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Archive for the ‘Government Inefficiency’ Category

Way before we had a pandemic, I wasn’t a fan of the government school monopoly.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never have so many taxpayers paid so much money into a system that produced such mediocre results for so many people.

Now that we have a pandemic, the argument against government-run schools is even stronger. Simply stated the government monopoly is too politicized and too inflexible – and that means the the gap between government schools and private schools (and homeschooling) will be larger than ever.

Today, I want to show how the system is driven by bad ideology and bad incentives.

Let’s look at a recent announcement from the government schools where I live in Fairfax, VA. The bureaucrats don’t like when parents utilize private tutors because they would rather have all students fall behind than have some succeed.

Across the country, many parents are joining together to engage private tutors (who are often school teachers) to provide tutoring or home instruction for small groups of children. While there is no systematic way to track these private efforts, it’s clear that a number of “pandemic pods” or tutoring pods are being established in Fairfax County. …these instructional efforts are not supported by or in any way controlled by FCPS… While FCPS doesn’t and can’t control these private tutoring groups, we do have concerns that they may widen the gap in educational access and equity for all students.

Mike Gonzalez had the same reaction. He, too, was surprised that the bureaucrats would openly state their ideological desire for universal mediocrity.

There are similar problems in other communities surrounding Washington, DC.

In his column for the Washington Examiner, Tim Carney explains how government school bureaucracies – including where he lives in Montgomery County, Maryland – care more about preserving the flow of tax dollars than educational success for kids.

Because public schools will be offering a vastly inferior service this year (remote-only learning), the allies of public schools and their teachers’ unions worry about parents pulling their children into private schools — and so they are trying to take away some of the private schools’ advantage. …after Gov. Larry Hogan struck down a county order barring private schools, one public school teacher wrote a public Facebook post nearly admitting as much: “MCPS parents… Please keep your kids enrolled in MCPS! Loss of funding will be devastating, not only this school year, but in the years to come, when we need to try to increase funding again.” …The public school superintendent in Falls Church City, a small, wealthy municipality just outside of D.C., wrote a similar note warning against “Pandemic Flight.” …Peter Noonan..warned parents that “disenrolling from FCCPS [will] have consequences. FCCPS receives funding from the local Government, the State Government, and the Federal Government based on the numbers of students we have enrolled. If there is an exodus of students from FCCPS, the funding of our schools will decrease.” Notice what’s missing in this letter? Any suggestion that your children will learn just fine through the public schools’ online learning system. …public school administrators know that they are offering an inferior product… Sadly, rather than wanting what’s best for their students, they ask parents to do what will bring more taxpayer money for their schools.

For what it’s worth, I also think teacher unions and school bureaucrats also don’t want parents to experience even a year of private schooling or homeschooling, lest they learn that there are better long-run options for their kids.

P.S. My criticism of the government school monopoly does not in any way imply that teachers are bad people (like all professions and groups, some will be good and some will be bad). It simply means they are in a bad system. Indeed, one of the benefits of school choice is that good teachers will flourish thanks to competition and innovation.

P.P.S. Yes, we have strong evidence from some states and localities in America that school choice produces better educational outcomes. But I always remind people that there’s also global evidence from SwedenChileCanada, and the Netherlands showing good results when competition replaces government education monopolies.

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Every so often, I’ll notice a tweet that has some remarkable characteristic.

Today, we’re going to add to this collection.

The Democratic National Committee sent out a tweet back in April that seems like it should have been issued instead by the Libertarian National Committee.

My answer to the DNC’s question is “never.” That’s why I’m a libertarian.

Even when I grudgingly acknowledge that something is a legitimate function of government, I’m never tempted to say or think that “things seem to be going smoothly.”

That’s true when looking at what happens in Washington, what happens in the states, and what happens at the local level.

Needless to say, the DNC wasn’t trying to recruit libertarians. The goal was to condemn Trump’s governing style, specifically with reference to a story about the administration’s chaotic approach to the coronavirus.

And I certainly agree that Trump gives critics plenty of ammunition.

But there are plenty of similar episodes of malfeasance and incompetence during the Obama years. And the Bush years. And in every preceding White House.

The bottom line (as suggested by my collection of “Government in Cartoons“) is that Washington at best is a clumsy oaf. And quite often is a bloated bully.

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When I write enough columns with the same underlying point, I sometimes create a special page to highlight the theme, such as the “Bureaucrat Hall of Fame” and “Poverty Hucksters.”

I may have to do something similar for people who assert that America’s response to the coronavirus has been hampered because the federal government is too small.

For instance, Dana Milbank wrote in the Washington Post last month that “anti-government conservatism…caused the current debacle with a deliberate strategy to sabotage government.”

Ironically, the nations he cited for their successful approach – Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan – all have a much smaller burden of government spending than the United States.

Which actually supports my argument that bigger governments are less effective and competent.

But evidence doesn’t seem to matter to some journalists.

One of Milbank’s colleagues, Dan Balz, has just authored a long article that regurgitates the assertion that there’s been “underinvestment” in the federal government.

The government’s halting response to the coronavirus pandemic represents the culmination of chronic structural weaknesses, years of underinvestment and political rhetoric that has undermined the public trust… The nation is reaping the effects of decades of denigration of government and also from a steady squeeze on the resources needed to shore up the domestic parts of the executive branch. This hollowing out has been going on for years as a gridlocked Congress preferred continuing resolutions and budgetary caps… The question is whether the weaknesses and vulnerabilities exposed by the current crisis will generate a newfound interest among the nation’s elected officials — and the public — in repairing the infrastructure of government. …“We don’t want to invest in the capacity of government to get the job done,” Kettl said. …said David E. Lewis, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University…“We’re seeing a government that is suffering now from a long period of neglect that began well before this administration. And that neglect has accelerated during this administration.”

What’s especially remarkable is that the article cites the government’s lack of testing capacity as evidence of “underinvestment.”

Over these years, there have been a series of major government breakdowns that helped shake confidence in government’s competence. …The pandemic has forced another critical look at government’s competence. …more tests might have helped contain the spread. It is the case now as businesses look to reopen but cannot assure safety for workers or their communities without the widespread availability of tests, which so far does not exist.

Yet the bureaucracies with responsibility for testing – the FDA and CDC – have received big budget increases.

Was that money well spent?

Hardly. Not only have they failed in their mission, their red tape and inefficiency have hindered the private sector’s ability to develop and deploy tests.

Notwithstanding all this evidence, Balz wants readers to believe that people don’t have faith in government because of hostile rhetoric from politicians.

Marc Hetherington, a professor at the University of North Carolina, said the public conversation about government began to shift with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. …“What changed with Reagan and the decades since is that the conversation moves away from what government ought to do to government is incompetent to do things,” he said. …Democratic politicians have engaged in some of the same kind of thing. “Every candidate has campaigned on a bureaucracy-bashing theme,” Nabatchi said. “That message has gotten through to affect people’s confidence in government.”

The alternative explanation, needless to say, is that people don’t have confidence in the public sector because government has a long track record of mistakes and incompetence.

But I guess that’s merely my opinion.

So let’s instead close today’s column with some hard data.

Here’s a chart I shared last month while debunking an article by George Packer for the Atlantic (he claimed we have “a federal government crippled by years of…steady defunding”).

It shows that federal spending has tripled since 1980. And that’s after adjusting for inflation!

Which led me to observe that, “The bottom line is that I can’t figure out whether to be more dismayed that journalists are innumerate or that major publications apparently don’t have fact checkers.”

That same sentiment obviously applies to Dan Balz and the Washington Post.

P.S. While Balz and Milbank were guilty of avoiding numbers, the Washington Post doesn’t have a great track record when its journalists try to use numbers. In other words, maybe the problem is bias rather than innumeracy.

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I’ve written four columns (here, here, here, and here) on the general failure of government health bureaucracies to effectively respond to the coronavirus.

The pattern was so pronounced that it even led me to unveil a Seventh Theorem of Government.

I’m not surprised at this outcome, of course, given the poor overall track record of the public sector.

But I was negatively surprised to learn how red tape from these bureaucracies prevented the private sector from quickly reacting to the crisis.

Today, let’s take a closer look at one of those bureaucracies, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Eric Boehm, writing for Reason, has a nice summary of the CDC’s failures.

Over the past three decades, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has seen its taxpayer-funded budget doubled. Then doubled again. Then doubled again. And then nearly doubled once more. But spending nearly 14 times as much as we did in 1987 on the agency whose mission statement says it “saves lives and protects people from health threats” did not, apparently, help the CDC combat the emergence of the biggest disease threat America has faced in a century. In fact, …inflating the CDC’s budget may have weakened the agency’s ability to handle its core responsibility by giving rise to mission creep and bureaucratic malaise. …the CDC’s budget has ballooned from $590 million in 1987 to more than $8 billion last year. If the agency had grown with inflation since 1987, it would have a budget of about $1.3 billion today. …Has all that extra funding made America safer? …hindsight now suggests that the CDC should have spent more time and money researching emergent influenza-like infectious diseases, a project that received just $185 million in funding… Instead, the CDC was doing things like spending $1.75 million on the creation of a “Hollywood liaison”.

A big problem with bureaucracies is that they engage in mission creep. They concoct new roles and responsibilities in hopes of justifying bigger budgets and more staff.

The CDC certainly is no exception. In its early years, the bureaucracy had a targeted mission, focusing on diseases posing a major threat to public health, such as malaria, plague, and tuberculosis.

Over the years, though, it has lost focus and become involved with social issues.

Daniel Greenfield opines on the CDC’s foolish diversions on issues such as obesity.

The Centers for Disease Control has…one job which it messes up every time. The last time the CDC had a serious workout was six years ago during the Ebola crisis. Back then CDC guidelines allowed medical personnel infected with Ebola to avoid a quarantine and interact with Americans… There were no protocols in place for treating the potentially infected resulting in the further spread of the disease inside the United States. …Meanwhile, CDC personnel had managed to mishandle Ebola virus samples, accidentally sending samples of the live virus to CDC labs. …During the Ebola crisis, the CDC had been spending…$2.6 million on gun violence studies. But the CDC has a history of wasting money on everything from a $106 million visitor’s center with Japanese gardens, a $200K gym, a transgender beauty pageant, not to mention promoting bike paths. …the CDC’s general incompetence…, like that of other government agencies, just ticks along wasting money. In 1999, the CDC announced a plan to end syphilis in 5 years…an unserious social welfare proposal that wanted to battle racism and was such a success that by 2018, syphilis rates had hit a new record high. … The CDC’s fight against the “obesity epidemic” is even sillier. That includes…giving LSU over a million bucks to work with farmers’ markets. Obesity obviously can kill people, but it’s not something that the CDC can or should be trying to fix. …Unfortunately, the CDC, like every federal agency, has drifted from its core mission into social welfare. …No one thinks about the CDC until we need it and discover it doesn’t work. And then the same story repeats itself a few years later while the CDC goes back to battling obesity and racism. …We don’t need a CDC that changes people’s minds about eating chocolate or engaging in unprotected sex. There are already multiple redundant parts of the government that are trying and failing there.

