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Archive for the ‘Government stupidity’ Category

Time for a confession.

I routinely mock bureaucrats, but I don’t really think they are any worse than other people. Indeed, I have plenty of friends and acquaintances who work for various levels of government and they are fundamentally decent people.

The real problem is that bureaucracies create bad incentives. So even people who are generally good will be tempted to exploit rules that reward bad behavior.

And some of these folks, operating in systems with bad incentives, will morph into bad people. Heck, some of them are so awful that I elect them to the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

But it’s also important to recognize other bureaucrats – as well as the perverse rules that encourage their bad actions.

Let’s start with a cop in New Jersey who went above and beyond the call of duty, at least if the call of duty involves ripping off taxpayers.

…former Police Chief Philip Zacche…could spend the first decade of his retirement in federal prison after he admitted to stealing $31,713 from an agency that serves the city’s neediest families. Federal prosecutors said Friday that Zacche filled out phony time sheets to get paid for security work that he never performed for the Jersey City Housing Authority. …As a member of the department’s brass, Zacche pulled a six-figure salary before overtime. He earned even more by working an off-duty part-time gig as a security officer for the Authority’s Marion Gardens housing development. When he retired in June, city taxpayers had to cut Zacche a check for $512,620 to compensate him for 450 unused comp and vacation days. The 61-year-old Manalapan resident is now set to collect a pension of at least $11,946 every month for the rest of his life.

That’s a pension of more than $140,000 per year. And he gets it well before age 65. No wonder New Jersey is a fiscal mess.

Let’s also highlight a senior federal bureaucrat who specialized in exploiting immigrants to steal money.

A chief counsel at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has admitted stealing immigrants’ identities to defraud banks. Raphael Sanchez, 44, forged identity documents on his government computer to open bank accounts and credit cards in the names of seven immigrants. He racked up more than $190,000 (£135,000) in personal loans, transferred funds and card-spending during the four-year scam. …He claimed three were dependent relatives on his tax returns for 2014 to 2016. …He resigned from his role at the ICE’s Office of the Principal Legal Advisor after his crimes came to light.

I’m almost impressed by this guy’s depravity. Not only did he steal identities, but he even listed some of the victims as dependents on his tax return. That’s real chutzpah!

And notice that theft and fraud apparently are not enough to get a bureaucrat fired. Instead, he resigned.

And since we’re on the topic of bureaucrats doing bad things and not getting fired, we may as well note that the guy who sent the false alert in Hawaii is still getting checks from the taxpayers he terrified.

The worker who sent a false missile alert to Hawaiian residents on Saturday has reportedly been reassigned. The civil defence employee has been moved to another role, but not fired, according to multiplemedia reports. In a press conference on Saturday, the head of Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency, Vern Miyagi, said the worker “feels terrible.” …The Post also confirmed that there are no plans to fire the employee.

Here’s a fourth example, dealing with a former Obama appointee who was unmasked for screwing taxpayers.

Vikrum Aiyer liked to commute to his government job by taxi. On at least 130 occasions over two years — the majority during a four-month stretch in 2016 — the then-chief of staff for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office called a taxi to pick him up near his home in the District. He was chauffeured across the Potomac River 10 miles or so to the agency’s headquarters in downtown Alexandria. And then…Aiyer billed the government for each ride. To escape notice, Aiyer impersonated current and former high-level agency officials, writing their names on cab receipts and vouchers he submitted to the taxi company, which then billed the government, investigators found. …Aiyer…released a statement saying he had a “misunderstanding of agency taxi rules.”

Hmmm…, I think I’ll go to the grocery store later today and slip a couple of steaks into my jacket. If I get caught leaving the store, I’ll say I had a “misunderstanding of store rules.”

The good news, at least if we’re grading on a curve, is that it only took about two years for the government to realize what was happening.

Aiyer’s unauthorized rides apparently went unnoticed for at least two years by budget officials who reviewed the invoices from Alexandria Yellow Cab, which has a contract to provide authorized taxi services for agency officials. The patent office paid the taxi company more than $4,000 for Aiyer’s rides, the report says. …For most of the cab rides, Aiyer was picked up on a street corner a tenth of a mile from his home, according to the report. But he wrote on the invoice that he was leaving from Commerce Department headquarters in downtown Washington. …investigators found…that he “used the Agency’s Cab Company account to facilitate his weekend social activity… Aiyer also racked up $15,000 in expenses on his government-issued credit card, charging for food and drink at local bars, clubs, coffee shops, restaurants, grocery stores, dry cleaners and at least one liquor store, the report said. …The report says he also misstated his educational credentials on résumés he submitted to the Obama administration, claiming to have a postgraduate degree that he did not receive.

