop shale oil and gas were stronger than the illusions driving alternative energy sources. …Abolishing DOE would punish only the crony capitalists who have become addicted to its support.

Amen.

By the way, Mr. O’Keefe’s argument is primarily based on the fact that DOE doesn’t produce value.

Since I’m a fiscal wonk, I’ll add another arrow to the quiver. We also should abolish the department so that we can save a lot of money.

My colleague Chris Edwards has an entire website filled with information about the uselessness of the department. You can – and should – spend hours perusing all of the information he has accumulated.

But here’s the part that jumped out to me. Over the years, the federal government has squandered hundreds of billions of dollars on a department that is most famous for wasteful Solyndra-style scams.

By the way, there are a small handful of activities at DOE that should be shifted to other departments (such as transferring nuclear weapons responsibilities to the Department of Defense).

But the vast majority of DOE activities never should have been created and produce zero value, so the sooner the bureaucracy is eliminated, the better.

P.S. We can have tons of evidence about the desirability of shutting down the Department of Energy, but it doesn’t matter if there aren’t politicians who think it is more important to protect taxpayers rather than to funnel money to cronyists and interest groups. We’ll have to wait and see whether Trump chooses wisely, though I’m not holding my breath. We certainly didn’t get any pro-taxpayer shift of policy the last time GOPers were in charge of the White House. And Trump’s commitment to the notion of smaller government doesn’t seem overly robust, though I very much hope I’m wrong.

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We have good news and bad news.

The good news is that President Obama has unveiled his final budget.

The bad news is that it’s a roadmap for an ever-growing burden of government spending. Here are the relevant details.

  • The President wants the federal budget to climb by nearly $1.2 trillion over the next five years.
  • Annual spending would jump by an average of about $235 billion per year.
  • The burden of government spending would rise more than twice as fast as inflation.
  • By 2021, federal government outlays will consume 22.4% of GDP, up from 20.4% of economic output in 2014.

I guess the President doesn’t have any interest in complying with Mitchell’s Golden Rule, huh?

While all this spending is disturbing (should we really step on the accelerator as we approach the Greek fiscal cliff?), the part of this budget that’s really galling is the enormous tax increase on oil.

As acknowledged in a report by USA Today, this means a big tax hike on ordinary Americans (for what it’s worth, remember that Obama promised never to raise their taxes).

Consumers will likely pay the price for President Obama’s proposed $10 tax per-barrel of oil, an administration official and a prominent analyst said Thursday. Energy companies will simply pass along the cost to consumers, Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com, which tracks gas prices nationwide, said in an interview with USA TODAY. ….a 15-gallon fill-up would cost at least $2.76 more per day.  It would also affect people who use heating oil to warm their homes and diesel to fill their trucks.

Isn’t that wonderful. We’ll pay more to fill our tanks and heat our homes, and we’ll also pay more for everything that has oil as an input.

While middle-class consumers will see a big hit on their wallet, the Washington Post explains that Obama wants the new tax revenue to fund an orgy of special-interest spending.

…the tax would raise about $65 billion a year when fully phased in. …The administration said it would devote $20 billion of the money raised to expand transit systems in cities, suburbs and rural areas; make high-speed rail a viable alternative to flying in major regional corridors and invest in new rail technologies like maglev; modernize the nation’s freight system; and expand the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program launched in the 2009 economic stimulus bill to support local projects. …The budget would also use roughly $10 billion per year in revenues for shifting how local and state governments design regional transportation projects. Obama would also propose investing just over $2 billion per year in “smart, clean vehicles” and aircraft.

More railway money pits and Solyndra-style boondoggles? Gee, what could go wrong?

By the way, the Administration is claiming that the big new energy tax won’t really hurt our pocketbooks because oil prices have been falling. Here are parts of a story by the Washington Examiner.

President Obama said the oil supply glut that has forced prices down to about $30 a barrel makes his proposal to levy a $10 per-barrel tax on crude oil timely. …the White House appears to be of the view that consumers would have an easier time paying it during record low prices.

Gee, how thoughtful of them.