In a column for Forbes, Larry Bell reviewed the history of the CDC’s politicized campaigning against gun ownership.

In 1996, the Congress axed $2.6 million allocated for gun research from the CDC out of its $2.2 billion budget, charging that its studies were being driven by anti-gun prejudice. …There was a very good reason for the gun violence research funding ban. Virtually all of the scores of CDC-funded firearms studies conducted since 1985 had reached conclusions favoring stricter gun control.  This should have come as no surprise, given that ever since 1979, the official goal of the CDC’s parent agency, the U.S. Public Health Service, had been “…to reduce the number of handguns in private ownership”… Sociologist David Bordura and epidemiologist David Cowan characterized the public health literature on guns at that time as “advocacy based upon political beliefs rather than scientific fact”. …Dr. Katherine Christoffel, head of the “Handgun Epidemic Lowering Plan”, a CDC-funded organization…said: “guns are a virus that must be eradicated…”

Michelle Minton of the Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote for Inside Sources about the CDC’s senseless efforts to restrict vaping.

Our health agencies had the information and the resources, so they should have been planning for this, but they weren’t. The problem isn’t because they’re underfunded, it’s that they are bloated and mismanaged. …a close look at how CDC spends its budget reveals it has strayed from this mission of protecting Americans from communicable diseases, turning more toward influencing people’s lifestyle choices. …Indeed, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, CDC and other agencies were busy sounding the alarm about the nonexistent “epidemic” of youth vaping. Collectively, they spent billions on anti-vaping advertisements, biased research and lobbying, wasted countless hours of congressional hearing time, and squandering public trust. Had they remained focused on infectious disease, might have been prepared to fight real epidemics, like the COVID-19. …there’s nothing new about exploiting a crisis to expand budgets and score political points. Similar claims of inadequate funding were made during the 2014 outbreak of Ebola, for which various health agencies got an additional $5.4 billion. And what do we have to show for it now?

Let’s wrap up by noting that squandering money should be viewed as the CDC’s indirect failure.

The direct failure was how the bureaucracy bungled its one legitimate function of fighting infectious disease.

Jacob Sullum, writing for the New York Post, explains what happened.

The grand failure of federal health bureaucrats foreclosed the possibility of a more proactive and targeted approach… At first, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ­monopolized COVID-19 tests. When the CDC began shipping test kits to state laboratories in early February, they turned out to be defective. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration initially blocked efforts by universities and businesses to develop and conduct tests… The CDC still insists that “not everyone needs to be tested for COVID-19.” But without testing everyone — or at least representative samples — for both the virus itself and the antibodies to it, we can do little better than guess its prevalence, its lethality and the extent of immunity among the general public. …Our ignorance about COVID-19 will have profound consequences, potentially leading to an overreaction that wrecks the economy while saving relatively few lives… You can thank the same agencies on which we are relying to guide us through this crisis.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center summarizes the issue, noting that the CDC is a monumental failure.

The lack of preparedness at every level of government (federal, state, and local) has nothing to do with a lack of funding or inadequate staffing. Instead, it has everything to do with governments’ bloat, mismanagement, cronyism, and poor focus. That’s particularly true of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). …it is no secret how much the CDC is to blame for the country’s lack of preparedness to take on the coronavirus (followed very closely in ineptitude by the Food and Drug Administration). …By now, every major newspaper has reported on the incredible failure of the CDC during this crisis. …Messing up is not a new thing for the CDC. However, unlike what its employees and political allies like to claim, the agency’s poor record and its lack of preparedness has nothing to do with a lack of funding. …For instance, funding for its National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases—which aims to prevent diseases like Ebola—received only $514 million in 2018, a tiny sliver (less than 5%) of total CDC funding. And less than half of that $514 million went to emerging diseases like COVID-19. The rest of that budget is spent on stuff like chronic fatigue. Meanwhile, funding…to prevent smoking, alcohol consumption, and poor diets…received nearly $1 billion over that same time, almost double the funding for infectious-disease prevention.

Here’s a look (courtesy of Chris Edwards) at what’s happened to the CDC budget over time.

As you can see, the bureaucrats got more and more funding. Yet when America needed competence, they didn’t deliver.

P.S. The bureaucrats are not the only ones to blame. A big reason for the CDC’s lack of focus is that headline-seeking and vote-buying politicians created new roles and responsibilities. The CDC was happy to get more power, staff, and money, of course (just as it will be happy to get more power, staff, and money as a reward for its failure to deal with the coronavirus).

P.P.S. It’s almost as if there’s a lesson to be learned.

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Welcome, Instapundit readers. Thanks, Glenn

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About three weeks ago, I unveiled the “Seventh Theorem of Government” to support the libertarian proposition that a smaller government will do a better job of fulfilling its legitimate responsibilities.

This should not be a controversial concept. There’s plenty of empirical data as well as academic evidence showing that smaller governments are more competent.

Many people in the D.C. bubble obviously disagree.

In his Washington Post column, Dana Milbank tries to make the argument that the fight against coronavirus has been hampered by inadequate government.

…then came the tea party, the anti-government conservatism that infected the Republican Party in 2010 and triumphed with President Trump’s election. …What you see today is your government…a government that couldn’t produce a rudimentary test for coronavirus, that couldn’t contain the pandemic as other countries have done… Now it is time to drown this disastrous philosophy in the bathtub — and with it the poisonous attitude that the government is a harmful “beast” that must be “starved.” It is not an exaggeration to say that this ideology caused the current debacle with a deliberate strategy to sabotage government. …Americans are paying for this with their lives — and their livelihoods.

There are some glaring inaccuracies in Milbank’s column, starting with the absurd notion that big-spender Trump (he increased domestic spending at a faster pace than Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, or Barack Obama) is somehow connected to the principles that animated the Tea Party.

More relevant, he wants readers to believe that anti-government activism somehow blocked the production of a “rudimentary test” for the virus, yet I’ve repeatedly documented that the actual problem has been mindless red tape from bureaucracies such as the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control.

Speaking of which, Chris Edwards has rigorously debunked the notion that those bureaucracies, along with the National Institutes of Health, somehow have been starved of resources.

Here’s his chart showing funding for NIH and CDC

And here’s his chart showing the number of bureaucrats at the NIH, FDA, and CDC.

And what have we gotten in exchange for more bureaucrats and bigger budgets?

As already noted, we got inefficient bureaucracies that have put Americans at risk by hindering and delaying tests, equipment, and treatments.

Now let’s address the part of Milbank’s column that is a classic example of what’s called an “own goal” in soccer. He wants to make the case that bigger government is more effective government, but look at the examples he cites.

If the United States had more public health capacity, it “absolutely” would have been on par with Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, which have far fewer cases, Auerbach said. South Korea has had 4 deaths per 1 million people, Singapore 1 death per million, and Taiwan 0.2 deaths per million. The United States: 39 per million — and rising fast.

What do we know about Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan?

Well, as I noted in November of 2018, they all have a smaller burden of government spending than the United States.

Significantly smaller.

I’m embarrassed for Mr. Milbank, for the obvious reason that it is personally humiliating to score an “own goal.”

But I’m also embarrassed for myself. I repeatedly try to make the argument for limited government, but Milbank’s accidental case for libertarianism may be more persuasive than anything I’ve ever written.

P.S. On a related note, check out the concept of “state capacity libertarianism.”

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve shared headlines and tweets to illustrate how bureaucratic inefficiency and incompetence have hindered an effective response to the coronavirus.

Time to beat that dead horse one more time.

But not just for the sake of mocking the clowns in Washington. I want to help people understand that we would get better outcomes with a slimmed-down public sector that focused on genuine governmental responsibilities.

Before providing a comprehensive collection of headlines and tweets, please read these excerpts from a searing indictment of the federal government’s incompetence, written by Stephen Pimentel for Palladium.

The FDA’s poor performance has little to do with insufficient budgets… The countries with the most effective responses… Taiwan, for example, has relied on a decentralized set of quickly developed digital tools, coordinated by its DIGI+ digital ministry but developed on the fly by private citizens. ….None of these countries allowed their equivalents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to block virus-testing and the production of masks. In the U.S., the FDA possesses exclusive authority to approve tests once the Department of Health and Human Services declares a Public Health Emergency, which it did on January 31, 2020. The FDA proceeded to grant such approval only to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In February, the CDC developed a test on its own and distributed it to state labs. But the test kits had a bad reagent and did not work. During the entire month of February, as the virus continued to spread, the FDA granted no private lab approval to test. The first approval for a private lab was only issued on March 2, 2020. …Why have common surgical masks (and not only the higher-grade N95 masks) run short during the pandemic? Surely they are easy to produce. The answer is that, while they are physically easy to produce, the FDA treats them as regulated medical devices and requires extensive risk analysis and testing before they can be legally sold, making them difficult and time-consuming for a company to legally bring to market. …The American institutions charged with protecting public health are embedded in a bureaucratic culture that values turf-centered gatekeeping and control over effectiveness and outcome.

Now for our collection of headlines and tweets.

And we’ll start with the one that carries the main message of today’s column.

And why are people needlessly suffering? And even dying?

Well, feel free to click on any of these stories and tweets to access the underlying information.

While the FDA and CDC deserve plenty of scorn and criticism, Let’s not forget that states augment the damage of big government thanks to misguided “certificate of need” laws that restrict the capacity of the health sector, as well as laws against so-called price gouging.

The same problem exists to varying degrees in other nations, and also with international bureaucracies.

So what’s today’s message? Here’s a blunt headline that applies to national red tape, local red tape, and global red tape.

That lesson is captured by this image from the Atlas Society.

Once again, we have an answer to the question first asked back in 2009.

P.S. The bad news shared above doesn’t even count the deadly impact of the FDA’s lengthy and expensive process for approving new drugs.

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The current crisis teaches us that excessive regulation and bureaucratic sloth can have deadly consequences.

Here’s John Stossel’s video with another lesson, explaining that we need more capitalism rather than more government.

This seems like a no-brainer, especially given the wretched economic performance of countries where the government owns or controls the means of production.

But not everyone agrees. The appropriately named Paris Marx wants government to have more power, making the case for nationalization of Amazon in an article for Jacobin.

The government needs to…respond to the needs of people across the country as the pandemic situation deteriorates. The response should be to nationalize Amazon and integrate it with the USPS. …Nationalizing the company would also allow Amazon workers to get covered by the same union as postal workers… Amazon isn’t just an online e-commerce marketplace. …Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a cloud computing platform…the cloud should be placed under public ownership. Taking control of AWS would allow the government to…ensure the cloud platform is serving the public good… We have a rare opportunity to fundamentally alter the economy to serve the needs of people instead of private profit, and it’s time to seize it.