By the way, the article mentioned that Aiyer was a technology adviser for the White House. Did he advise on how to lie on your resume and how to get taxpayers to finance one’s social life?

A common problem in most of these stories is that politicians and bureaucrats conspire together to create rules that enable bad behavior.

Government employee unions, for instance, give lots of money to politicians and then sit down with those lawmakers to “negotiate” pay and benefit packages.

Needless to say, the interests of taxpayers don’t get represented. And that’s why many state and local governments are careening toward bankruptcy.

What’s especially discouraging is how these deals often include loopholes that are designed to be exploited.

For instance, the Los Angeles Times has a very depressing exposé showing how senior bureaucrats in the police and fire departments benefited from a scam allowing them to double dip. But not just double dip. They get extra compensation and oftentimes then don’t do any work.

When Capt. Tia Morris turned 50, after about three decades in the Los Angeles Police Department, she became eligible to retire with nearly 90% of her salary. But like many cops and firefighters in her position, the decision to keep working was a financial no-brainer, thanks to a program that allowed her to nearly double her pay by keeping her salary while also collecting her pension. A month after Morris entered the program, her husband, a detective, joined too. Their combined income for four years in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan was just shy of $2 million, city payroll records show. But the city didn’t benefit much from the Morrises’ experience: They both filed claims for carpal tunnel syndrome and other cumulative ailments about halfway through the program. She spent nearly two years on disability and sick leave; he missed more than two years… The couple spent at least some of their paid time off recovering at their condo in Cabo San Lucas.

Yes, I’m sure they were “recovering” at their luxurious place on the beach.

Just like the other bureaucrats who exploited the system.

The Morrises are far from alone. In fact, they’re among hundreds of Los Angeles police and firefighters who have turned the DROP program — which has doled out more than $1.6 billion in extra pension payments since its inception in 2002 — into an extended leave at nearly twice the pay… Former Police Capt. Daryl Russell, who collected $1.5 million over five years in the program, missed nearly three of those years because of pain from a bad knee, carpal tunnel and multiple injuries he claimed he suffered after falling out of an office chair. …Former firefighter Thomas Futterer, an avid runner who lives in Long Beach, hurt a knee “misstepping off the fire truck,” three weeks after entering DROP, according to city records. The injury kept him off the job for almost a full year.Less than two months after the knee injury, a Tom Futterer from Long Beach crossed the finish line of a half-marathon in Portland, Ore.

Yes, you read correctly. His knee supposedly was so damaged that he couldn’t work, but he nonetheless runs long-distance races.

I’m beginning to think that firefighters in big cities are the most cossetted of all bureaucrats. I now understand the hostility in this video.

Here’s some background on the DROP scam.

The idea of allowing retirement-age public employees to collect their pensions while working and receiving paychecks originated more than three decades ago in tiny East Baton Rouge, La. …the goal was the opposite: to discourage older employees from staying so long that they limited upward mobility for younger workers. And it had a two-year time limit. Since then, versions of the program have been adopted by dozens of states, counties and cities across the country. The details vary — some have short terms to encourage early retirement, others have long terms to retain experience — but the central appeal for employees is constant: two large checks instead of one. …former Mayor Richard Riordan…said: “Oh, yeah, that was a mistake…it’s total fraud.” …in recent years, a growing number of jurisdictions have abandoned or drastically scaled back DROP programs because the math doesn’t work. …Instead of saving money, or remaining “cost-neutral,” the programs lead to ballooning pension costs and accusations that employees are simply double-dipping.

Needless to say, the taxpayers who finance all this aren’t treated nearly as well as government insiders.

When most Los Angeles taxpayers reach the standard retirement age, 65, they face a stark choice: keep working and collecting their paychecks or quit and start collecting Social Security, which replaces only a small fraction of annual wages for most people.When city firefighters or police officers reach their retirement age, 50, the choices are far better. They can keep working for a paycheck, they can retire with up to 90% of their salary in pension and city-subsidized health insurance for life, or they can enter DROP. For many, the choice is easy. …they keep working and collecting their paychecks for up to five years while their pension checks are deposited into a special account. …the city guarantees 5% interest on the money in the account. The city also adds annual cost-of-living raises to the pension checks to make sure they keep pace with inflation.

Disgusting.

Let’s close by speculating whether Trump will do anything to fix this mess, at least the part that occurs on the federal level.

Some pro-Trump readers sent me this story from the Washington Post and suggested it shows that the President is making progress.

