Archive for the ‘Boondoggle’ Category

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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I’ve periodically cited the great 19th-century French economist, Frederic Bastiat, for his very wise words about the importance of looking at both the seen and the unseen when analyzing public policy.

Those that fail to consider secondary or indirect effects of government, such as Paul Krugman, are guilty of the “broken window” fallacy.

There are several examples we can cite.

A sloppy person, for instance, will think a higher minimum wage is good because workers will have more income. But a thoughtful analyst will think of the unintended consequence of lost jobs for low-skilled workers.

An unthinking person will conclude that government spending is good for growth because the recipients of redistribution have money to spend. But a wiser analyst will understand that such outlays divert money from the economy’s productive sector.

A careless person will applaud when government “creates” jobs. Sober-minded analysts, though, will wonder about the private jobs destroyed by such policies.

It’s time, though, to give some attention to another important contribution from Bastiat.

He also deserves credit for the pithy and accurate observation about government basically being a racket or a scam.

And what’s really amazing is that he reached that conclusion in the mid-1800s when the burden of government spending – even in France – was only about 10 percent of economic output. So Bastiat was largely limited to examples of corrupt regulatory arrangements and protectionist trade policy.

One can only imagine what he would think if he could see today’s bloated welfare states and the various ingenious ways politicians and interest groups have concocted to line their pockets with other people’s money!

Which brings us to today’s topic. We’re going to look at venal, corrupt, wasteful, incompetent, and bullying government at the federal, state, and local level in America.

We’ll start with the clowns in Washington, DC.

Remember when the unveiling of the Obamacare turned into a cluster-you-know-what of historic proportions?

Well, the Daily Caller reports that the IRS has just signed an Obamacare-related contract with an insider company that recently became famous for completely botching its previous Obamacare-related contract.

Seven months after federal officials fired CGI Federal for its botched work on Obamacare website Healthcare.gov, the IRS awarded the same company a $4.5 million IT contract for its new Obamacare tax program. …IRS officials signed a new contract with CGI to provide “critical functions” and “management support” for its Obamacare tax program, according to the Federal Procurement Data System, a federal government procurement database. The IRS contract is worth $4.46 million, according to the FPDS data.

Just one more piece of evidence that Washington is a town where failure gets rewarded.

And CGI is an expert on failure.

A joint Senate Finance and Judiciary Committee staff report in June 2014 found that Turning Point Global Solutions, hired by HHS to review CGI’s performance on Healthcare.gov, reported they found 21,000 lines of defective software code inserted by CGI. Scott Amey, the general counsel for the non-profit Project on Government Oversight, which reviews government contracting, examined the IRS contract with CGI. “CGI was the poster child for government failure,” he told The Daily Caller. “I am shocked that the IRS has turned around and is using them for Obamacare IT work.” Washington was not the only city that has been fed up with CGI on healthcare. Last year, CGI was fired by the liberal states of Vermont and Massachusetts for failing to deliver on their Obamacare websites. The Obamacare health website in Massachusetts never worked, despite the state paying $170 million to CGI.

For a company like this to stay in business, you have to wonder how many bribes, pay-offs, and campaign contributions are involved.

Now let’s look at an example of state government in action.

Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal has a column about a blatantly corrupt deal between slip-and-fall lawyers and the second most powerful Democrat in the Empire State.

New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was last week arrested and accused by the feds of an elaborate kickback scheme. …Mr. Silver is alleged to have pocketed more than $5 million in a set-up in which he directed state funds to the clinic of an asbestos doctor, who in turn provided him with patients who could be turned into jackpot plaintiffs. Weitz & Luxenberg, a class-action titan, paid Mr. Silver huge referral fees for these names, off which the firm stands to make many millions. …when the Silver headlines broke, Weitz & Luxenberg founder Perry Weitz said he was “shocked”… The firm quickly put the Albany politician on “leave.”

A logical person might ask “on leave” from what? After all, he didn’t do anything.

But he did do something, even if it was corrupt and sleazy.

…here’s the revealing bit. Queried by prosecutors as to what exactly the firm did hire Mr. Silver to do—since he performed no legal work—Weitz & Luxenberg admitted that he was brought on “because of his official position and stature.” In other words, this was transactional. Weitz & Luxenberg gave Mr. Silver a plum job, and Mr. Silver looked out for the firm—namely by blocking any Albany bills that might interfere with its business model.