Call me crazy, but if the government takes over Amazon and merges it with the Postal Service, I’m guessing that what emerges will have the inefficiency of the latter rather than the nimbleness of the former.

Just imagine a giant Department of Motor Vehicles (or, on a related note, the government’s track record on teaching kids to drive).

Which is why the U.K.-based Economist warned back in 2017 about the dangers of government-run companies.

Expanded state ownership is a poor way to cure economic ailments. For much of the 20th century, economists were open to a bit of dirigisme. …But in the 1970s economists came to see state ownership as a costly fix to such problems. Owners of private firms benefit directly when innovation reduces costs and boosts profits; bureaucrats usually lack such a clear financial incentive to improve performance. Firms with the backing of the state are less vulnerable to competition; as they lumber on they hoard resources that could be better used elsewhere. …economists saw in the productivity slowdown of the 1970s evidence that an overreaching state was throttling economic dynamism. …State-owned firms pose risks beyond that to dynamism. Government-run companies may prioritise swollen payrolls over customer satisfaction. More worryingly, state firms can become vehicles for corruption, used to dole out the largesse of the state to favoured backers or to funnel social wealth into the pockets of the powerful. As state control over the economy grows, political connections become a surer route to business success than entrepreneurialism.

The good news is that very few politicians are supporting explicit nationalization.

The bad news is that there’s plenty of support for intermediate steps involving cronyism, industrial policy, and various types of direct and indirect subsidies.

Including in the legislation recently approved in Washington (not that anyone should be surprised).

Professor Amit Seru from Stanford and Professor Luigi Zingales from the University of Chicago warn, in a column for the Wall Street Journal, that the U.S. has take a dangerous step on the road to central planning.

The need to help individuals and small firms has provided cover to the largest corporate subsidy program in U.S. history. Under intense pressure from lobbyists, the Cares Act allocates $510 billion to support loans for large businesses. A small chunk of this money ($56 billion) will be used directly by the Treasury to grant loans to airlines and other “strategic” firms (read: Boeing). The Treasury will then confer the rest ($454 billion) to the Federal Reserve to absorb losses the Fed might incur in lending to firms in the private sector. The expectation is that the central bank will leverage this money… This is the largest step toward a centrally planned economy the U.S. has ever taken. And it socializes only losses. Profits, when they come, remain private. …The urgency of the moment facilitated a giveaway to vested interests. Now that the Cares Act is law, policy makers need to find ways to impose restrictions on how the money is deployed. It isn’t only a question of fiscal prudence; the nature of American capitalism is at stake.

In other words, the U.S. is moving in the wrong direction on my “Industrial Policy Spectrum.”

The key unanswered question is whether the government’s new powers will be temporary or permanent.

There’s a legitimate argument for some form of intervention while the crisis in ongoing. But what happens once things go back to normal? Will politicians allow the “creative destruction” of capitalism, or will they use their expanded power to permanently interfere with market forces?

If they choose the latter, there will be less long-run prosperity.

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About three weeks ago, when the coronavirus crisis was becoming a big deal, I explained the libertarian viewpoint.

  1. Governments should focus on protecting life, liberty, and property. That includes fighting pandemics.
  2. A big sprawling federal government will be less capable and competent when responding to a real crisis.
  3. International evidence suggests greater government control of the health sector is not a good recipe for success.
  4. Domestic evidence indicates that bureaucracies such as the FDA and CDC are exacerbating the problem.

Unsurprisingly, there are still plenty of people claiming the crisis shows why libertarianism is impractical and misguided.

Henry Olsen opines for the Washington Post that the time has come to put libertarianism on the ash heap of history. But much of what he writes cries out for correction.

It is difficult to underestimate the influence of libertarian principles on Republican economic policy. Nearly every economist or economic journalist revered by the party advocates for policies that are derived from libertarian impulses. …Let people do what they want, the story goes, and they will cure poverty, bring world peace and do better at managing social discord than any centrally planned government act can ever hope to accomplish. …Pure libertarianism…is, of course, almost nonexistent in party circles… Even libertarian icons such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) or Rep. Justin Amash (I-Mich.) publicly support much higher levels of government activity than do many of the thinkers and activists who sing their praises.

There are two huge problems with the above passages.

First, it’s nonsensical to claim that libertarians have a big influence on GOP economic policy. Just look at the mixed-to-horrible track records of Nixon, Bush I, Bush II, and Trump.

Ironically, Henry actually contradicts his own assertion by noting that libertarianism is “almost nonexistent in party circles.”

Second, what he’s really criticizing is the notion of limited government. Yes, libertarians believe in small government, but so do many conventional conservatives (remember Ronald Reagan?).

So is the notion of small government wrong? Henry argues that people want “strong government.”

Trump…grasps what they do not: People love freedom, but they love security as much or more. Time and again, people draw together in support of strong government to protect them from something fearful they cannot handle on their own. War and civil unrest are classic events that persuade people that strong mandatory measures are necessary; the current pandemic is another. …The modern social welfare state is grounded in the idea that some measure of economic security, opportunity and equality are necessary parts of a decent life. Policies designed to achieve these goals all impose on individual liberty through taxes and regulation. …a supermajority of Americans approves… They do not believe that liberty is the one true god before which all should bow. …The pandemic’s aftermath will see….conservatives…try to right this imbalance in the name of national security and general welfare, even if it means curtailing the liberty to trade. As the pandemic continues, it will be much easier for Republican voters and politicians to cast off the rose-colored libertarian glasses they have worn for far too long.

Let’s explore whether the notion of small government is inconsistent with the idea of strong government.

Writing for The Week, Bonnie Kristian explains how libertarian principles apply. Yes, government action is appropriate, but in ways that are consistent with other principles.

…pandemic-era libertarianism is emerging, and it remains distinctly libertarian. Here are the trends… Praise for the free market’s role in keeping day-to-day life functional. “That gallon jug of hand sanitizer delivered to your front door less than 48 hours after you ordered it online? It didn’t show up because Trump tweeted it into existence or because the surgeon general is driving a delivery truck around the country,” Reason‘s Eric Boehm wrote… Condemnation of counterproductive regulations and lack of transparency. Why is the United States so far behind other countries in testing for coronavirus cases? For weeks, the FDA and CDC wouldn’t let medical workers and academics move forward with COVID-19 tests they’d developed without lengthy processes of federal approval. …Rejection of corporate bailouts and price controls. Trump is exploring plans for corporate bailout loans and other economic stimuli which libertarians generally oppose. …Insistence on temporary changes. Fierce opposition to expansions of the surveillance state to fight the novel coronavirus is likely widespread among libertarians in no small part because privacy rights, once lost, are very rarely recovered. But the risk of this pandemic permanently expanding the power of the state will shape the libertarian view on every proposed solution.

These are solid principles. And very desirable.

Now let’s specifically address whether we need a “strong government.”

In a column for the National Interest, Andy Craig addresses that issue, most notably with his observation that responding to a pandemic is a legitimate exercise of government power, but also that government incompetence has worsened the crisis.

…there has been snark from some quarters about the current crisis somehow catching libertarians flat‐​footed. …Libertarianism, properly understood, encompasses certain core functions as the proper role of government. It is not the libertarian view that government should be ineffective at protecting individual rights or dysfunctionally paralyzed in the face of a massive threat to people’s lives. Government has a role to play in responding to the pandemic in much the same way it is the government’s job to prosecute murderers or defend the country from invasion. …Libertarian criticisms of bad regulations have proven especially prescient. A crucial government failure has been…inflexible and heavy‐​handed bureaucracy, which has held up tests and prevented thousands of private and academic labs from quickly increasing testing capacity. …Another example of a libertarian response to the pandemic has been the quick need to suspend many occupational licensing restrictions, such as by letting doctors practice interstate and upgrading the permissions of nurse practitioners and doctors’ assistants. Even mundane and trivial regulations…have suddenly been cast aside. Two months ago, who would have thought it an urgent concern to suspend alcohol regulations so that restaurants can serve beverages to go for home delivery by rideshare drivers?

Amen.

I’ve documented (in Part I, Part II, and Part III) how big, blundering, bureaucratic government has hindered an effective response to the crisis.

Sadly, it’s quite likely that politicians will use the crisis to expand government power.

That’s certainly consistent with what we’ve seen through history. Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University has a new column about the insights of Robert Higgs.

…a book that I’ve lately been pondering quite a lot: economic historian Robert Higgs’s 1987 volume, Crisis and LeviathanIn this richly documented work, Higgs convincingly shows that with each national crisis government power ratchets up. The crisis might be fully genuine or inflated or utterly mythical; it matters not. Whenever there prevails widespread belief that a crisis looms, people turn to the state for help. …additional powers granted to – or seized by – government during each crisis shrinks somewhat when the crisis passes. …But never do such additions to state power fully disappear. …the likelihood is that the ideology of the holders of power prompts them, not to keep their power in check, but to expand it. And as power expands in a ratcheting-upward way, power becomes ever-more valuable and intoxicating to possess.

In a column for the U.K.-based CapX, Helen Dale discusses the role of a limited but competent state sector as a key to classical liberalism.

…liberalism needs a strong state. Yes, state. Not strong supranational organisations like the EU or UN or IMF. …Liberalism needs a state powerful enough to collect taxes and pay for police forces, courts, prisons, and the military. Only powerful states, it emerges, can strong-arm their citizens into the rule of law: that is, a system where like cases are treated alike, contracts are enforced…the modern nation-state is the only way to produce liberal tolerance at scale. …If liberalism needs a strong state, that state must also be a constrained one for liberal forms of governance to persist. Johnson and Koyama speak of a “shackled leviathan” rather than a “despotic leviathan”; that is, powerful states require institutional constraints because without them you get modern China or, historically, Nazi Germany and the USSR.

She’s highlighted a key issue, which is how you give government power to do good things without simultaneously giving it power to do bad things (hint: a good answer is the U.S. Constitution’s limits on the scope of government, at least back in the days when the Supreme Court cared about Article 1, Section 8).

Professor Michael Munger of Duke University makes the all-important point that a bloated public sector will be less competent at doing the few things we want from government.