…a year into his takeover of Washington, President Trump has made a significant down payment on his campaign pledge to shrink the federal bureaucracy… By the end of September, all Cabinet departments except Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs and Interior had fewer permanent staff than when Trump took office in January — with most shedding many hundreds of employees, according to an analysis of federal personnel data… The falloff has been driven by an exodus of civil servants, a diminished corps of political appointees and an effective hiring freeze. …Federal workers fret that their jobs could be zeroed out amid buyouts and early retirement offers that already have prompted hundreds of their colleagues to leave, according to interviews with three dozen employees across the government. Many chafed as supervisors laid down new rules they said are aimed at holding poor performers and problem workers to account. …“Morale has never been lower,” said Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 federal workers at more than 30 agencies. “Government is making itself a lot less attractive as an employer.”……Agencies have told employees that they should no longer count on getting glowing reviews in their performance appraisals, according to staff in multiple offices, as has been the case for years. Housing and Urban Development managers, for example, are being evaluated for the first time on how effectively they address poor performers.

If I was planning to die in the next month, I would probably agree with readers that Trump made progress in this area.

But as I wrote last year, the only way to successfully shrink bureaucracy in the long run is to shrink government.

Yet Trump just capitulated to a budget deal that increases spending.

I’m willing to praise this President when he does good things, but his weak record on spending almost surely is going to translate into a bigger bureaucracy over time. Though I hope I’m wrong.

Here are two final additional passages from the story that deserve some attention. Starting with an honest bureaucrat.

…some civil servants said they welcome the focus on rooting out waste and holding federal workers to high standards. “Oftentimes we run on autopilot and continue to fund programs that don’t produce the results that were intended,” said Stephanie Valentine, a program analyst at the Education Department. “You can’t keep blindly spending because that’s what we’ve always done.”

And since I’ve previously contrasted Bill Clinton’s good record and Obama’s bad record, this passage is added confirmation of my findings.

Trump already has begun to reverse the growth of the Obama era, when the government added a total of 188,000 permanent employees, according to Office of Personnel Management data. …The last time federal employment dropped during a president’s first year, President Bill Clinton was in the White House.

It’s also worth noting that the bureaucracy didn’t contract during the big-government Bush years.

I’ll conclude by circling back to my original point. Most bureaucrats are no better or no worse than the rest of us. Given the perverse “public choice” incentives inherent in government, however, the good bureaucrats often are lured into bad behavior and the bad bureaucrats frequently become scam artists and crooks.

P.S. If my conclusion was too grim and pessimistic, you can cheer yourself up with another example of bureaucrat humor.

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One of the great insights of “public choice” is that politicians engage in self-serving behavior just like everyone else.

But there’s a profound difference between them and us. In the private economy, we can only make ourselves better off by providing value to others. In government, by contrast, politicians oftentimes make themselves better off by providing unearned benefits to various interest groups.

This elementary insight is a good starting point for those who want to understand how Washington (mal)functions.

And these behavioral insights don’t change when you cross national borders, which is why I periodically share examples of bizarre boondoggles as part of my series on “Great Moments in Foreign Government”. Here are some examples of prior editions.

Today, we have a special version of this series from the British Isles.

We’ll start with a story, from the U.K.-based Sunday Times, about a voluntary tax scheme in a rich part of London.

Westminster city council said it would be writing to 15,000 of its wealthiest homeowners asking them to make a voluntary donation on top of their council tax. The initiative comes amid warnings that a crisis in local government funding is likely to drive five councils into insolvency within the next 12 months, with 10 running out of money within two years. …The begging letters scheme, dubbed the “Westminster community contribution”, will see letters sent to all 15,000 band H properties, worth about £1m and above. Nickie Aiken, leader of Westminster council, said she had decided to tap the wealthy for donations because “they have asked me, ‘Why can’t we pay more council tax?’ We are giving people the option. It is an opportunity to invest in their neighbourhood.” …A total of 904 people replied.

My immediate reaction is that there are 904 nitwits in Westminster.

But, to be fair, it doesn’t say they responded by sending extra money to the local council. Maybe they scrawled obscenities on the notice and returned it, which would have been my preferred response.

But I’m guessing many of them did cough up some cash, which makes them more foolish than the taxpayers of Norway. And even more foolish than hypocritical leftists in the United States.

It’s also frustrating that there’s no data in the story on why local councils are feeling a budget pinch. I’m guessing that they’re in trouble because spending has climbed much faster than inflation (similar to what happened where I live in Fairfax County, Virginia). So why reward that overspending with additional payments?

Now let’s head across the Irish Sea.

The Irish Times has a story about how a program that supposedly was designed to help homeless people actually is lining the pockets of well-to-do property owners.