But is anybody under the illusion that the politicians in Washington will repeal the tax when energy prices rise?

Anybody? Bueller?

Here’s one last gem. As cited by the Los Angeles Times, the President offered this pithy statement.

“Rather than subsidize the past, we should invest in the future,” Obama said during his weekly Saturday address.

Now think about what he’s saying. Obama wants us to believe that the absence of a tax today and in the past is actually a subsidy!

Not that we should be surprised. Our friends on the left have a strange habit of arguing that we’re getting a subsidy when we’re allowed to keep our own money. Indeed, they even have a concept called “tax expenditures” that is based on that perverse notion.

P.S. The folks at Politico have a story about Obama’s plan, and there’s a bit of speculation about how it could become an issue for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential race.

…the proposal could be particularly awkward for Hillary Clinton, who has embraced most of Obama’s policies but has also vowed to oppose any tax hikes on families earning less than $250,000 a year.

I think this analysis is absurd.

Hillary will promise all through the campaign that she opposes tax hikes on everyone other than the rich. But then, just like Obama, she’ll break that promise if she gets to the White House.

P.P.S. Lest anyone think I’m taking a partisan jab at Hillary because she’s a Democrat, keep in mind that I’m terrified that Republicans may decide (not withstanding their “dead on arrival” comments) to like Obama’s scheme. After all, many of them last year were very tempted by gas tax hikes to fund more pork-barrel spending.

P.P.P.S. And what’s really depressing is that I explained just last month that it would be very simple to shrink the relative burden government (and also balance the budget very quickly if that’s what you care about) if the federal budget “only” grew by the rate of inflation.

P.P.P.P.S. One final comment is that I might be tempted to accept an oil tax in exchange for the abolition of a tax – perhaps the death tax or capital gains tax – that collects a similar amount of revenue.

But I’d have two condition: First, the net result has to be a tax system that is less destructive to prosperity. Second, I’d have to be convinced that the swap wouldn’t backfire, with politicians somehow winding up with more power and/or money when the dust settles (which has been my concern about the Rand Paul and Ted Cruz plans to impose a value-added tax, even though their plans theoretically would produce a much less destructive tax system).

P.P.P.P.P.S. Oops, several people have reminded me that I forgot to include predictions for New Hampshire. These are only worth what you’re paying for them (in other words, nothing).

Trump  31
Kasich  17
Bush     12
Rubio   11
Cruz     10
Christie  7
Fiorina   5
Carson   4

Sanders   57
Clinton    42

Given what he did to expand Medicaid dependency in Ohio, I’m not sure I’m happy about Kasich’s strong showing. On the other hand, he played a key role in the spending restraint of the 1990s.

Since Hillary and Bernie are two peas in a pod, I have no strong thoughts about that race.

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Here’s a simple rule. When a politicians says a new program will cost X, hide your wallet because it actually will cost three or four times as much. Or even more.

Obamacare is a particularly painful example from recent history.

Simply stated, politicians and bureaucrats routinely under-estimate costs because they figure once a project or program is underway, voters can be tricked into throwing good money after bad.

It happens all the time in Washington. And it happens in other nations as well.

And even though I’m a fan of decentralization, that doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to the fact that state and local governments are very capable of similar behavior.

Consider, for example, the streetcar project in our Washington, DC. The main problem is that taxpayers are getting reamed. The current price tag, according to a report in the Washington Times, is about $3 billion.

And what are taxpayers getting for that “investment”?

So far, based on a story in one of the city’s other newspapers, the Washington Post, they’re getting long delays.

In the early 2000s, an ambitious band of city officials set out to cut through the bureaucratic mire and launch a vast streetcar network that would be a model for the nation, eventually running 20 to 40 miles or more. The first leg was supposed to open in 2006. But as 2015 comes to a close, officials are scrambling toward their latest goal of opening a diminished, 2.2-mile streetcar line.

But major delays are just the tip of the iceberg.

The Post‘s report highlights how one small part of the project – a maintenance facility for the streetcars – has become symbolic of grotesque cost overruns and waste.