I see the proper domain of the state as sharply circumscribed… Given that we have a state, it must have the capacity to carry out the functions… A key part of the justification for the existence of the state is the duty to manage property rights and institutions…the state needs to have sufficient capacity to protect individual rights… the key variable is the scope of government, not its size. A relatively small government that arbitrarily sets prices, nationalizes private property, and controls the media is the archetype of the authoritarian regime, as is the case in Turkmenistan or Chad. A large government that accepts constitutional and customary limits on its domain of action can be an archetype of personal freedom, as is the case in Denmark and Sweden. …The state needs the capacity to carry out public health functions, but those powers must be effectively limited to that domain, not available to be hijacked for socialist boondoggles. To my friends on the left: If you had been responsible enough to keep government in its proper, limited role we would have plenty of resources and capacity to carry out the functions we now find lacking. …We need a state that is good at a few things, not your state which tries to do everything and fails at all of it.

There’s lots of good stuff in the above excerpt, including the fact that fiscal policy is only a small piece of the puzzle when measuring the extent of free enterprise (which is why there’s far more economic liberty in, say, Denmark compared to every single country in the developing world).

The last sentence from the excerpt tells us everything we need to know. Indeed, a version of this insight is my Seventh Theorem of Government.

The bottom line is that we definitely don’t want big government.

What’s needed is not really “strong government,” but rather limited, competent, and effective government. Think Singapore, which does a much better job of providing core public goods while spending much less money.

As I noted when correcting Henry Olsen, this is not a libertarian-only principle. It also works for small-government conservatives, an important distinction since Singapore isn’t libertarian (high scores for economic freedom are offset by weak scores for personal freedom).

And I’ll close by observing that there’s plenty of academic and empirical literature supporting this Theorem.

Robert Samuelson and Mark Steyn have made the same point.

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I wrote about “Coronavirus and Big Government” on March 22 and then followed up on March 27 with “Coronavirus and Big Government, Part II.”

Now it’s time for the third installment, and we’ll start with this hard-hitting video from Reason, which shows how red tape has hindered the development and deployment of testing in the United States.

Next, here are a bunch of stories and tweets about the deadly impact of bureaucracy and regulation.

As with the Part I and Part II, feel free to click on any of the stories for the details.

By the way, the problem of excessive government exists in other nations.

Here are two tweets about the situation in the United Kingdom.

The first one deals with having to get government approval for medical devices.

The second one deals with how politicians and bureaucrats have misallocated public health resources – similarly to some of the foolish misadventures of the FDA and CDC (and let’s not forget the World Health Organization).

I’ll close with another story from the United States.

This report from Reason is especially useful because it contains a 30-minute interview with Professor Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University. So if you liked the short video at the start of this column, you’ll definitely want to click through and watch this video.

The message here isn’t that government shouldn’t exist. As I wrote earlier this month, collective action is appropriate to protect life, liberty, and property. Needless to say, that libertarian principle applies during a pandemic.

But that doesn’t mean government should be micro-managing everything.

In normal times, excessive regulation is a costly nuisance because things cost more and take longer.

In a crisis, however, that means needless death and suffering. Which is exactly what’s happening today.

Let’s hope the folks in Washington learn from this awful experience.

P.S. Another lesson to be learned is the Seventh Theorem of Government.

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I wrote yesterday how cumbersome bureaucracies and foolish regulations have hindered an effective response to the coronavirus.

This isn’t because governments are run by bad people. Some of them probably are that way, of course, but the real problem is that politicians and bureaucrats are dealing with a perverse incentive system.

They’re largely motivated by power, money, publicity, staffing, and votes.

And that leads to some very unfortunate outcomes, as Betsy McCaughey explained in her syndicated column.

Landing in the hospital on a ventilator is bad. But worse is being told you can’t have one. …learning that the state’s stockpile of medical equipment had 16,000 fewer ventilators than New Yorkers would need in a severe pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to a fork in the road in 2015. He could have chosen to buy more ventilators. Instead, he asked his health commissioner, Howard Zucker to assemble a task force and draft rules for rationing the ventilators they already had. …Cuomo could have purchased the additional 16,000 needed ventilators for $36,000 apiece or a total of $576 million in 2015. It’s a lot of money but less than the $750 million he threw away on a boondoggle “Buffalo Billion” solar panel factory.

For what it’s worth, I’m not blaming Governor Cuomo for a failure to buy more ventilators.

In the same situation, I also may have decided that it wasn’t wise to spend $576 million for an event that most people thought was very unlikely.

But I am blaming him for supporting ever-bigger government in New York and getting ever-more involved in things that aren’t legitimate functions of a state government.

That applies to the solar factory mentioned in the article, and it also applies to other vote-buying schemes such as mass transit boondoggles, expanded rent control, and anti-gun snitch lines.

And when he expands the size and scope of state government, he increases the likelihood that there won’t be the energy, expertise, or resources to address problems where government should play a role.

Such as dealing with a pandemic.

Which motivates me to unveil a Seventh Theorem of Government.

In addition to the example of Cuomo and ventilators, there’s also a story from Belgium that underscores how bloated governments are less capable.

But I’ll close by noting the Seventh Theorem is not driven by anecdotes. There’s plenty of academic evidence showing that smaller governments are more competent.

P.S. As suggested by proponents of “state capacity libertarianism,” there is a possible exception to the Seventh Theorem.

Some of the world’s poorest nations have small public sectors – at least according to official measurements. It’s certainly possible, at least in theory, that such countries would benefit if they had larger governments that were capable of providing core public goods.

Indeed, international bureaucracies commonly argue that these countries should increase their tax burdens to provide “financing for development.”

However, the real problem in such nations is rampant corruption, low societal capital, and inadequate rule of law. Which is why it’s not a good idea to generate more money for politicians in those countries.

P.P.S. Here are my other theorems of government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.

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Technically, my coverage of U.K election week began last Monday with a look at Jeremy Corbyn’s radical statism, and ended yesterday with some analysis of Boris Johnson’s victory.

But since I’m still in England, this is an opportune time for a new edition of Great Moments in British Government.

For those who aren’t regular readers, I should add that “Great Moments” is a sarcastic term for odd stories that illustrate the incompetence and venality of government (state, local, foreign, etc).

We’ll start with a story that shows how insiders use government as a racket to enrich their lifestyles.

Local councils are spending millions on luxury cars for mayors and officials in “ceremonial” roles, an investigation has found. Over the past three years, 207 local authorities have spent more than £4.5million on vehicles including Bentleys, Jaguars and S-class Mercedes, information disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act reveals. The cars were used by mayors, lord mayors or chairmen. The TaxPayers’ Alliance, a campaign group which carried out the investigation, said the money went on officials who “often fulfil ceremonial duties within their local authority and serve as the ‘first citizen’.

Sounds like Washington’s gilded class!

For our next example, bureaucrats in the United Kingdom don’t do a very good job of teaching traditional subjects such as math and reading, so they’ve decided to try sharing their knowledge on a rather unconventional topic.

Children as young as six are being taught about touching or ‘stimulating’ their own genitals as part of classes that will become compulsory in hundreds of primary schools. Some parents believe the lessons – part of a controversial new sex and relationships teaching programme called All About Me – are ‘sexualising’ their young children. …Documents obtained by The Mail on Sunday detail how All About Me classes involve pupils aged between six and ten being told by teachers that there are ‘rules about touching yourself’. An explanation of ‘rules about self-stimulation’ appears in the scheme’s Year Two lesson plan for six and seven-year-olds. Under a section called Touching Myself, teachers are advised to tell children that ‘lots of people like to tickle or stroke themselves as it might feel nice’. …In one, pupils are told that when a girl called Autumn ‘has a bath and is alone she likes to touch herself between her legs. It feels nice’.

For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have wanted my kids being exposed to this kind of topic, but I must admit that bureaucrats probably have some expertise on the matter.

Next, we have a story about a woman getting fined for feeding birds.

Neighbours complained about birds flocking to Maureen Francis’ garden after she began feeding them with bird seed and other food… Wiltshire Council gave Francis the protection notice after receiving complaints and told her she could only put out one ‘small caged bird feeder’. But she refused to comply with their demands, leading to the council taking her to court ‘for the sake of the neighbours’. When Francis failed to attend the hearing last week, magistrates convicted her of failing to comply with a protection notice in her absence. She was fined £250 for over feeding the animals and ordered to pay almost £1,600 in costs. Councillor Jerry Wickham, Wiltshire Council’s cabinet member for public protection, said: “Our officers made numerous attempts to engage with Mrs Francis to try and resolve this problem. “We were reluctant to take legal action but for the sake of the neighbours, prosecution was the only option.”

Gives over-criminalization a whole new meaning.

Last but not least, British officials decided it’s okay if a two-second journey is replaced by a one-hour trip.

Motorists in southwest England will need to pay special attention when driving through Dorset County next week, where officials are putting a 41-mile detour around a 65-foot stretch of construction work. …The small section of road A352 in Godmanstone, Dorset, will be closed Monday through Friday while construction crews work on a new sewage system… The detour is estimated to take an hour to complete. The closed portion of the road would take just over two seconds to travel at the 30 mph speed limit. …The council acknowledged that most residents will ignore the lengthy detour and use smaller roads to get around the construction work. Anyone caught using the closed stretch of road will be fined $1,291.

A few years ago, a clever entrepreneur in the United Kingdom dealt with a similar detour by building a private toll road.

I don’t know if such an option exists in this case, but I can state with considerable confidence that this impossibly inconvenient detour wouldn’t be an option if a private road company was making a sewage repair.

Why? Because private companies cater to customers.

Which is a good excuse to re-share this classic scene from Ghostbusters.

Amen.

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According to the union bosses at the National Education Association, November 18-22 is National Education Week and a “wonderful opportunity to celebrate public education.”

I care about facts and I care about kids, and all the evidence shows that government schools do a terrible job. So, instead of celebrating, I’m going to focus this week on government’s destructive impact.

Let’s start with this stunning visual from Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute. As you can see, the main takeaways are that costs have soared and bureaucracy has expanded.

And if you look at this chart, you’ll see that test scores have been flat.

Indeed, the unambiguous conclusion is that taxpayers are being asked to cough up ever-growing amounts of cash. Yet we never see any improvements in the quality of government schooling.

Indeed, an article in National Review explains that all this money and this bureaucracy has produced a negative rate of return

A Nation at Risk…revealed, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an education system plagued by “low standards, lack of purpose, ineffective use of resources, and a failure to challenge students to push performance to the boundaries of individual ability.” …Since then the nation has devoted a great deal of attention to getting education right. To little avail. …The results of the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)…, released this month, are dismal. Fewer than half of students are rated “proficient” in each of these subjects.

But it’s not just folks on the right who think the current system is a failure.

An article in left-of-center Vox is even more dour about the effectiveness of government schools.