The Government’s homeless family hub solution is not only a short-term fix for a long-term crisis, it’s a shocking deal for taxpayers that benefits private operators. …doesn’t “hub” have a cosy ring to it? There will be a total of 18 family accommodation hubs in Dublin, nine of which include hotels and B&Bs already in use being “adapted”. …Let’s take the former Mater Dei site as a prime example. Dublin City Council (DCC) earmarked €4.5 million to refurbish the former college complex to house 50 families… Sources say the project is likely to substantially overrun due to “many extras”… The problem is, after ploughing millions into a magnificent revamp, the council must hand the property back to the archdiocese in less than three years. …This is mirrored in every one of the family hubs, the longest lease being just five years. It starts to look like an incredible deal for the private owners. They get back a terrifically refurbished, furnished and equipped building, paid for by taxpayers, that can be rented out for profit. Everything goes back to the owner… On top of the deal of a lifetime, DCC is paying rent on the site, a figure it described as “nominal” but not nominal enough to make public.

Cronies getting rich(er) thanks to programs that supposedly were designed to help the poor? As Inspector Renault said in Casablanca, “I’m shocked, shocked”!

Probably as shocked as he was to learn that Obamacare cost estimates were wrong and that childcare subsidies led to higher costs in the U.K.

Sadly, insiders always figure out how to line their pockets as government gets bigger. It’s a feature, not a bug.

Last but not least, let’s travel to Scotland.

In the U.K.-based Times, we learn that the government is so incompetent that it has a hard time ripping off European taxpayers for farm subsidies.

Scottish ministers have appealed to Europe for help in heading off a looming crisis in farm subsidy payments for the second year running. Discussions have taken place with the European Commission to set up “contingency plans” in case Scottish farmers once again missed out on their payouts. An extension to the end-of-the-month deadline for processing payments is vital if the Scottish government is to avoid being hit with millions of pounds in fines. …The first minister is likely to be asked what her government is doing to make sure farmers get their payments on time. Scottish ministers came in for extensive criticism last year after an IT failure delayed European agriculture subsidy payments to thousands of farmers.

What makes this story extra depressing is that the supposed Conservative opposition doesn’t question the wisdom of handouts.

…the Scottish government had asked for a deadline extension earlier this week, prompting anger from opposition politicians. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader,…added: “It’s a disgrace that so many farmers are still waiting for payments, and it looks like, for the second year running, the SNP is going to have to go cap-in-hand to Europe and ask for special treatment.”

And it goes without saying that the welfare recipients…oops, I mean farmers…are anxious to know when their handouts will arrive.

Scott Walker, the chief executive of the National Farmers’ Union in Scotland, said: “Everyone who is due a payment simply wants to know when it will arrive and that is a reasonable demand.”

Sigh.

One of the reasons I was sympathetic to Scottish independence is that the entitlement mindset in the country may have been disrupted if they lost subsidies from the central government in London. Redistribution isn’t as fun when you’re taking money from your own pockets.

However, that wouldn’t have put an end to handouts from the statists in Brussels, assuming that Scotland would have been part of the European Union. So I’ll never be without things to write about. That’s good for me, bad for Europe.

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States such as Illinois, California, New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey have very serious structural problems because of high tax burdens and unsustainable spending levels (often associated with excessive pay and benefits for bureaucrats).

I frequently write about those big issues, but I also like to periodically share examples of other bone-headed policies at the state level. These are not the types of policies that threaten bankruptcy, but they illustrate why it’s not a good idea to give power to politicians and bureaucrats.

Here are some new examples.

We have a column in Forbes about the dangerous plague of unlicensed and unregulated (gasp!) cakes in New Jersey.

At first, she sold her baked goods to support her son’s school fundraisers. …Soon Heather started receiving requests from family, friends, sports fundraisers, and even a wedding venue. …With this business, Heather hoped she could pay for her son’s college education and one day open her own brick-and-mortar cake pop shop. Unfortunately, her dreams were dashed thanks to a law that exists only in New Jersey. Unlike 49 other states, selling baked goods made at home is illegal in the Garden State. Baking and selling just one cake, cookie or muffin risks fines as high as $1,000. When Heather learned she had to shut down her cake pop sideline, the news was “crushing,” she said.

As is so often the case when governments are suppressing liberty, “health and safety” is the excuse.

New Jersey’s main justification for the ban is to protect the public’s health and safety—a claim that’s belied by the fact that nearly every other state has a “cottage food” law on the books, which legalizes the sale of homemade cakes, cookies, jams and other food deemed “not potentially hazardous.” …In order to sell cake pops, cookies or other shelf-stable treats in New Jersey, Heather must either build a licensed “retail food establishment” separate from her home kitchen or she can rent a commercial kitchen, which can easily cost $35 an hour.

Fortunately, the Institute for Justice is fighting to overturn the law.