The District is spending three or four times what other cities have to build a maintenance facility for its fledging streetcar system… The “Car Barn” project was originally designed as a simple garage and rail yard for light repairs and storage, with some offices for staff. But it has ballooned in ambition and nearly tripled in cost — to $48.8 million. It will now include a number of pricey and unusual features, including grass tracks for parking the fleet of six streetcars and a cistern for washing them with rainwater. …The District says it…is projected to open in 2017 after long delays. Tucson spent $13 million. Cincinnati’s was $11.5 million. Seattle’s came in at $11.1 million.

I’m sure local taxpayers (plus taxpayers around the nation that also subsidized this farce) will be happy to know they paid for a solar roof and other useless quirks.

Here are some of the details on why costs exploded.

…the building has…become a teaching tool for how public projects can be saddled with immense new costs. The historic designation “prompted an immediate six-month stop-work order,” DDOT said, and required, along with the green building rules, numerous upgrades. Those included using stone and brick materials; adding a saw-toothed roof with skylights; and hiding a streetcar power supply under photovoltaic cells and behind “green screen walls.” …Among the other major additions was an intricate system of turf tracks and paving stones that allow rainwater to drip into an underground vault for storage and filtering before flowing toward the city’s storm-water pipes.

Though taxpayers may think the “drip” is the sound of their money being flushed down a toilet.

In 2011, under Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), the District estimated it would spend $6.2 million on a maintenance yard and a temporary shelter — basically, a big tent. Then, with the temporary tuneup location in place, the permanent building, additional track and other work in the yard would be finished for an additional $10.7 million. …The yard-and-tent total grew to $10.4 million, DDOT said, including environmental work and hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep some Dean-Facchina workers on the job 12 hours a day, six days a week to speed things up. By last year, estimates for the second phase, including the permanent Car Barn, had risen to $24 million. In July, the city agreed to spend $38.4 million on this phase, bringing the total to $48.8 million. Among the unforeseen costs listed by DDOT are $1 million in storm drainage and $824,000 in “indirects.”

So what’s the bottom line?

Well, the late former Mayor of DC, Marion Barry, is not normally a credible source. And I’m not sure I trust any numbers that came out of his mouth.

But I suspect he ventured very close to the truth when he was quoted in a Washington Times story from 2014.

…the late former Mayor Marion Barry said D.C. taxpayers would be spending $2,000 to subsidize each ride, calling it “a streetcar to nowhere.”

In other words, it would have been cheaper to hire chauffeured limousines for the handful of people who will use the streetcar. Assuming, of course, it ever gets opened.

By the way, there must be something in the local water, because there’s a similar example of grotesque waste on the other side of the Potomac River.

But let’s not just pick on profligate local governments.

Never forget that the federal government is the real expert at waste.

National Review has a very depressing list of ways that Uncle Sam has been squandering our tax dollars.

Federal spending gets more ridiculous every year, and a new congressional report details 100 of the most egregious examples. Following in the footsteps of chronic-waste chronicler Tom Coburn, Oklahoma senator James Lankford published “Federal Fumbles” late on Monday afternoon. …Here are NR’s top-ten favorite — which is to say, most scoff-worthy and absurd — examples of how the government wastes your time, energy, and hard-earned cash.

Here are some of the highlights, though lowlights might be a better term.

…the Department of Defense…approved a $283,500 grant to monitor the day-to-day life of baby gnatchatchers. …the U.S. National Institutes of Health…announced it would grant some hapless grad student $48,500 to pen the definitive history of smoking in Russia over the past 130 years. …the National Science Foundation…gave Massachusetts Institute of Technology more than $400k to ponder the burning question: “Does media choice cause polarization, or does polarization cause media choice?” …five federal agencies alone spent $3.1 billion on workers placed on administrative leave in a two-year timespan. A lot of that cash — $775 million, to be exact — went to public employees banned from their desks for more than a month. …The National Park Service forked over $5,000 to Mars Hill University so it could make a documentary film about a local musician. …$65,473 to figure out what bugs do near a lightbulb…$35,000 for solar-powered beer.