So workers, consumers, and businesses get screwed by a malfunctioning tort system, while insider lawyers and politicians get rich. Isn’t government wonderful!

Just one example among many of how state governments are a scam. Perhaps now folks will understand why I’m not very sympathetic to the notion of letting them take more of our money.

Last but not least, let’s look at a great moment in local government.

As we see from a report in USA Today, a village in New Jersey is dealing with the scourge of…gasp…unlicensed snow removal!

Matt Molinari and Eric Schnepf, both 18, also learned a valuable lesson about one of the costs of doing business: government regulations. The two friends were canvasing a neighborhood near this borough’s border with Bridgewater early Monday evening, handing out fliers promoting their service, when they were pulled over by police and told to stop. …Bound Brook, like many municipalities in the state and country, has a law against unlicensed solicitors and peddlers. … anyone selling goods and services door to door must apply for a license that can cost as much as $450 for permission that is valid for only 180 days. …Similar bans around the country have put the kibosh on other capitalist rites of passage, such as lemonade stands and selling Girl Scouts cookies.

Though, to be fair, it doesn’t seem like the cops were being complete jerks.

Despite the rule, however, Police Chief Michael Jannone said the two young businessmen were not arrested or issued a ticket, and that the police’s concern was about them being outside during dangerous conditions, not that they were unlicensed. “We don’t make the laws but we have to uphold them,” he said Tuesday after reading some of the online comments about the incident. “This was a state of emergency. Nobody was supposed to be out on the road.”

But the bottom line is that it says something bad about our society that we have rules that hinder teenagers from hustling for some money after a snowstorm.

Just like these other examples of local government in action also don’t reflect well on our nation.

Let’s close with my attempt to re-state Bastiat’s wise words. Here’s my “First Theorem of Government.”

And if you think what I wrote, or what Bastiat wrote, is too cynical, then I invite you to check out how politicians are bureaucrats are squandering money on Medicare, the Veterans Administration, the Agriculture Department, Medicaid, the Patent and Trademark Office, the so-called Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Institutes of Health, Food Stamps, , the Government Services Administration, unemployment insurance, the Pentagon

Well, you get the idea.

Which is why this poster is a painfully accurate summary of government.

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It’s unfortunate that Senator Tom Coburn is retiring. He hasn’t been perfect, but nobody can question is commitment to limited government. He’s been a rare voice in Washington against wasteful spending.

And he’s going out with a bang, having just released the 2014 edition of the Wastebook.

It’s a grisly collection of boondoggles and pork-barrel spending, highlights (though lowlights might be a better term) of which can be seen in this video.

The good news is that the American people increasingly recognize that Washington is a cesspool of waste, fraud, and abuse.

A Gallup Poll from last month, for instance, finds that folks are quite aware that a huge chunk of the federal budget is squandered.

There are two interesting takeaways from this polling data.

First, it’s good to see that there’s been a steady increase in the perception of waste in Washington. That shows people are paying more attention over time. In other words, more and more Americans recognize that the public sector is a sleazy racket for the benefit of bureaucrats, lobbyists, contractors, politicians, cronies, interest groups, and other insiders.

Second, it’s also worth noting that there’s less waste at the state level and even less waste at the local level. These are just perceptions, to be sure, but I suspect people are right. Money is less likely to be squandered when people have a greater opportunity to see how it’s being spent. Which is why federalism is good policy and good politics.

Now let me add my two cents. Government waste doesn’t just occur when money goes to silly projects. From an economic perspective, money is wasted whenever there is a misallocation of potentially productive resources.

And that’s a pretty accurate description of most of the federal budget. Not just discretionary programs, but also entitlement programs.

Here’s my video providing the theoretical arguments against excessive government spending.

And here’s the companion video that reviews the evidence showing that big government undermines prosperity.

And if you want another video, but one that shows horrific government waste presented in an amusing manner, click here.

And if you instead want to get heartburn by reading about disgusting examples of waste, click here, here, or here.

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The International Monetary Fund isn’t my least-favorite international bureaucracy. That special honor belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, largely because of its efforts to undermine tax competition and protect the interests of the political class (it also tried to have me arrested, but I don’t hold that against them).

But the IMF deserves its share of disdain. It’s the Doctor Kevorkian of global economic policy, regularly advocating higher taxes and easy money even though that’s never been a recipe for national prosperity.

And it turns out that the IMF also is schizophrenic. The international bureaucracy’s latest big idea, garnering an entire chapter in the October World Economic Outlook, is that governments should spend more on infrastructure.