Heather and two other home bakers joined with the Institute for Justice and filed a lawsuit against the state earlier this month. …A similar IJ lawsuit has already defeated a pastry prohibition in Wisconsin. Over the summer, a Wisconsin judge struck down the state’s ban on selling home-baked goods because there was “no real or substantial connection” between the law and public safety. …In his ruling, Lafayette Circuit Court Judge Duane Jorgenson noted that the ban protected established businesses from greater competition, which is why groups like the Wisconsin Bakers Association heavily backed the law. …Those rulings followed a 2015 IJ court victory on behalf of home bakers in Minnesota, which galvanized the state to expand its cottage food laws. Now the state boasts over 3,000 cottage food producers.

Notice, by the way, that protecting an established interest group was the real purpose of the law. In other words, the law was basically similar to schemes for occupational licensing.

This next item is so strange that I wonder whether it is somehow fake. But I also suspect it’s too bizarre to be fake. In any event, I wonder about the reason for this government-mandated notice?!? And if you find a (gasp!) vending machine without the notice, what purpose is served by calling the number? And do the bureaucrats expect people to memorize the number in case they stumble upon a rogue vending machine?!?

Oh, and how long before some people figure out how to remove the notice and then call the government in hopes of getting the “cash reward”?

If anybody knows the answer to any of these questions, feel free to share your thoughts. In the meantime, I’ll simply assume that the notice presumably isn’t as pointless and stupid at this pedestrian sign and definitely not as creepy and malevolent as this “public service” notice.

Next, we have a story from ABC News about taxpayer-funded generosity to pets in Michigan.

A dog in western Michigan has been approved for unemployment benefits — and he’d be bringing in a cool $360 a week. Michael Haddock, of Saugatuck, Michigan, says he received a letter on Saturday from the State of Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) addressed to Michael Ryder, according to Grand Rapids ABC affiliate WZZM. Michael is his name. Ryder is his dog’s name. …Haddock says the employer listed on the letter was a restaurant chain in Metro Detroit. After receiving the letter, Haddock contacted the restaurant chain and the state unemployment office. …The Michigan UIA announced Tuesday it was creating a special investigative unit to handle the recent increase in fake unemployment claims. The agency attributes many of the claims to recent data breaches. Haddock isn’t sure how scammers got his dog’s name.

I’m clearly behind the times. I have some cats that need to sign up for handouts!

On a more serious note, I confess that I’m not aware of the degree to which unemployment benefits are fraudulent. Hopefully it’s not as bad as the EITC, though I’m confident that problem is bigger than politicians and bureaucrats would ever admit.

And why would folks in the government even care? After all, it’s our money they’re squandering rather than their own. And Milton Friedman educated us on what that means.

From the perspective of good public policy, though, the real problem with such benefits (as personalized here and here) is that they lure people into extended periods of joblessness.

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Considering that America’s Founders created a very small central government that operated for more than 100 years without any income tax (or any other broad-based tax), it’s very disappointing that Washington is now consuming more that 20 percent of our nation’s output.

That’s bad for growth since resources are diverted from the productive sector of the economy.

But let’s also keep in mind that politicians also impose policies that may not have much impact on GDP statistics, but definitely reduce our quality of life.

I’ve written about some of these annoying bits of red tape.

Jeffrey Tucker, in a column for the Foundation for Economic Education, shares my disdain for the nanny state.

Soap doesn’t work. Toilets don’t flush. Clothes washers don’t clean. Light bulbs don’t illuminate. Refrigerators break too soon. Paint discolors. Lawnmowers have to be hacked. It’s all caused by idiotic government regulations that are wrecking our lives one consumer product at a time, all in ways we hardly notice.

And he points out another item to add to our list.

We now have gas cans that don’t work nearly as well as they used to because of mindless bureaucracy.

Who would make a can without a vent unless it was done under duress? After all, everyone knows to vent anything that pours. Otherwise, it doesn’t pour right and is likely to spill. …The whole trend began in (wait for it) California. …The notion spread and was picked up by the EPA, which is always looking for new and innovative ways to spread as much human misery as possible. …So…you have not been able to buy gas cans that work properly. They are not permitted to have a separate vent. The top has to close automatically.

Environmental zealots tell us we need these poorly functioning gas cans to save the environment from vapor.

But as Tucker explains, the policy is backfiring.

…don’t tell me about spillage. It is far more likely to spill when the gas is gurgling out in various uneven ways, when one spout has to both pour and suck in air. …There is no possible rationale for these kinds of regulations. It can’t be about emissions really, since the new cans are more likely to result in spills.

Amen.

This is a never-ending nightmare when I mow my lawn. When it’s time to refill the gas tank, I know gas is going to spill regardless of how careful I am.

I can’t imagine that’s good for the environment (I’m sure it releases far more vapor than would seep into the atmosphere with a vent), but I confess that my main concern is that gas dribbles onto a hot lawnmower engine. So I’m always poised to run away from my mower if the thing bursts into flame.

Oh, the joy of red tape!