To be sure, these items are just a drop in the bucket compared to entitlement spending.

And these examples of pork-barrel waste also are minor compared to all the supposedly non-controversial outlays that are part of the discretionary budget that funds various agencies and departments.

That being said, keep the above list in mind the next time some politicians says that we need more taxes to finance ever-bigger government.

And never forget that the real waste is when governments spend money on things that should in the private sector or civil society.

In other words, the real waste is about 80 percent-90 percent of what happens in Washington.

P.S. If you have a strong stomach, you can watch some short videos on government waste here, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. And some egregious additional example of waste can be perused here, here, and here.

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Advocates of limited government favor a small public sector because more resources in the productive sector of the economy translates into faster growth, more job creation, and higher living standards.

Statists, by contrast, favor big government for two main reasons. First, many of them belong to well-connected interest groups that have their snouts in the federal trough. Second, some of them sincerely think government spending “stimulates” an economy and/or “helps” people.

I want to address the latter group of statists, most of whom are well meaning.

I’ve learned over time that such voters generally don’t pay that much attention to economic arguments.

To the extent they sometimes favor small government, it’s because they think Washington wastes money. Indeed, I suspect a majority of voters would agree with P.J. O’Rourke that “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

Yet many of those voters (perhaps even including some of the ones that recognize that DC is riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse) can be persuaded to support bigger government. Having engaged in thousands of conversations with such people over several decades, I think they’re motivated by a desire to be part of a society that “cares.” So, regardless of Washington’s track record of exacerbating problems rather than solving them, these folks sometimes think more government is the right approach. Like second weddings, this is a triumph of hope over experience.

Today, at the risk of jumbling my analogies, let’s try to convince such people that you don’t want a second wedding if it means you’re getting hitched to an institution that is unavoidably wasteful and incompetent.

And we have some fresh eye-popping evidence. Here are some excerpts from an exposé published by the Washington Post.

…the government has spent more than $1 billion trying to replace its antiquated approach to managing immigration with a system of digitized records, online applications and a full suite of nearly 100 electronic forms. A decade in, all that officials have to show for the effort is a single form that’s now available for online applications and a single type of fee that immigrants pay electronically. The 94 other forms can be filed only with paper.

Amazing. After 10 years and $1 billion, the net result is a total cluster-you-know-what.

…officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which includes USCIS, were aware that the project was riddled with hundreds of critical software and other defects. …Only three of the agency’s scores of immigration forms have been digitized — and two of these were taken offline after they debuted because nearly all of the software and hardware from the original system had to be junked. ..A report last year from the DHS inspector general’s office said it sometimes took up to 150 clicks for employees to navigate the system’s various complex features and open documents.

So is the incompetent contractor (IBM) getting punished? Are any of the bureaucrats in charge of the project getting fired?

Of course not. This is government! So why you waste some money, that’s merely a prelude to wasting even more money.

This project, run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was originally supposed to cost a half-billion dollars and be finished in 2013. Instead, it’s now projected to reach up to $3.1 billion and be done nearly four years from now.

By the way, the incompetence revealed in this story this is not an argument for immigration or against immigration.

My point is simply that governments have long track records of squandering other people’s money, with this story simply being another straw on the camel’s back.

Or maybe it would be better to describe it as another bit of dead weight financed by over-burdened taxpayers.

I don’t know if this will make anyone feel better, but other governments are similarly incompetent and foolish.

Here’s an example of government blundering from overseas. As reported by the UK-based Guardian, the European Commission just admitted that it has successfully process 0.00015 percent of refugees.

EU members states agreed in September to relocate 160,000 people in “clear need of international protection” through a scheme set up to relocate Syrian, Eritrean, and Iraqi refugees from the most affected EU states – such as Italy and Greece – to other EU member states. So far 116 people have been relocated, and only 1,418 places have been made available by 14 member states, according to data released on Tuesday by the European Commission.

Wow. It’s been a while since I was a student, but I remember that you need 70.0 percent for a C and 60.0 percent to avoid failing.