Barack Obama’s former chief economist supports the IMF scheme. Here some of what he wrote for the Washington Post.

…the IMF advocates substantially increased public infrastructure investment, and not just in the United States but in much of the world. It further asserts that under circumstances of high unemployment, like those prevailing in much of the industrialized world, the stimulative impact will be greater if this investment is paid for by borrowing… Why does the IMF reach these conclusions? …the infrastructure investment actually makes it possible to reduce burdens on future generations. …the IMF finds that a dollar of investment increases output by nearly $3. …in a time of economic shortfall and inadequate public investment, there is a free lunch to be had — a way that government can strengthen the economy and its own financial position.

Wow, That’s a rather aggressive claim. Governments spend $1 and the economy grows by $3.

Is Summers being accurate? What does the IMF study actually say?

It makes two big points.

The first point, which is reflected in the Summers oped, is that infrastructure spending can boost growth.

The study finds that increased public infrastructure investment raises output in the short term by boosting demand and in the long term by raising the economy’s productive capacity. In a sample of advanced economies, an increase of 1 percentage point of GDP in investment spending raises the level of output by about 0.4 percent in the same year and by 1.5 percent four years after the increase… In addition, the boost to GDP a country gets from increasing public infrastructure investment offsets the rise in debt, so that the public debt-to-GDP ratio does not rise… In other words, public infrastructure investment could pay for itself if done correctly.

But Summers neglected to give much attention to the caveats in the IMF study.

…the report cautions against just increasing infrastructure investment on any project. …The output effects are also bigger in countries with a high degree of public investment efficiency, where additional public investment spending is not wasted and is allocated to projects with high rates of return. …a key priority in economies with relatively low efficiency of public investment should be to raise the quality of infrastructure investment by improving the public investment process through, among others, better project appraisal, selection, execution, and rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

Perhaps the most important caveat, though, is that the study uses a “novel empirical strategy” to generate its results. That should raise a few alarm bells.

So is this why the IMF is schizophrenic?

Nope. Not even close.

If you want evidence of IMF schizophrenia, compare what you read above with the results from a study released by the IMF in August.

And this study focused on low-income countries, where you might expect to find the best results when looking at the impact of infrastructure spending.

So what did the author find?

On average the evidence shows only a weak positive association between investment spending and growth and only in the same year, as lagged impacts are not significant. Furthermore, there is little evidence of long term positive impacts. …The fact that the positive association is largely instantaneous argues for the importance of either reverse causality, as capital spending tends to be cut in slumps and increased in booms… In fact a slump in growth rather than a boom has followed many public capital drives of the past. Case studies indicate that public investment drives tend eventually to be financed by borrowing and have been plagued by poor analytics at the time investment projects were chosen, incentive problems and interest-group-infested investment choices. These observations suggest that the current public investment drives will be more likely to succeed if governments do not behave as in the past.

Wow. Not only is the short-run effect a mirage based on causality, but the long-run impact is negative.

But the real clincher is the conclusion that “public investment” is productive only “if governments do not behave as in the past.”

In other words, we have to assume that politicians, interest groups, and bureaucrats will suddenly stop acting like politicians, interest groups, and bureaucrats.

Yeah, good luck with that.

But it’s not just a cranky libertarian like me who thinks it is foolish to expect good behavior from government.

Charles Lane, an editorial writer who focuses on economic issues for the left-leaning Washington Post, is similarly skeptical.

Writing about the IMF’s October pro-infrastructure study, he thinks it relies on sketchy assumptions.

The story is told of three professors — a chemist, a physicist and an economist — who find themselves shipwrecked with a large supply of canned food but no way to open the cans. The chemist proposes a solvent made from native plant oils. The physicist suggests climbing a tree to just the right height, then dropping the cans on some rocks below. “Guys, you’re making this too hard,” the economist interjects. “Assume we have a can opener.” Keep that old chestnut in mind as you evaluate the International Monetary Fund’s latest recommendation… A careful reading of the IMF report, however, reveals that this happy scenario hinges on at least two big “ifs.”

The first “if” deals with the Keynesian argument that government spending “stimulates” growth, which I don’t think merits serious consideration.

But feel free to click here, here, here, and here if you want to learn more about that issues.

So let’s instead focus on the second “if.”