…cast a cold look at the performance of schools… Consider the trends: Since 2005, SAT reading scores have dropped by 14 points. A writing component was added to the SAT in 2006, and scores have dropped every year since then except for two years when they were flat. Math scores for 2015 were the lowest in 20 years. …On the ACT’s measure of “college readiness” in math, English, reading, and science, slightly more than one-third of test takers met the benchmarks in three subjects, while another one-third did not meet any(!) of the benchmarks. …According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams (the “Nation’s Report Card,” administered by the Education Department’s National Center for Educational Statistics), only one-quarter of 12th-graders are proficient in civics, one-fifth in geography, just over one-third (37 percent) in reading, one-fifth (22 percent) in science, and one-eighth (12 percent) in US history. Only one-quarter of them reach proficiency in math. …At the same time, we have another discrepancy, outcomes versus public school funding. …Adjusted for inflation, the national average for per-pupil spending rose steadily…the cost-benefit numbers continue to look bleak.

The fundamental problem is that teacher unions are in bed with politicians.

This doesn’t just mean that government schools are needlessly expensive (and they are). It also means that the government monopoly primarily exists as a tool to serve bureaucracy rather than students.

Consider these scholarly findings.

Does collective bargaining by teachers help or hurt students?Two Cornell academics— Michael Lovenheim, an associate professor of policy analysis and management, and Alexander Willén, a doctoral student—have recently completed a study that tries to answer it. In “A Bad Bargain: How teacher collective bargaining affects students’ employment and earnings later in life,” the professors conclude: “We find strong evidence that teacher collective bargaining has a negative effect on students’ earnings as adults.” …Students who spent all 12 years of their elementary and secondary education in schools with mandatory collective bargain earned $795 less per year as adults than their peers who weren’t in such schools. They also worked on average a half hour less per week, were 0.9% less likely to be employed, and were in occupations requiring lower skills. The authors found that these add up to a large overall loss of $196 billion per year…collective bargaining may be profitable for the teachers and staff of public schools, but the price is being paid by the students.

Washington-driven policies certainly haven’t helped. Bush’s so-called No Child Left Behind scheme failed, and the same is true for Obama’s Common Core.

Indeed, this article from the Federalist documents the failure of Obama’s approach.

…the Obama administration lured states into adopting Common Core sight unseen, with promises it would improve student achievement. Like President Obama’s other big promises — “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” — this one’s been proven a scam. …Race to the Top was a $4 billion money pot inside the 2009 stimulus that helped bribe states into Common Core. …Are American children increasingly prepared…? We’re actually seeing the opposite. They’re increasingly less prepared. And there’s mounting evidence that Common Core deserves some of the blame. …ACT scores released earlier this month show that students’ math achievement is at a 20-year low. The latest English ACT scores are slightly down since 2007, and students’ readiness for college-level English was at its lowest level since ACT’s creators began measuring that item…the latest round of international tests…showed U.S. fourth graders declining on reading achievement. …Common Core sucked all the energy, money, and motivation right out of desperately needed potential reforms to U.S. public schools for a decade, and for nothing. It’s more money right down our nation’s gigantic debt hole, another generation lost to sickening ignorance, another set of corrupt bureaucrats‘ careers and bank accounts built out of the wreckage of American minds.

We can also see the dismal impact of bigger budgets by looking at experiences in various cities.

Throwing more money at the government monopoly didn’t work in New York City.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is canceling one of his signature education initiatives, acknowledging that despite spending $773 million he was unable to turn around many long-struggling public schools in three years after decades of previous interventions had also failed. …the program has been plagued by bureaucratic confusion and uneven academic results… The question of how to fix broken schools is a great unknown in education…no large school system has cracked the code, despite decades of often costly attempts. …the program was based on the union-friendly theory that struggling schools need more resources.

(For some very grim first-hand accounts of New York City’s government schools, click here, here, and here.)

It didn’t work in Newark.

Booker pitched Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that, with $100 million, they “could flip a whole city!” In September 2010, the troika appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s television show to present and accept the gift. For education reformers convinced that poverty could be solved given the will and the money, it was a dream come true. …the reformers’ dreams turned into a political nightmare. …Hopes for a game-changing teacher contract were quickly dashed, as reformers learned that teacher tenure protections were enshrined in state law. …Newark public schools spend $19,650 per pupil, but only $9,604 reaches the classroom.

And it didn’t work in Denver.

Denver’s once-celebrated ProComp pay system…was jointly developed by the DCTA and Denver Public Schools in 2005. …Back then, ProComp was heralded as a pioneering step forward on pay-for-performance/merit pay… The only problem? This narrative is bunk. For all the talk about “merit” and “performance,” ProComp is almost wholly devoid of any links between pay and teacher performance. …ProComp is mostly designed to reward the usual credentialism… Denver’s situation is so noteworthy because Denver is no laggard. Indeed, for many years, it has been celebrated as a “model” district by reformers. So it’s disheartening how little progress the city has actually made.

And you won’t be surprised to learn it didn’t work in D.C.

The much-celebrated success of education reform in the nation’s capital turns out to have been a lie. …Education reformers used to celebrate D.C.’s dramatic decline in school suspensions. Then a Washington Post investigation revealed that it was fake; administrators had merely taken suspensions off the books. The same reformers used to celebrate D.C.’s sharp increase in high-school graduations. Then an NPR investigation revealed that it, too, was fake; almost half of students who missed more than half the year graduated. …consider Abdullah Zaki, who back in 2013 was named DCPS principal of the year. He was just placed on administrative leave (not fired, mind you) after an audit revealed that 4,000 changes were made to 118 students’ attendance records at his high school. …consider Yetunde Reeves…who took Ballou High School from 57 percent graduation to 100 percent college acceptance in just one year. She was placed on administrative leave (again, not fired) after NPR reported teacher allegations that she leveraged the teacher-evaluation system to coerce teachers to go along with her scheme.

I realize I’m being repetitive, but more money for the government monopoly also didn’t work in Providence.

Rhode Island’s politicians this summer made a show of decrying the shameful condition of Providence public schools…peeling lead paint, vermin, brown water, leaking sewage—from a Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy 93-page report on Providence schools… Student test scores are the worst in Rhode Island and lower than districts in other states with similar demographics. …“the district’s performance is continuing to decline despite increased interventions and funding.” Providence’s school budget has increased by nearly a quarter since 2011.

You can also click here to read about failure in Patterson, N.J., and Los Angeles, CA. The bottom line is that more spending does not lead to better student performance.

It’s also nauseating that government schools try to brainwash kids with leftist pabulum.

Consider what’s happening in California.

California’s Education Department has issued an “Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum”…written by an advisory board of teachers, academics and bureaucrats. It’s as bad as you imagine. …The document is filled with fashionable academic jargon like “positionalities,” “hybridities,” “nepantlas” and “misogynoir.” It includes faddish social-science lingo like “cis-heteropatriarchy”… It is difficult to comprehend the depth and breadth of the ideological bias and misrepresentations without reading the whole curriculum—something few will want to do. Begin with economics. Capitalism is described as a “form of power and oppression,” alongside “patriarchy,” “racism,” “white supremacy” and “ableism.” …Housing policy gets the treatment. The curriculum describes subprime loans as an attack on home buyers with low incomes rather than a misguided attempt by the government to help such home buyers. …This curriculum explicitly aims at encouraging students to become “agents of change, social justice organizers and advocates.”

Seattle is also looking to get in the business of dishing out propaganda.

Seattle’s public-school district has proposed a new math curriculum that would teach its students all about how math has been “appropriated” — and how it “continues to be used to oppress and marginalize people and communities.” …the social-justice approach to teaching math has officially entered the mainstream (and taxpayer-funded!) arena. …this approach to teaching math will only end up harming the very groups it claims it champions. …The minority students, the members of the very groups that this curriculum presumably aims to aid, are actually going to be learning less math than they would have without it — because they will be spending some of that class time learning about how math’s racism has hurt them.

Wow. No wonder young people are sympathetic to socialism. They’re being spoon-fed crazy ideas.

To round out our discussion, here’s a video from Reason.

So what’s the solution?

Writing for Real Clear Politics, Heather Wilhelm says we need to give up on the government monopoly.

…there might not be much left to do but vote with your feet. The term “Go Galt,” which comes from Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” refers to citizens retreating from a political system that basically takes their money and otherwise does them no good. …odds are the public school system isn’t doing you any favors. If you’re a poor kid in the inner city, the damage and injustice is obvious… “If you send your kid to a private school,” Slate’s Allison Benedikt wrote in a 2013 essay-gone-viral, you are “a bad person … ruining one of our nation’s most essential institutions.” News flash: The public school system is already a mess, it’s getting messier, and it can only improve the old-fashioned way — through competition.

If you prefer, this quote from Thomas Sowell is spot on.

The bottom line is that government has created a bad system. It doesn’t matter that most teachers have noble intentions. It doesn’t matter that most kids are capable of higher achievement. Monopolies simply don’t perform, especially when mixed with special-interest politics.

It goes without saying that shutting down the Department of Education would be a positive step. But that’s only a partial solution. We’ll explore the real answer tomorrow.

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I’ve periodically opined about why politicians should not try to control people’s behavior with discriminatory taxes, such as the ones being imposed on soda.

And I’ve cited some examples of how these taxes backfire.

If the following headlines are any indication, we can add Philadelphia to that list.

For instances, this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Or this story from the local CBS affiliate.

These examples reinforce my view that it is not a good idea to let meddling politicians impose more taxes in an effort to control people’s behavior.

Some of my left-leaning friends periodically remind me, however, that there’s a difference between anecdotes and evidence. There’s a lot of truth to that cautionary observation.

To be sure, I could simply respond by saying a pattern is evident when a couple of anecdotes turns into dozens of anecdotes. And when dozens become hundreds, surely it’s possible to say the pattern shows causality.

That being said, it is good to have rigorous, statistics-based analysis if we really want to convince skeptics.

So let’s look at the results of some new academic research from scholars at Stanford, Northwestern, and the University of Minnesota. We’ll start with the abstract, which nicely summarizes their findings about the impact of Philadelphia’s big soda tax.

We analyze the impact of a tax on sweetened beverages, often referred to as a “soda tax,” using a unique data-set of prices, quantities sold and nutritional information across several thousand taxed and untaxed beverages for a large set of stores in Philadelphia and its surrounding area. We find that the tax is passed through at a rate of 75-115%, leading to a 30-40% price increase. Demand in the taxed area decreases dramatically by 42% in response to the tax. There is no significant substitution to untaxed beverages (water and natural juices), but cross-shopping at stores outside of Philadelphia completely o↵sets the reduction in sales within the taxed area. As a consequence, we find no significant reduction in calorie and sugar intake.

Here are some of their conclusions.

We draw several lessons about the effectiveness of local sweetened-beverage taxes from these analyses. First, the tax was ineffective at reducing consumption of unhealthy products. Second, in terms of revenue generation, the tax was only partly effective due to consumers substituting to stores outside of Philadelphia. Third, low income households are less likely to engage in cross-shopping, and instead are more likely to continue to purchase taxed products at a higher price at stores in Philadelphia. The lower propensity for low income households to avoid the tax through cross-shopping leads to a relatively larger tax burden for those households. In summary, the tax does not lead to a shift in consumption towards healthier products, it affects low income households more severely, and it is limited in its ability to raise revenue.