With that in mind, I wonder what sort of grade you get for 0.00015 percent? Is there such as thing as F-, though I guess Z- would be more appropriate.

Here’s a graphic from the article.

By the way, the EU’s incompetence at processing refugees is one issue. Another issue is whether European nations should be granting refugee status to hundreds of thousands (and eventually millions) of people from cultures that don’t assimilate very well.

And I imagine that refugee status in Europe means access to welfare, so the system presumably creates the same perverse incentives we find on the American refugee program.

But for today, I’m simply focused on the fact that government bureaucracies are spectacularly incompetent.

Yet there are still many people who want to give more power and money to politicians.

Let’s close with a serious point.

Unless you’re an anarcho-capitalist, there are some things you want government to do, and you want those things to be done well.

So how, given the natural incompetence of the public sector, can you get good (or at least acceptable) results?

The only feasible answer is to have small government, as Mark Steyn has explained with his usual dose of sarcasm. A bloated public sector guarantees slipshod performance everywhere. But if the federal government concentrates on just a few tasks, oversight and monitoring will be easier and it will be easier to weed out incompetence.

And this isn’t just theory. The European Central Bank has produced a measure of public sector efficiency and their research shows that smaller governments are much more competent at producing desired results.

P.S. Bizarrely, some folks acknowledge government incompetence but think the right solution is more power for government.

P.P.S. Some of this is common sense. What government do you think is more competent and effective, France with its big government or Switzerland with its medium-sized government? Where do you think government is more effective, Singapore with its small government or the United States with its medium-sized government?

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When giving speeches outside the beltway, I sometimes urge people to be patient with Washington. Yes, we need fundamental tax reform and genuine entitlement reform, but there’s no way Congress can make those changes with Obama in the White House.

But there are some areas whether progress is possible, and people should be angry with politicians if they deliberately choose to make bad decisions.

For instance, the corrupt Export-Import Bank has expired and there’s nothing that Obama can do to restore this odious example of corporate welfare. It will only climb from the grave if Republicans on Capitol Hill decide that campaign cash from big corporations is more important than free markets.

Another example of a guaranteed victory – assuming Republicans don’t fumble the ball at the goal line – is that there’s no longer enough gas-tax revenue coming into the Highway Trust Fund to finance big, bloated, and pork-filled transportation spending bills. So if the GOP-controlled Congress simply does nothing, the federal government’s improper and excessive involvement in this sector will shrink.

Unfortunately, Republicans have no desire to achieve victory on this issue. It’s not that there’s a risk of them fumbling the ball on the goal line. By looking for ways to generate more revenue for the Trust Fund, they’re moving the ball in the other direction and trying to help the other team score a touchdown!

The good news is that Republicans backed away from awful proposals to increase the federal gas tax.

But the bad news is that they’re coming up with other ideas to transfer more of our income to Washington. Here’s a look at some of the revenue-generating schemes in the Senate transportation bill.

Since the House and Senate haven’t agreed on how to proceed, it’s unclear which – if any – of these proposals will be implemented.

But one thing that is clear is that the greed for more federal transportation spending is tempting Republicans into giving more power to the IRS.

Republicans and Democrats alike are looking to the IRS as they try to pass a highway bill by the end of the month. Approving stricter tax compliance measure is one of the few areas of agreement between the House and the Senate when it comes to paying for an extension of transportation funding. …the Senate and House are considering policy changes for the IRS ahead of the July 31 transportation deadline. …With little exception, the Senate bill uses the same provisions that were in a five-month, $8 billion extension the House passed earlier this month. The House highway bill, which would fund programs through mid-December, gets about 60 percent of its funding from tax compliance measures. …it’s…something of a shift for Republicans to trust the IRS enough to back the new tax compliance measures. House Republicans opposed similar proposals during a 2014 debate over highway funding, both because they didn’t want to give the IRS extra authority and because they wanted to hold the line on using new revenues to pay for additional spending.

Gee, isn’t it swell that Republicans have “grown in office” since last year.

But this isn’t just an issue of GOPers deciding that the DC cesspool is actually a hot tub. Part of the problem is the way Congress operates.