The second, and more crucial, “if” is the IMF report’s acknowledgment that stimulative effects of infrastructure investment vary according to the efficiency with which borrowed dollars are spent: “If the efficiency of the public investment process is relatively low — so that project selection and execution are poor and only a fraction of the amount invested is converted into productive public capital stock — increased public investment leads to more limited long-term output gains.” That’s a huge caveat. Long-term costs and benefits of major infrastructure projects are devilishly difficult to measure precisely and always have been. …Today we have “bridges to nowhere,” as well as major projects plagued by cost overruns and delays all over the world — and not necessarily in places you think of as corrupt. Germany’s still unfinished Berlin Brandenburg airport is five years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, to name one example. Bent Flyvbjerg of Oxford’s Said Business School studied 258 major projects in 20 nations over 70 years and found average cost overruns of 44.7 percent for rail, 33.8 percent for bridges and tunnels and 20.4 percent for roads.

Amen. Governments are notorious for cost overruns and boondoggle spending.

It happens in the United States and it happens overseas.

It’s an inherent part of government, as Lane acknowledges.

In short, an essential condition for the IMF concept’s success — optimally efficient investment — is both difficult to define and, to the extent it can be defined, highly unrealistic. As Flyvbjerg explains, cost overruns and delays are normal, not exceptional, because of perverse incentives — specifically, project promoters have an interest in overstating benefits and understating risks. The better they can make the project look on paper, the more likely their plans are to get approved; yet, once approved, economic and logistical realities kick in, and costs start to mount. Flyvbjerg calls this tendency “survival of the unfittest.” …Governments that invest in infrastructure on the assumption it will pay for itself may find out that they’ve gone a bridge too far.

Or bridge to nowhere, for those who remember the infamous GOP earmark from last decade that would have spent millions of dollars to connect a sparsely inhabited Alaska island with the mainland – even though it already had a very satisfactory ferry service.

Let’s close with two observations.

First, why did the IMF flip-flop in such a short period of time? It does seem bizarre for a bureaucracy to publish an anti-infrastructure spending study in August and then put out a pro-infrastructure spending study two months later.

I don’t know the inside story on this schizophrenic behavior, but I assume that the August study was the result of a long-standing research project by one of the IMF’s professional economists (the IMF publishes dozens of such studies every year). By contrast, I’m guessing the October study was pushed by the political bosses at the IMF, who in turn were responding to pressure from member governments that wanted some sort of justification for more boondoggle spending.

In other words, the first study was apolitical and the second study wasn’t.

Not that this is unusual. I suspect many of the economists working at international bureaucracies are very competent. So when they’re allowed to do honest research, they produce results that pour cold water on big government. Indeed, that even happens at the OECD.

But when the political appointees get involved, they put their thumbs on the scale in order to generate results that will please the governments that underwrite their budgets.

My second observation is that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with the IMF’s theoretical assertions in the August study. Infrastructure spending can be useful and productive.

It’s an empirical question to decide whether a new road will be a net plus or a net minus. Or a new airport runway. Or subway system. Or port facilities.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that we’re far more likely to get the right answers to these empirical questions if infrastructure spending is handled by state and local governments. Or even the private sector.

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Years ago, I shared a very funny poster that suggests that more government is hardly ever the right answer to any question.

Yet in Washington, the standard response to any screwup by government is to make government even bigger. Sort of Mitchell’s Law on steroids.

And that’s exactly what’s happening with the Ebola crisis. The bureaucracies that have received tens of billions of dollars over the years to preclude a crisis are now expecting to get rewarded with more cash.

Governor Jindal of Louisiana debunks the notion that more money for the bureaucracy is some sort of elixir. Here’s some of what he wrote for Politico.

In a paid speech last week, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attempted to link spending restraints enacted by Congress—and signed into law by President Obama—to the fight against Ebola. Secretary Clinton claimed that the spending reductions mandated under sequestration “are really beginning to hurt,” citing the fight against Ebola: “The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is another example on the response to Ebola—they’re working heroically, but they don’t have the resources they used to have.” …In recent years, the CDC has received significant amounts of funding. Unfortunately, however, many of those funds have been diverted away from programs that can fight infectious diseases, and toward programs far afield from the CDC’s original purpose. Consider the Prevention and Public Health Fund, a new series of annual mandatory appropriations created by Obamacare. Over the past five years, the CDC has received just under $3 billion in transfers from the fund. Yet only 6 percent—$180 million—of that $3 billion went toward building epidemiology and laboratory capacity. …While protecting Americans from infectious diseases received only $180 million from the Prevention Fund, the community transformation grant program received nearly three times as much money—$517.3 million over the same five-year period. …Our Constitution states that the federal government “shall protect each of [the States] against Invasion”—a statement that should apply as much to infectious disease as to foreign powers. So when that same government prioritizes funding for jungle gyms and bike paths over steps to protect our nation from possible pandemics, citizens have every right to question the decisions that got us to this point.