Writing for Forbes, Clyde Wayne Crews also has commented on this inane and counter-productive regulation.

…when I first tried to use these new gas cans a few months after purchase I was shocked at their new spring-loaded, Mousetrap game style…spouts. …You need three hands to operate today’s gas can spouts. You’ll start each project spilling more gas than you get into the mower, motorcycle, car or whichever. In other words, you will create more vapor emissions than you ever would have otherwise. …No gas cans available for sale anymore have vents on the opposite top-side either, so when trying to pour you get a sloshing, heaving mess, burping gasoline eruptions leaking from the complex yet flimsy spout that easily breaks.

But Wayne very helpfully proposes a solution…assuming one is willing to incur a small risk.

…in order to harm the Earth less with a normal, non-polluting spout, I was wondering about workarounds for the inhumane, vapor-spewing trick spouts the environmentally unfriendly EPA forces you to buy to increase pollution. With a bit of searching, I found so-called EZ Pour “water” jugs. Note: You and I cannot use these alternatives to pour gasoline into vehicles or equipment, since that is an illegal non-EPA bureaucrat-approved hack, but they can be used to pour “liquid,” however.

The EPA can have our EZ Pour jugs when they pry them from our cold, dead, non-polluting fingers!

I had some fun in 2013 by pointing out that when they outlaw tanks, only outlaws will have tanks. Who could have predicted we’d be saying the same thing about well-functioning gas cans?

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I don’t like it when voters support tax increases.

Needless to say, voters rarely if ever vote to raise their own taxes. Instead, they get seduced into robbing their neighbors in exchange for the promise of new goodies from politicians.

Regardless, it’s still very unfortunate when it happens because it shows an erosion in the American spirit (we should be more like Switzerland!).

I raise this issue because the people of Oregon just gave fairly strong support to a tax-hike referendum. Here are some of the details.

…voters approved hundreds of millions of dollars in health care taxes in a special election. Measure 101, which led 62 percent to 38 percent with returns partially tallied, was the only issue on the ballot. It will raise $210 million to $320 million in taxes on Oregon’s largest hospitals and many health insurance policies by 2019.

At first glance, this is just another example of Oregon voters voting for bigger government and more class warfare.

But as you read further in the story, you’ll find something remarkable.

…the tax deal was a victory for…the health care industry, which bankrolled the “yes” campaign. …The largest contributor to the campaign to pass the taxes was the association that represents Oregon hospitals. Other health care companies also spent heavily to pass the measure.

Huh? Why would an industry support and bankroll an initiative to give more of their money to government?!?

It turns out that the industry isn’t filled with masochists (like the neurotic trust fund leftists who posture in favor of higher taxes). Instead, the special interests such as the hospital lobby viewed a couple of hundred million of taxes as an “investment” that will generate about $1 billion of taxpayer-financed loot.

…the health care industry…will benefit from the resulting $1 billion-plus that will be spent on Oregonians’ health care.

And taxpayers in other states will pick up a majority of the tab!

That tax revenue will enable Oregon to qualify for $630 million to $960 million in federal Medicaid matching funds that benefit the state’s health care industry. …state taxes would allow the state to keep federal matching funds.

This scam was exposed last year in a Wall Street Journal column.

…42 states tax hospitals. Why? One answer is the perverse incentives built into the Medicaid law. When a state returns tax money to hospitals through Medicaid “supplemental payments,” it qualifies for matching funds from Washington. …Medicaid supplemental payments, as the term implies, are separate and distinct from the reimbursements that cover the actual cost of services rendered to beneficiaries. But the federal government turns a blind eye to the circular nature of the arrangement: Hospitals and other providers are both the source and the recipient of most of the funds.

Here are more details on this oleaginous ripoff.

…supplemental-payment schemes…“have the effect of shifting costs to the federal government,” according to a 2014 study by the Governmental Accountability Office. The more a state taxes its hospitals and then gives them money back, the more federal funds it can obtain. …The hospital tax is the biggest revenue-raiser, but 44 states also tax nursing homes, and 34 tax at least one other type of health-care provider. The GAO study found that these taxes had almost doubled nationally, from about $9.5 billion in 2008 to $18.5 billion in 2012.

By the way, I have written on this topic before, and even included a handy infographic that explains a version of the scam.

Let’s now return to the column. The author cites an example from Connecticut.

Connecticut hospitals will pay $900 million in taxes, but the state will offset that with $600 million in supplemental Medicaid payments—matched with $450 million of federal funds. The state keeps those matching funds, plus the $300 million from the hospital tax, meaning Hartford comes out ahead in the whole scheme by $750 million. Nice work if you can get it.

I’m not a fan of my home state, but the Nutmeg State is hardly alone is playing this game.

What’s remarkable is that there are 8 states what don’t participate in the ripoff.