Simply stated, the congressional committee system generally encourages bad decisions. If you want to understand why there’s no push to scale back the role of the federal government in transportation, just look at the role of the committees in the House and Senate that are involved with the issue.

Both the authorizing committees (the ones that set the policy) and the appropriating committees (the ones that spend the money) are among the biggest advocates of generating more revenue in order to enable continued federal government involvement in transportation.

Why? For the simple reason that allocating transportation dollars is how the members of these committees raise campaign cash and buy votes. As such, it’s safe to assume that politicians don’t get on those committees with the goal of scaling back federal subsidies for the transportation sector.

And this isn’t unique to the committees that deal with transportation.

It’s also a safe bet that politicians that gravitate to the agriculture committees have a strong interest in maintaining the unseemly system of handouts and subsidies that line the pockets of Big Ag. The same is true for politicians that seek out committee slots dealing with NASA. Or foreign aid. Or military bases.

The bottom line is that even politicians who generally have sound views are most likely to make bad decisions on issues that are related to their committee assignments.

So what’s the solution?

Well, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a shift to random and/or rotating committee assignments, so the only real hope is to have some sort of overall cap on spending so that the various committees have to fight with each other over a (hopefully) shrinking pool of funds.

That’s why the Gramm-Rudman law in the 1980s was a step in the right direction. And it’s why the spending caps in today’s Budget Control Act also are a good idea.

Most important, it’s why we should have a limit on all spending, such as what’s imposed by the so-called Debt Brake in Switzerland.

Heck, even the crowd at the IMF has felt compelled to admit spending caps are the only effective fiscal tool.

Maybe, just maybe, a firm and enforceable spending cap will lead politicians in Washington to finally get the federal government out of areas such as transportation (and housing, agriculture, education, etc) where it doesn’t belong.

One can always hope.

In the meantime, since we’re on the topic of transportation decentralization, here’s a map from the Tax Foundation showing how gas taxes vary by states.

This data is useful (for instance, it shows why drivers in New York and Pennsylvania should fill up their tanks in New Jersey), but doesn’t necessarily tell us which states have the best transportation policy.

Are the gas taxes used for roads, or is some of the money siphoned off for boondoggle mass transit projects? Do the states have Project Labor Agreements and other policies that line the pockets of unions and cause needlessly high costs? Is there innovation and flexibility for greater private sector involvement in construction, maintenance, and operation?

But this is what’s good about federalism and why decentralization is so important. The states should be the laboratories of democracy. And when they have genuine responsibility for an issue, it then becomes easier to see which ones are doing a good job.

So yet another reason to shut down the Department of Transportation.

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As shown by this graphic, why are so many people in Maine taking advantage of the food stamp program? As shown by this map, why does Oregon have such a high level of food stamp dependency?

These are just rhetorical questions since I don’t have the answers. But if we can come up with good answers, that could lead to better public policy.

After all, if we want a self-reliant citizenry, it would be better if people were more like those in Nevada and less like the folks in Vermont, at least based on the infamous Moocher Index.

But one thing we can say with certainty is that the food stamp program has morphed into a very expensive form of dependency.

Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal opines on the importance of reforming this costly entitlement.

Officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the food-stamp program has become the country’s fastest-growing means-tested social-welfare program. …Between 2000 and 2013, SNAP caseloads grew to 47.6 million from 17.2 million, and spending grew to $80 billion from $20.6 billion… SNAP participation fell slightly last year, to 46.5 million individuals, as the economy improved, but that still leaves a population the size of Spain’s living in the U.S. on food stamps. …The unprecedented jump in food-stamp use over the past six years has mostly been driven by manufactured demand. The Obama administration has attempted to turn SNAP into a middle-class entitlement by easing eligibility rules and recruiting new food-stamp recipients. …Democrats tend to consider greater government dependence an achievement and use handouts to increase voter support. The president considers European-style welfare states a model for America.

Making America more like Greece, however, is not good news for taxpayers.

But the program also has negative effects on recipients. Contrary to the left’s narrative, we don’t have millions of starving people in America.