What Governor Jindal is describing is the standard mix of incompetence and mission creep that you get with government.

Bureaucracies fail to achieve their stated goals, but also divert lots of resources to new areas.

After all, that’s a great way of justifying more staff and more money.

Especially since they can then argue that they need those additional resources because they never addressed the problems that they were supposed to solve in the first place!

Here are some excerpts from a story in the Washington Free Beacon, starting with some whining from the head bureaucrat at the National Institutes of Health, who wants us to be believe that supposed budget cuts have prevented a vaccine for Ebola.

“Frankly, if we had not gone through our 10-year slide in research support, we probably would have had a vaccine in time for this that would’ve gone through clinical trials and would have been ready,” said NIH Director Francis Collins, blaming budget cuts for his agency’s failure to develop a vaccine for the deadly virus.

Yet take a look at how the NIH has been squandering money.

However, the Washington Free Beacon has uncovered $39,643,352 worth of NIH studies within the past several years that have gone to questionable research. For instance, the agency has spent $2,873,440 trying to figure out why lesbians are obese, and $466,642 on why fat girls have a tough time getting dates. Another $2,075,611 was spent encouraging old people to join choirs. Millions have gone to “text message interventions,” including a study where researchers sent texts to drunks at the bar to try to get them to stop drinking. The project received an additional grant this year, for a total of $674,590. …The NIH’s research on obesity has led to spending $2,101,064 on wearable insoles and buttons that can track a person’s weight, and $374,670 to put on fruit and vegetable puppet shows for preschoolers. A restaurant intervention to develop new children’s menus cost $275,227, and the NIH spent $430,608 for mother-daughter dancing outreach to fight obesity. …Millions went to develop “origami condoms,” in male, female, and anal versions. The inventor Danny Resnic, who received $2,466,482 from the NIH, has been accused of massive fraud for using grant money for full-body plastic surgery in Costa Rica and parties at the Playboy mansion.

Origami condoms?!? I’m almost tempted to do a web search to see what that even means, particularly since there are male, female, and anal versions.

But even without searching online, I know that origami condoms have nothing to do with stopping Ebola.

The Centers for Disease Control also have a long track record of wasting money. Here are some odious details from a Townhall column.

So now the federal health bureaucrats in charge of controlling diseases and pandemics want more money to do their jobs.

Gee, what a surprise.

Maybe if they hadn’t been so busy squandering their massive government subsidies on everything buttheir core mission, we taxpayers might actually feel a twinge of sympathy. At $7 billion, the Centers for Disease Control 2014 budget is nearly 200 percent bigger now than it was in 2000. …Yet, while Ebola and enterovirus D68 wreak havoc on our health system, the CDC has been busying itself with an ever-widening array of non-disease control campaigns, like these recent crusades: Mandatory motorcycle helmet laws. …Video games and TV violence. …Playground equipment. …”Social norming” in the schools. …After every public health disaster, CDC bureaucrats play the money card while expanding their regulatory and research reach into anti-gun screeds, anti-smoking propaganda, anti-bullying lessons, gender inequity studies and unlimited behavior modification programs that treat individual vices — personal lifestyle choices — as germs to be eradicated. …In 2000, the agency essentially lied to Congress about how it spent up to $7.5 million earmarked each year since 1993 for research on the deadly hantavirus. …The diversions were impossible to trace because of shoddy CDC bookkeeping practices. The CDC also misspent $22.7 million appropriated for chronic fatigue syndrome and was investigated in 2001 for squandering $13 million on hepatitis C research.

By the way, you may be wondering why we have both the National Institutes of Health as well as the Centers for Disease Control.

Is this just typical bureaucratic duplication?

No, it’s typical bureaucratic triplication, because we also have the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at the Department of Health and Human Services.

And as Mollie Hemingway explains in The Federalist, this additional layer of bureaucracy has been MIA on Ebola, perhaps because the head bureaucrats diverted funds to a political crony.