If you’re wondering why consumers responded so strongly, here’s a chart from the study showing the price difference after the tax was imposed.

The bottom numbers in Figure 3 show that some sales still occurred in the city, but a persistent gap between city sales and suburban sales appeared.

And here’s what happened to sales inside the city (taxed) and outside the city (untaxed).

Wow. This data makes me wonder if suburban sellers will start contributing to the Philadelphia politicians who have generated this windfall?

Others have noticed how the tax is hurting rather than helping.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the failure of Philly’s soda tax.

When Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to pass a soda tax in 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney said it would improve public health while funding universal pre-K. Two years in, the policy hasn’t delivered on that elite ideological goal. But the tax has come at the expense of working people… On Jan. 2, Brown’s Super Stores announced the closure of a ShopRite on Haverford Avenue. The supermarket is close to the city limit, and customers discovered they could avoid the soda tax by shopping outside Philly. …the once-profitable store began losing about $1 million a year. …That means fewer opportunities for workers with a criminal record. Mr. Brown’s supermarkets employ more than 600 of them, with the majority in Philadelphia. Some of the ex-cons have become his most-valued employees.

And Kyle Smith explained in National Review how the tax backfired.

Philadelphia’s outlandish soda tax is what Democratic-party politics looks like when it lets its freak flag fly. So many classic elements are there: (failed) social engineering and “think of the children!” on one side, paid for with a punitive tax on poor people and destroyed businesses, which means destroyed jobs, which in turn means lives upended. …Now that beer is, in some cases, cheaper than soda in Philadelphia, alcohol sales are up sharply. …the total loss attributable to the tax in sales of all items was $300,000 a month per store. Other, untaxed drinks also suffered sales declines within the city, suggesting people were simply saving up their shopping trips for when they left town.

I don’t feel compelled to add much to what’s been cited.

Though I will cite a headline from the Seattle Times to reinforce one of the points in the academic study about consumers bearing the cost of the tax rather than the soda companies.

And my one modest contribution to all this analysis is this comparison of the winners and loser from Philadelphia’s new tax.

For what it’s worth, similar comparisons could be developed for just about every action by every government. Academics call this “public choice” while ordinary people realize it’s just common sense.

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My previous columns about the Transportation Security Administration have focused on bureaucratic inefficiency and incompetence (as well as laughable examples of “security theater”).

Today, let’s take advantage of the shutdown and focus instead on why TSA should be disbanded so that airports can use more efficient private security firms.

An article in Reason gives some important details on why privatized airport screening is the best way of making lemonade out of shutdown lemons.

…the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported that 10 percent of its agents were absent from their posts, up from three percent in the same time period last year. …The result has been longer wait times, closed security checkpoints… While it’s difficult to feel any sympathy at all for the professional privacy violators at the TSA… It’s also an unfortunate consequence of federalizing so much of crucial airport operations, says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation expert… There are already a number of airports in the country that have contracted out their passenger screenings to private companies through the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program (SPP), helping to immunize them from the effects of the shutdown. This includes San Francisco International Airport (the busiest airport to participate in the SPP program), where some 1,200 privately employed security screeners have continued to be paid despite all the budget drama in Washington. …Contracting out these services would ensure that they don’t come to a screeching halt every time the government shuts down. Putting that distance between the government and security and safety services would also improve oversight.

For all intents and purposes, the folks at Reason want to make a virtue out of necessity. The government shutdown is making air travel an even bigger hassle, so why “let a crisis go to waste” when this is a great opportunity to push for sweeping reform?

As a frequent flyer, I say Amen.

Here’s a good example. Because of my support for the Georgia Bulldogs, I have to endure the Atlanta airport several times each year. It is one of the worst airports I’ve ever experienced.

It’s so bad that the city’s politicians are exploring private security.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed…said he wants to take a closer look at privatizing security screening at the Atlanta airport to address the issue of long lines. …Southwell…earlier this year sent a letter to the Transportation Security Administration, raising the idea of privatizing security screening at the Atlanta airport if long lines were not addressed. …Reed said Monday that the city has been in conversations with San Francisco International Airport, which privatized its security screening. “We’re going to explore that and see if it’s the best decision,” Reed said. “The lines are very concerning to me…. We’re going to do every single thing we can do, and it’s going to have urgency to it.”

It’s quite possible that Atlanta’s politicians are merely bluffing and that their real goal is to simply get more TSA bureaucrats, but I hope this is a serious initiative and that Atlanta escapes the TSA.

Experts who study this issue says private contractors are both more efficient and safer.

For those who want to understand the background on this issue, here are a couple of very good articles.

The first piece, from Skift, explain how we got to the current situation.

Airports could actually do something about the hated agency, and a few are weighing a radical option: firing TSA screeners and hiring private replacements. The frustration over queue times—which have topped two and three hours at airports in Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte and Denver—has prompted new attention by airport executives to the TSA’s little-known  Screening Partnership Program, in which the federal agency solicits bids for a contractor to handle airport screening. The contractors must follow the same security protocols as federal officers, with similar wages and benefits. At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, …administrators are “discussing a variety of options,” including replacing the TSA with a private contractor, said Deborah Ostreicher, assistant aviation director at the airport. Sky Harbor officials have considered their TSA service “less than satisfactory for many months,” she said. The Phoenix airport is a hub for American Airlines Group Inc., which has blamed the TSA delays across the country for causing more than 70,000 passengers to miss flights so far this year ….The former general manager of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport  wrote a letter to the TSA in February warning that the world’s busiest airport was “conducting exhaustive research” into privatized security screening.

There are 22 airports that already have opted out.

The power to replace TSA employees with private screeners dates to the birth of the agency in 2002, shortly after the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. Congress designated five airports at the time to offer screening by private firms as a way to compare the federal approach. Another 17 smaller airports have since joined the original five. The most recent to make the switch to private security screeners, Punta Gorda Airport in Florida, expects to finish the transition next week. San Francisco International is the largest U.S. airport with private screeners. Now other large airports are researching private-sector alternatives.

One of the benefits of privatization is that contractors have more flexibility to do a better job.

…airports that have switched to private firms say they consider the contractors more responsive and better able to adjust staffing to address traffic surges and lulls. …said Brian Sprenger, director at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana, which began private screening in 2014. “We now have a little bit more say in ensuring that the customer service side is a little more elevated in the process.”

Though TSA is reluctant to allow more airports to escape.

Christopher Bidwell, vice president of security for Airports Council International-North America, faulted the TSA in the past for making it difficult for airports to switch to private screeners, regularly denying airports’ applications for the program. …Any airport wishing to switch must be pass a security and cost analysis by the TSA to demonstrate that hiring private contractors will not harm the agency’s budget or compromise security.

A column in City Journal adds some more historical background, noting that the failures on 9/11 were the result of government guidelines.

Even by Washington standards, the creation of the TSA was a blunder of colossal proportions. Experts from around the world warned at the time—in 2001—that federalizing airport security would be ruinously expensive, inefficient, and unsafe. Israel and many European countries had already rejected similar systems. …Democrats who controlled the Senate were especially eager to gain campaign contributions from tens of thousands of new federal employees. …Legislators and bureaucrats scapegoated the private security companies that had been screening passengers for the airlines. Citing the lapse in security on September 11… It was the federal government, not the private screeners, that set the policy allowing small knives and box cutters to be brought onto planes. Federal guidelines prevented airlines from arming pilots and reinforcing cockpit doors. The feds also stopped the private security firms from using an existing system to identify high-risk passengers, which would have singled out some of the hijackers for special screening.

Here’s some great data on the superiority of private airport screeners.

…the TSA blames its failures on lack of funding. But it’s already spending way too much, as demonstrated in a congressional study comparing TSA screeners in Los Angeles with non-TSA screeners in San Francisco, one of the few airports allowed to run its own system, contracting with a private company. If LAX switched to the San Francisco model, the study concluded, it could cut its screening costs by more than 40 percent. The San Francisco private company’s screeners received the same salary and benefits as TSA screeners, but they were so much better trained and deployed that each one processed 65 percent more passengers than a TSA screener in Los Angeles. They apparently enjoyed better working conditions, too, because they were much less likely to quit their jobs. And in tests by federal investigators, they were three times better at detecting contraband.

Unfortunately, TSA has institutional hostility to private screeners.

Those results, as well as other research showing that private screeners get better ratings from passengers and airport managers, inspired congressional Republicans to pass legislation giving more airports the option of switching to private contractors. But, as anyone could have predicted in 2001, it’s not easy to get rid of a federal monopoly, especially now that unionized screeners can intimidate local politicians—as they did in blocking an attempt to replace them at Sacramento’s airport. Even if local officials stand up to the union, they still need to get permission from the TSA.

And, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, many politicians don’t care about the private sector’s superior performance because they’re more intreested in expanding bureaucracy.

TSA runs a Screening Partnership Program, which in theory allows an airport to “opt out” of TSA and bring in a certified private security firm. In a 2011 report, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure compared Los Angeles data with a private operation running San Francisco’s airport. A contract screener in San Fran moved through 65% more passengers than TSA employees in L.A. But only a handful of airports participate, as TSA chooses the security company and micromanages the contract. That isn’t a partnership. Congress could stipulate that an airport manage its own bidding and operations; the government would remain a safety regulator. …Congress nationalized airport screening after 9/ll, as Democrats saw a political opening to add thousands of new union workers. But after nearly a decade and a half, TSA’s legend of incompetence grows.

Sadly, growing incompetence is not matched by growing pressure for privatization.

But hopefully that will change.

Let’s close with a rather humorous Venn diagram.

P.S. For more TSA humor, see this, this, this, thisthis, and this.

P.P.S. In addition to letting airports escape the TSA, we should copy Canada and achieve better results at lower cost by privatizing air traffic control

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What’s the most inefficient and wasteful part of the federal government?

It’s impossible to answer that question without greater detail.

Are we supposed to identify the worst cabinet-level department? If that’s the case, then bureaucracies such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development or the Department of Education would be high on the list.

Or are we supposed to identify the most counter-productive activity of Washington? If that’s the case, then agriculture subsidies, job-training programs. or subsidies for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development come to mind.

But what if we’re simply asked to identify the dumbest single thing our overlords in D.C. have financed? That would generate a very long (and ever-growing) list of options. Today, we’re going to look at an example.

Here’s a story that perfectly symbolizes the waste, ineffectiveness, and corruption of Washington.