…it now operates more like an open-ended income-supplement program that discourages work. Some 56% of SNAP users are in the program for longer than five years, which suggests that the assistance is being used by most recipients as a permanent source of income, not as a temporary safety net. …“Today, instead of hunger, the central nutritional problem facing the poor, indeed all Americans, is not too little food but rather too much—or at least too many calories,” Douglas Besharov, who teaches courses on poverty alleviation at the University of Maryland, told the House Agriculture Committee last month. “Despite this massive increase in overweight and obesity among the poor, federal feeding programs still operate under their nearly half-century-old objective of increasing food consumption.

So why don’t we try to help both taxpayers and low-income Americans by reforming the program, specifically by “block-granting” it to the states?

Uncle Sam picks up almost all of the bill. That means states have little incentive to control costs. Republicans argue that shifting to block grants would not only save money but also encourage states to increase the labor-participation rate of low-income populations. A state that has only so much money to work with is more likely to promote self-sufficiency in the form of employment, job-search and job-training requirements for able-bodied adults on the dole.

Decentralization, Riley explains, worked very well in the 1990s with welfare reform.

…1996 reforms…imposed more stringent time limits and work requirements on welfare recipients enrolled in programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. Welfare rolls subsequently plunged. By 2004, caseloads had fallen by 60% overall and by at least 30% in nearly every state. Child poverty, black child poverty and child hunger also decreased, while employment among single mothers rose. This was a welcome outcome for taxpayers, poor people and everyone else—except those politicians with a vested interest in putting government dependence ahead of self-sufficiency to get elected and re-elected.

So kudos to Republicans on Capitol Hill for proposing to put the states in charge of food stamps.

Just like they also deserve applause for working to block-grant the Medicaid program.

This is something that should happen to all mean-tested programs. Once they’re all back at the state level, we’ll get innovation, experimentation, and diversity, all of which will help teach policy makers which approaches are genuinely in the best interests of both taxpayers and poor people (at least the ones seeking to escape dependency).

Though I can’t resist adding one caveat. The ultimate goal should be to phase out the block grants so that states are responsible for both raising and spending the money.

Let’s close with a few real-world horror stories of what we’re getting in exchange for the tens of billions of dollars that are being spent each year for food stamps.

With stories like this, I’m surprised my head didn’t explode during this debate I did on Larry Kudlow’s show.

P.S. Shifting to another example of government waste, let’s look at the latest example of overspending and mismanagement by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Nothing, of course, can compare with the horrible outrage of bureaucrats awarding themselves bonuses after putting veterans on secret waiting lists and denying them care.

But having taxpayers pay nearly $300,000 just so a bureaucrat can move from one highly paid job in DC to another highly paid job in Philadelphia should get every American upset. Here are some of the sordid details from a local news report.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has also raised questions about the salary and “relocation payments” to the new director of the Philadelphia office, Diana Rubens. Rubens, who was a senior executive in the D.C. office when she was tapped in June to take over the troubled Philadelphia branch, received more than $288,000 in relocation expenses. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of doling out hundreds of thousands in cash to extremely well-compensated executives just to move less than three hours down the road,” Miller said. …Under federal regulations, an agency can pay a variety of costs associated with reassigning an employee, including moving, closing costs, and a per-diem allowance for meals and temporary lodging for the employee’s household.

I’m baffled at how somebody could run up such a big bill. Did she use the space shuttle as a moving van?

Did she have to stay six months at a 5-star resort while waiting for her new house to be ready?

Does a per-diem allowance allow three meals a day at the most expensive restaurant in town?

This is either a case of fraud, which is outrageous, or it’s legal, which means it’s an outrageous example of government run amok.

Regardless, it underscores what I wrote back in 2011.

I will never relent in my opposition to tax increases so long as the crowd in Washington is spending money on things that are not appropriate functions of the federal government. …I will also be dogmatic in my fight against higher taxes so long as there is massive waste, fraud, and abuse in federal programs.

Not to mention that we should never allow tax hikes when it’s so simple to balance the budget with modest spending restraint.

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