…nobody has even discussed the fact that the federal government not ten years ago created and funded a brand new office in the Health and Human Services Department specifically to coordinate preparation for and response to public health threats like Ebola. The woman who heads that office, and reports directly to the HHS secretary, has been mysteriously invisible from the public handling of this threat. And she’s still on the job even though three years ago she was embroiled in a huge scandal of funneling a major stream of funding to a company with ties to a Democratic donor—and away from a company that was developing a treatment now being used on Ebola patients.

Here are some additional details.

…one of HHS’ eight assistant secretaries is the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, whose job it is to “lead the nation in preventing, responding to and recovering from the adverse health effects of public health emergencies and disasters, ranging from hurricanes to bioterrorism.” …“Lurie’s job is to plan for the unthinkable. A global flu pandemic? She has a plan. A bioterror attack? She’s on it. Massive earthquake? Yep. Her responsibilities as assistant secretary span public health, global health, and homeland security.” …you might be wondering why the person in charge of all this is a name you’re not familiar with. …why has the top official for public health threats been sidelined in the midst of the Ebola crisis?

Perhaps because of the scandal.

You can—and should—read all about it in the Los Angeles Times‘ excellent front-page expose from November 2011, headlined: “Cost, need questioned in $433-million smallpox drug deal: A company controlled by a longtime political donor gets a no-bid contract to supply an experimental remedy for a threat that may not exist.”…The donor is billionaire Ron Perelman, who was controlling shareholder of Siga. He’s a huge Democratic donor… The award was controversial from almost every angle—including disputes about need, efficacy, and extremely high costs.

So what’s the bottom line?

The Progressive belief that a powerful government can stop all calamity is misguided. In the last 10 years we passed multiple pieces of legislation to create funding streams, offices, and management authorities precisely for this moment. That we have nothing to show for it is not good reason to put even more faith in government without learning anything from our repeated mistakes.

And that’s the most important lesson, though a secondary lesson is that big government means big corruption.

Big government is incompetent government.

Writing for The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson puts everything in context, explaining that big, bureaucratic states don’t do a good job.

The government’s response to the outbreak has exposed the weakness of the modern administrative state in general, and the incompetence of the White House in particular. …The second nurse to contract Ebola, Amber Vinson, traveled from Cleveland to Dallas on a commercial flight Monday and checked herself into the hospital Tuesday with Ebola symptoms. She called the CDC before she boarded the flight and reported she had a temperature of 99.5—yet CDC officials didn’t stop her from boarding the plane. …Thus continues a pattern of crippling naiveté and ineptitude from the White House on…the Ebola outbreak. On the press call, Frieden explained that you can’t get Ebola from sitting on a bus next to someone who’s infected, but if you have Ebola then don’t use public transportation because you might infect someone. …whether it’s funding or regulation, it’s becoming clear that government “everywhere putting its hands to new undertakings” isn’t working out all that well. …In a hundred years, when Americans read about the U.S. Ebola outbreak of 2014 and antiquated government agencies like the FDA that hampered the development of a vaccine, they’ll laugh at us. …Likewise, future Americans will probably scoff at us for thinking our FDA, in its current form, was somehow necessary or helpful, or for how the Department of Health and Human Services could spend almost a trillion dollars a year and yet fail to prevent or adequately respond to the Ebola outbreak.

And if you want a humorous look at the link between bloated government and incompetent government, Mark Steyn nails it.

Since we’ve shifted to humor, somebody on Twitter suggested that this guy is probably in line to become Obama’s new Ebola Czar.

Last but not least, here’s the icing on the cake.

I mentioned above that we have bureaucratic triplication thanks to NIH, CDC, and HHS. And I joked that the guy in the Holiday Inn might become the President’s new Czar, creating bureaucratic quadruplication (if that’s even a word).

Well, that joke has now become reality. The Washington Examiner is reporting that Obama has named an Ebola Czar. But the guy in the video will be sad to know he didn’t make the cut.

President Obama has chosen Ron Klain, former chief of staff for two Democratic vice presidents, as his Ebola czar, the White House said Friday. …In choosing Klain, Obama is selecting a D.C. insider and veteran of numerous political battles to spearhead a campaign with major implications on his own legacy and how Democrats fare in the November midterms.

Great. I’m sure a lobbyist and former political operative will have just the skills we need to solve this crisis.

I’m going out on a limb and predicting that he’ll say the solution is more money and bigger government. And we know how that turns out.

Yup, it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s government man to the rescue!

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