Customs and Border Protection hired Accenture to hire and recruit 7,500 agents within the next five years. But just 10 months into the contract, only two accepted job offers have been processed, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General. Accenture, a global management consulting company headquartered in Ireland, was awarded a $297 million contract to achieve the hiring goal. But the report says that $13.6 million has been spent in the last 10 months, and that CBP “risks wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on a hastily approved contract that is not meeting its proposed performance expectations.” …CBP ultimately agreed to the four recommendations in the report, including that the CBP commissioner should assess Accenture’s performance.

This is outrageous on several levels.

  • First, federal employees make much more than folks in the private sector, so I’m mystified why it’s necessary to spend any money to attract applicants.
  • Second, why did Uncle Sam sign a contract to pay Accenture nearly $40,000 for each CBP agent hired, assuming the company fully delivered?
  • Third, it goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyhow) that it is absurd that taxpayers to date have paid $6.8 million each for two new CBP bureaucrats.

Sadly, there won’t be any consequences for this boondoggle, at least if history is any guide.

Nobody at the CBP will get fired.

Nobody at the CBP will be demoted.

Nobody at the CBP will lose a bonus.

Simply stated, people in the government don’t care whether our money is being wasted.

Before concluding, we need to add an additional reason to be outraged.

  • Fourth, this is an all-too-typical example of government contracting, with a “beltway bandit” scamming the system for unearned riches.

Maybe I should create a Waste Hall of Fame to augment the Moocher Hall of Fame and Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

In addition to this squalid Accenture contract, other examples could be the $15 million scam to improve the IRS’s image, the State Department paying 35 times the market price for some Kindles, bonuses for VA bureaucrats who left veterans to die on waiting lists, gold-plated renovations for the CFPB headquarters, and $6,000-a-piece interviews about erectile dysfunction.

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Given the routine corruption and reckless spending in Washington, I frequently get asked how I keep my sanity.

It’s possible, as some of my friends argue, that I’m not actually sane. That would explain why I try to put my finger in the dyke of big government as more and more new leaks keep developing. Only a crazy person would fight against big government when politicians and bureaucrats have a “public choice” incentive to do the wrong thing.

Moreover, if “victory” is restoring the kind of limited government envisioned by the Founding Fathers, then there’s a 99.99 percent chance all my efforts will be wasted.

But allow me to offer a reason for optimism. What if we decide that “victory” is simply hindering the growth of government so that the private sector has enough “breathing room” to continue making our lives richer and better?

That’s the basic message of Human Progress, Marian Tupy’s website showing how the world is constantly improving. And we see good long-run developments from Economic Freedom of the World.

In other words, we don’t need to achieve Libertarian Nirvana. We just need to throw sand in the gears of government.

And that’s why I don’t think my life is pointless. To be sure, I haven’t given up on my dream of replacing the odious internal revenue code with a flat tax, but if the only thing I achieve is to protect America from a value-added tax, I’ll nonetheless go to my grave feeling like I did something very valuable for my country.

But there’s something else that keeps me sane. I also enjoy laughing at government. I regularly write about “great moments” in government and point out that incompetence and stupidity is a regular feature of the federal government, of state governments, and of local governments.

And I also enjoy mocking the spectacular screw-ups and bizarre blunders that are a feature of foreign governments as well.

And that’s our topic for today. So let’s start with this story from India about a very unusual example of vote buying.

A south Indian state has become possibly the first in the world to offer publicly-funded breast implants, its health minister arguing, “Why should beauty treatment not be available to the poor?” The Tamil Nadu state health department on Wednesday launched the free service at a clinic in the capital Chennai. …The clinic had already been providing breast reconstruction surgery for cancer patients, but was now extending the service for people who wished to alter the size of their breasts for other health or cosmetic reasons. The head of plastic surgery at the clinic, Dr V Ramadevi, said some of her patients…sought to augment or shrink their breasts for a boost in confidence. “There is a psychological benefit. Many girls who have larger breasts don’t like to go out. There is no reason this surgery should be restricted from the poor.” The procedure would also be available to men, she said. …Tamil Nadu’s government is known for its largesse, particularly under former chief minister Jayalalithaa, who pioneered free food canteens and doled out wedding jewellery and venues to the poor.

I’ve previously reported on crazy examples of government policy in India, so I suppose this story shouldn’t surprise me.

And since taxpayer-financed cosmetic surgery exists in the United Kingdom and the United States, Indian taxpayers can take solace that they’re not alone.

Now let’s go to Belgium, where there’s apparently a problem with rogue royalty.

Prince Laurent of Belgium has had his monthly allowance docked for a year, after a vote by the country’s federal parliament. The sanction was imposed after the prince attended a Chinese embassy reception last year without government permission, in full naval uniform. Lawmakers voted for a 15% cut to his €307,000 (£270,000; $378,000) annual allowance. …Prince Laurent, who is the younger brother of King Philippe, wrote a lengthy emotional letter to parliament before the vote on his endowment, arguing that, as a royal, he is unable to work for a living. He described the vote as “the trial of my life” and said it would “likely cause me serious prejudice” if MPs went against him. …The prince, 54, said the royal family had obstructed his attempts to be financially independent. …Lawmakers ultimately rejected his claim that no citizen of their country had been so exploited, voting to cut his stipend by 93 to 23 votes. …He had previously been criticised for attending meetings in Libya when the late Muammar Gaddafi was still in power, and making an unsanctioned 2011 trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former Belgian colony.

I suppose this is a feel-good story in that politicians actually voted to cut spending.

Though we should never forget that this is the country where the public sector consumes half of economic output but officials actually complained that it’s hard to fight terrorism because of “the small size of the Belgian government.”

Now it’s time for ar stop in Malaysia, where corrupt politicians spent the country into debt and now they want taxpayers to voluntarily cough up extra money.

When Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad unexpectedly won his bid for office in May, he pledged to…get the country’s $250 billion worth of debt under control. And this week, he announced the government had found a way to at least get started: crowdfunding. Within 24 hours, the “Malaysia Hope Fund” raised almost $2 million, the BBC reported. “The rakyat (people) voluntarily want to share their earnings with the government to help ease the burden,” the finance ministry said in a statement, announcing that it would be accepting donations to a special fund set up to help relieve the country’s debt. …The crowdfunding idea started with a 27-year-old named Nik Shazarina Bakti, who recently launched a private crowdfunding initiative to help relieve Malaysia’s debt.  She raised around $3,500 before the government stepped in. In a sense, the effort is a version of what she said Malaysians did during their struggle for independence from Britain, when they donated jewelry, money and valuables. It’s also similar to what South Korea did as it attempted to pull itself out of economic crisis in the late 1990s, and regular citizens lined up to donate their most prized possessions to the government, including wedding rings and trophies.

Hmmm…, $2 million raised to pay off $250 billion of debt. Methinks they won’t meet their goal.

Though this story reminds me that politicians like Elizabeth Warren want the rest of us to pay more tax, yet she conveniently doesn’t participate in her state’s version of voluntary crowdfunding.

Here’s an amazing story from Romania.

He’s a dead man walking and the court ruling is final. A Romanian court has rejected a man’s claim that he is still very much alive, after he was officially registered as deceased, the Associated Press reports. Constantin Reliu, 63, lost his case in Vasului because he appealed too late on the ruling, a court spokeswoman said Friday. The story goes that Reliu had traveled to Turkey in 1992 for work and lost contact with his family. Since his wife had not heard from her husband in years, she acquired a death certificate for him in 2016, the AP reports. However, since Reliu was discovered by Turkish authorities this year with expired papers, he was deported back to Romania. That’s when he discovered he had been declared dead.

Wow. I thought American courts generated some outlandish decisions, but this belies belief.

Last but not least, here’s a report from Spain that should leave you skeptical about the efficacy of additional NATO spending.

An attempt to deploy a new submarine for Spain’s navy has run aground again, after it emerged it cannot fit in its dock, Spanish media report. The S-80 boat was redesigned at great expense after an earlier mistake meant it had problems floating, and it was lengthened to correct the issue. Spanish newspaper El País now reports that after the changes, the docks at Cartagena can no longer fit the vessel. The cost for each has almost doubled, the newspaper said. …The original problem with the submarine dates back to 2013, when it was discovered that it was about 100 tons heavier than it needed to be. That caused a problem for its buoyancy – so it could submerge, but might not come back up again. A former Spanish official told the Associated Press at the time that someone had put a decimal point in the wrong place, and “nobody paid attention to review the calculations”. …the base at Cartagena will have to be dredged and reshaped to accommodate the now-floating longer vessel, the El País report said. Spain’s Defence Minister Margarita Robles, speaking on Spanish radio, admitted that “there have been deficiencies in the project”.

Call me crazy, but “deficiencies” doesn’t really describe what happened. Almost makes the Pentagon look frugal. Almost makes the German intelligence service look competent.

For previous examples of great moments in foreign government, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

P.S. In other words, my “government in cartoons” collection applies equally no matter where you travel.

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I try not to pay much attention to the staffing decisions of President Trump’s “Boston-phone-book presidency.” Yes, I realize those choices are important, but my focus is policy.

As such, I don’t have any strong opinions on the ouster of David Shulkin, the now-former Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But I definitely have something to say about whether America’s military vets should be consigned to an inefficient (at best) and costly form of government-run healthcare.

We should never forget that the VA put vets on secret – and sometimes fatal – waiting lists. And then the bureaucrats awarded themselves big bonuses. That is horribly disgusting.

By the way, the VA scandals haven’t stopped.

Here are some excerpts from a report in USA Today.

A USA TODAY investigation found the VA — the nation’s largest employer of health care workers — has for years concealed mistakes and misdeeds by staff members entrusted with the care of veterans. …In some cases, agency managers do not report troubled practitioners to the National Practitioner Data Bank, making it easier for them to keep working with patients elsewhere. The agency also failed to ensure VA hospitals reported disciplined providers to state licensing boards. In other cases, veterans’ hospitals signed secret settlement deals with dozens of doctors, nurses and health care workers that included promises to conceal serious mistakes — from inappropriate relationships and breakdowns in supervision to dangerous medical errors – even after forcing them out of the VA. …The VA has been under fire in recent years for serious problems, including revelations of life-threatening delays in treating veterans in 2014 and efforts to cover up shortfalls by falsifying records.

So what’s the answer? How can we fix a dysfunctional bureaucracy?

The honest answer is that we can’t. Inefficiency, sloth, and failure are inherent parts of government (yes, the free market also is far from perfect, but at least there’s a profit-and-loss incentive that rewards good firms and punishes bad ones).

So it’s time to get the private sector involved. Though I noted in the TV discussion that not all privatization is created equal. If the government simply contracts with selected healthcare providers, that could be a recipe for cronyism since politicians would try to help their campaign contributors.

I much prefer the advance-funding model developed by Chris Preble and Michael Cannon, which would give active-duty service members added money, up front, to purchase a benefits package to cover future costs related to their military service.