Anyhow, I can’t resist making one final point. Here’s a sordid tidbit from the earlier story about what happened in Oregon.

Democrats in the Oregon House helped achieve the deal by agreeing to fund three projects in a Medford Republican’s district, in exchange for that lawmaker providing the lone Republican “yes” vote in the state House.

One more piece of evidence that Republicans often are the most despicable people.

P.S. While today’s column focused on an odious quirk in the Medicaid program, let’s not lose sight of the forest by fixating on this particular tree. The reason we should care is that Medicaid is an initiative-sapping, money-draining program that greatly contributes to the mess in our overall healthcare system.

P.P.S. Which is why I encourage folks to watch the short video I narrated on the program. Pay close attention to the discussion that starts at 1:48. I explain that programs with both federal and state spending create perverse incentives for even more spending (e.g., what I wrote today). This is mostly because politicians in either Washington or state capitals can expand eligibility and take full credit for new handouts while only being responsible for a portion of the costs.

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The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) must be anxious to get on my list of government bureaucracies that shouldn’t exist.

The bureaucrats have engaged in some really silly and petty behavior (such as confiscating Airsoft toy guns because they might be machine guns), and they’ve engaged in some behavior that is criminally stupid and dangerous (running guns to Mexican drug gangs as part of the “Fast and Furious” fiasco).

Now we have another example. Though it’s so bizarre that I’m not sure how to classify it. Basically, the bureaucrats created an illegal slush fund, and then used the money illegally.

The New York Times has been on top of this story. Here are excerpts from the latest report.

For seven years, agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives followed an unwritten policy: If you needed to buy something for one of your cases, do not bother asking Washington. Talk to agents in Bristol, Va., who controlled a multimillion-dollar account unrestricted by Congress or the bureaucracy. …thousands of pages of newly unsealed records reveal a widespread scheme — a highly unorthodox merger of an undercover law enforcement operation and a legitimate business. What began as a way to catch black-market cigarette dealers quickly transformed into a nearly untraceable A.T.F. slush fund that agents from around the country could tap. …One agent steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate, electronics and money to his church and his children’s sports teams, records show. …At least tens of millions of dollars moved through the account before it was shut down in 2013, but no one can say for sure how much. The government never tracked it.

Oh, by the way, the BATF was breaking the law.

Federal law prohibits mixing government and private money. The A.T.F. now acknowledges it can point to no legal justification for the scheme.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that there have been no consequences.

…no one was ever prosecuted, Congress was only recently notified, and the Justice Department tried for years to keep the records secret.

And it’s also worth noting that this is also a tax issue. As I’ve noted before, high tax rates encourage illegality.

Though cigarettes are available at any corner store, they are extraordinarily profitable to smuggle. That’s because taxes are high and every state sets its own rates. Virginia charges $3 per carton. New York charges $43.50. The simplest scheme — buying cigarettes in Virginia and selling them tax-free in New York — can generate tens of thousands of dollars in illicit cash. By some estimates, more than half of New York’s cigarettes come from the black market.

By the way, I can help but wonder why the federal government is engaging in all sorts of dodgy behavior to help enforce bad state tax laws. Yes, I realize the cigarettes are crossing state lines, but so what? The illegal (but not immoral) behavior occurs when an untaxed cigarette is sold inside the borders of, say, New York. Why should Washington get involved?

In other words, I like the fact that borders limit the power of government. It’s why I don’t like global schemes to undermine tax competition (why should Swiss banks be required to enforce bad U.S. tax law?), and it’s why I don’t like the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act (why should merchants in one state be required to enforce the sales taxes of other states?).

But I’m digressing.

Let’s get back to the Bureau’s misbehavior. Here’s some additional reporting from the U.K.-based Times.

A US government crime-fighting agency ran a secret bank account that its employees used to buy luxury cars, property and trips to casinos. Officers for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), charged with investigating smuggling and gun crimes, built up a slush fund worth tens of millions of dollars through illicit cigarette sales, ostensibly as part of an operation to catch traffickers. The scandal is the latest controversy to hit the agency, which has been criticised in recent years for lack of accountability and allowing the flow of guns and drugs to go unchecked. …Cash from the slush fund generated at an ATF field office in Bristol, Virginia, …funded activities such as a trip to Las Vegas, donations to agents’ children and the booking of a $21,000 suite at a Nascar race.

And what about the overall BATF bureaucracy? Well, it’s getting some unfavorable attention. Keep in mind that this scandal is on top of the “Fast and Furious” scandal of the Obama years.