For what it’s worth, former VA Secretary Shulkin, in a recent column for the New York Times, was very critical of privatization. But it isn’t clear whether he was referring to the contracted-out version or the advance-funding version.

I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans. …individuals, who seek to privatize veteran health care as an alternative to government-run V.A. care, unfortunately fail to engage in realistic plans regarding who will care for the more than 9 million veterans who rely on the department for life-sustaining care. …privatization leading to the dismantling of the department’s extensive health care system is a terrible idea.

But even if you accept that he’s criticizing the less-preferred from or privatization, he definitely likes throwing rocks in a giant glass house considering the VA received ever-larger amounts of money and generated a horrible track record.

As I said at the end of my interview, a private healthcare provider might get a contract via cronyism, but it still would be a better option for vets since that company presumably wouldn’t let them die on secret waiting lists.

And since the advance-funding option obviously would be for future veterans, we do need a better market-based approach for current veterans.

I’ll close by sharing a Politico article on the infamous boondoggle that got Shulkin in trouble.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin’s chief of staff altered an email to create a pretext for taxpayers to pay for Shulkin’s wife to accompany him on a 10-day trip to Europe last summer, the agency’s inspector general reported… The report by Inspector General Michael Missal also claims that Shulkin improperly accepted a gift of Wimbledon tickets during the trip, and a VA employee’s time was misused planning tourist activities for Shulkin and his entourage. …the VA paid for Shulkin’s wife’s airfare, which cost more than $4,300.

This obviously does not reflect well on Shulkin. But the real scandal almost certainly is that the trip to Europe occurred. We don’t know how many bureaucrats participated and what supposedly was going to be achieved by this junked, but I’m guessing the total tab was enormous and the total value was zero. The fact that taxpayers also were saddled with the cost of Shulkin’s wife’s trip merely added insult to injury.

P.S. Since money isn’t unlimited, I think the focus should be on helping veterans injured in battle rather than providing lavish benefits to anyone and everyone who ever wore a uniform.

P.P.S. I mentioned in the interview that the VA is run for the benefit of its bureaucrats. If you doubt me, check out this double-dipping bureaucrat with the triple-dipping scam.

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The story of the private sector is that competition generates ever-more output in ways that bring ever-higher living standards to ever-greater numbers of people.

By contrast, the story of the government is inefficiency and waste as interest groups figure out how to grab ever-larger amounts of unmerited goodies, often while doing less and less.

In some cases, where government is doing bad things (stealing property, subsidizing big corporations, fleecing poor people, etc), I actually favor inefficiency.

Sadly, the government seems to be most inefficient in areas where we all hope for good results. Education is a powerful (and sad) example.

A story in the LA Weekly is a perfect illustration of this phenomenon.

A little more than a decade ago, something unexpected happened. The district’s enrollment, which peaked in 2004 at just under 750,000, began to drop. …Today, LAUSD’s enrollment is around 514,000, a number that the district estimates will fall below half a million by 2018.

Anyone want to guess whether this means less spending?

Of course not.

L.A. Unified’s costs have not gone down. They’ve gone up. This year’s $7.59 billion budget is half a billion dollars more than last year’s. …Today, the district has more than 60,000 employees, fewer than half of whom are teachers. …LAUSD’s administrative staff had grown 22 percent over the previous five years. Over that same period of time, the number of teachers had dropped by 9 percent.

If these trends continue, maybe we’ll get an example of “peak bureaucracy,” with a giant workforce that does absolutely nothing!

Based on his famous chart, the late Andrew Coulson probably wouldn’t be too surprised by that outcome.

There’s also lots of waste and inefficiency when Uncle Sam gets involved. With great fanfare, President Obama spent buckets of money to supposedly boost government schools. The results were predictably bad.

It was such a failure than even a story in the Washington Post admitted the money was wasted (in other words, there wasn’t enough lipstick to make the pig look attractive).

One of the Obama administration’s signature efforts in education, which pumped billions of federal dollars into overhauling the nation’s worst schools, failed to produce meaningful results, according to a federal analysis. Test scores, graduation rates and college enrollment were no different in schools that received money through the School Improvement Grants program — the largest federal investment ever targeted to failing schools — than in schools that did not. …The School Improvement Grants program…received an enormous boost under Obama. The administration funneled $7 billion into the program between 2010 and 2015… Arne Duncan, Obama’s education secretary from 2009 to 2016, said his aim was to turn around 1,000 schools every year for five years. ..The school turnaround effort, he told The Washington Post days before he left office in 2016, was arguably the administration’s “biggest bet.”

It was a “bet,” but he used our money. And he lost. Or, to be more accurate, taxpayers lost. And children lost.

Some education experts say that the administration closed its eyes to mounting evidence about the program’s problems in its own interim evaluations, which were released in the years after the first big infusion of cash. …Smarick said he had never seen such a huge investment produce zero results. …Results from the School Improvement Grants have shored up previous research showing that pouring money into dysfunctional schools and systems does not work.

Indeed, I’ve seen this movie before. Many times. Bush’s no-bureaucrat-left-behind initiative flopped. Obama’s latest initiative flopped. Common Core also failed. Various schemes at the state level to dump more money into government schools also lead to failure. Local initiative to spend more don’t lead to good results, either.

Gee, it’s almost as if a social scientist (or anybody with a greater-than-room-temperature IQ) could draw a logical conclusion from these repeated failures.

And, to be fair, some folks on the left have begun to wake up. Consider this recent study by Jonathan Rothwell, published by Brookings, which has some very sobering findings.

…the productivity of the education sector depends on the relationship between how much it generates in value—learning, in this case—relative to its costs. Unfortunately, productivity is way down. …This weak performance is even more disturbing given that the U.S. spends more on education, on a per student basis, than almost any other country. So what’s going wrong? …In primary and secondary public education, where price increases have been less dramatic, there has been a decline in bureaucratic efficiency. The number of students for every district-level administrator fell from 519 in 1980 to 365 in 2012. Principals and assistant principals managed 382 students in 1980 but only 294 in 2012.

The conclusion is stark.

Declining education productivity disproportionately harms the poor. …unlike their affluent peers, low-income parents lack the resources to overcome weak quality by home-schooling their children or hiring private tutors. Over the last 30 to 40 years, the United States has invested heavily in education, with little to show for it. The result is a society with more inequality and less economic growth; a high price.

Incidentally, even private money is largely wasted when it goes into government schools. Facebook’s founder famously donated $100 million to Newark’s schools back in 2010.

So how did that work out? As a Washington Post columnist explained, the funds that went to government schools was basically money down the toilet.

It is a story of the earnest young billionaire whose conviction that the key to fixing schools is paying the best teachers well collided with the reality of seniority protections not only written into teacher contracts but also embedded in state law.

But there is a bit of good news. Some of the money helped enable charter schools.

there is a more optimistic way to interpret the Newark experience, much of which has to do with the success of the city’s fast-growing charter schools. …The reasons are obvious. Unencumbered by bureaucracy and legacy labor costs, charters can devote far more resources to students, providing the kind of wraparound services that students like Beyah need. An analysis by Advocates for Children of New Jersey noted “a substantial and persistent achievement gap” between students at charter and traditional public schools: “For example, while 71 percent of charter school students in Newark passed third-grade language arts tests in 2013-14 — higher than the state average of 66 percent — only 41 percent of students in Newark traditional public schools passed those tests.”

The Wall Street Journal also opined about this topic.

‘What happened with the $100 million that Newark’s schools got from Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg?” asks a recent headline. “Not much” is the short answer. …The Facebook founder negotiated his gift with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and then-Mayor Cory Booker in 2010, and it flowed into Newark’s public-school system shortly thereafter. The bulk of the funds supported consultants and the salaries and pensions of teachers and administrators, so the donation only reinforced the bureaucratic and political ills that have long plagued public education in the Garden State.

The editorial explains that this isn’t the first time a wealthy philanthropist squandered money on government schools.

In 1993, philanthropist Walter Annenberg sought to improve education by awarding $500 million to America’s public schools. …But the $1.1 billion in spending that resulted, thanks to matching grants, accomplished little. An assessment by the Consortium on Chicago School Research on the schools that received funds reached a dismal conclusion: “Findings from large-scale survey analyses, longitudinal field research, and student achievement test score analyses reveal that . . . there is little evidence of an overall Annenberg school improvement effect.” The report did not explain why the campaign failed, but the reason is fairly obvious: The funds wound up in the hands of the unions, administrators and political figures who created the problems in the first place.

Fortunately, not all rich people believe in wasting money. Some of them actually want to help kids succeed.

In 1998, John Walton and Ted Forstmann each gave $50 million to fund scholarships for low-income children to attend private schools. More than 140,000 students have attended schools with graduation and college matriculation rates that exceed 90% instead of going to the failing schools in their neighborhoods. Earlier this summer, hedge-fund manager John Paulson pledged $8.5 million to the Success Academy charter-school network, where 93% of students are proficient in math, compared with 35% of their traditional public-school peers. His gift will allow more such schools to open. The financier Stephen Schwarzman and his wife, Christine, a former attorney, donated $40 million to help endow the Inner-City Scholarship Fund, which provides financial aid to needy children attending Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New York.

Which is a good segue into the real lesson for today about the type of reforms that actually could boost education.

I’ve shared in the past very strong evidence about how school choice delivers better education results.

Which is what everyone should expect since competition is superior to monopoly.

Well, as explained in another Wall street Journal editorial, it also generates superior results at lower cost. Especially when you factor in the long-run benefits.

…a study shows that Milwaukee’s landmark voucher program will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. …the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a nonprofit that advocates for limited government and education reform, decided to look at the relative cost and benefits of choice schools. And, what do you know, it found that students participating in Milwaukee’s voucher program will provide the city, state and students nearly $500 million in economic benefits through 2035 thanks to higher graduation and lower crime rates. …More education translates into higher incomes, more tax revenue and a lower likelihood of reliance on government welfare or other payments. Meanwhile, greater economic opportunity also prevents young adults from turning to crime.

Wow. It’s not just that it costs less to educate children in private schools. There’s also a big long-run payoff from having more productive (and law-abiding) citizens.

That’s a real multiplier effect, unlike the nonsense we get from Keynesian stimulus schemes.

P.S. School choice doesn’t automatically mean every child will be an educational success, but evidence from SwedenChile, and the Netherlands shows good results after breaking up state-run education monopolies.

And there’s growing evidence that it also works in the limited cases where it exists in the United States.

P.P.S. Or we can just stick with the status quo, which involves spending more money, per student, than any other nation while getting dismal results.

P.P.P.S. This is a depressing post, so let’s close with a bit of humor showing the evolution of math lessons in government schools.

P.P.P.P.S. If you want some unintentional humor, the New York Times thinks that education spending has been reduced.

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