The ATF has said that it has “implemented substantial enhancements to its policies, and has markedly improved leadership, training, communication, accountability and operational oversight”. Under the previous administration, it was widely derided for a botched weapons operation known as “Fast and Furious”. The agency allowed licensed firearms dealers to sell weapons to illegal buyers, hoping to track the guns to Mexican drug cartel kingpins. But out of the 2,000 firearms sold, only a fraction have been traced. The secret account scandal has renewed calls from across the political spectrum for the department of about 2,000 agents to be reformed or shut down.

Last but not least, I think we have a new member of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

Thomas Lesnak, a senior ATF investigator, began the scheme. …Mr Lesnak retired with his pension and was not reprimanded.

Just like Lois Lerner and the IRS, engaging in corrupt and crooked behavior and then escaping any punishment.

Maybe the two of them should hook up? They’d make a great couple. I’m sure they could even figure out a way to make taxpayers finance their wedding and honeymoon.

P.S. The “Fast and Furious” scheme was just one of scandals that occurred during the Obama years, but it may have been the most foolish. Didn’t anybody at the BATF realize that it wasn’t a good idea to funnel weapons to Mexican drug gangs?!?

P.P.S. The silver lining to that dark cloud is that we got a couple of good one-liners about the Obama Administration’s gun-running scandal from Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon.

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Government subsidies have an unfortunate habit of causing widespread economic damage and often result in huge burdens for taxpayers (though sometimes consumers are the ones getting pillaged).

The common thread is that government intervention interferes with the normal operation of the price system and thus leads to distortions since markets are prevented from functioning properly.

Let’s add another example, and it’s very timely because of the flooding in Texas. The federal government subsidizes flood insurance. And it does so in a way that is bad for taxpayers and bad for the environment, while also giving a windfall to rich people and putting lives at risk.

That’s an impressive list, even by government standards.

In a must-read column for USA Today, my old friend Jim Bovard is very critical of the program.

Hurricane Harvey…offers the clearest lesson why Congress should not perpetuate the federal National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)… The ravages in Houston and elsewhere would be far less if the federal government had not offered massively subsidized flood insurance in high risk, environmentally perilous locales. …NFIP embraced a “flood-rebuild-repeat” model that has spawned an almost $25 billion debt.

And when Jim says “flood-rebuild-repeat,” he’s not joking.

NFIP paid to rebuild one Houston home 16 times in 18 years, spending almost a million dollars to perpetually restore a house worth less than $120,000. Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston), has almost 10,000 properties which have filed repetitive flood insurance damage claims. The Washington Post recently reported that a house “outside Baton Rouge, valued at $55,921, has flooded 40 times over the years, amassing $428,379 in claims.

And he points out that the program is reverse class warfare.

Flood insurance subsidies benefit well-off households, and payouts disproportionately go to areas with much higher than average home values. Working stiffs in Idaho and Oklahoma are taxed to underwrite mansions for the elite. …NBC News revealed in 2014 that FEMA revised its flood maps to give 95%+ discounted insurance premiums to “hundreds of oceanfront condo buildings and million-dollar homes,” including properties on its “repetitive loss list.”

My colleague Chris Edwards has a comprehensive study of the federal government’s role in disaster relief. Here’s some of what he wrote about the history of subsidized flood insurance.

In 1968 the National Flood Insurance Act offered federal insurance to properties at risk for flooding. A key justification by supporters of federal flood insurance was that it would alleviate the need to pass special aid legislation after each flood disaster. As it has turned out, however, taxpayers are now both subsidizing flood insurance and paying for special relief bills passed after floods. …NFIP was supposed to save taxpayers money by alleviating the need for Congress to pass emergency aid packages after floods. Taxpayers were also not supposed to be burdened by the program itself because insurance premiums were to cover the system’s costs. Also, the NFIP included floodplain regulations that are imposed on communities adopting the program. These regulations were supposed to mitigate the harm from floods. None of the promises panned out. …Most importantly, rather than reducing the nation’s flooding problems, the NFIP has likely made flood damage worse by encouraging more development in hazardous areas. Since 1970, the estimated number of Americans living in coastal areas designated as Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs) by FEMA has increased from 10 million to more than 16 million. Subsidized flood insurance has backfired by helping to draw more people and development into flood zones.

To add insult to injury, the program is poorly run.

The GAO has had the NFIP on its “high-risk” list of troubled programs for years. …In recent years, the program has accumulated more than $24 billion in debt because payouts have far exceeded premiums. Today, the program is in financial crisis and taxpayers will likely bear the burden of its large debt. The NFIP’s financial shortcomings are typical of government-run businesses. Unlike private insurance, the NFIP charges artificially low rates, does not build capital surpluses, and does not purchase reinsurance to cover catastrophic losses. …The GAO says that “by design, NFIP is not an actuarially sound program.” …A 2011 insurance industry study found that overall NFIP premiums are only half the level needed to cover the system’s full costs, and property owners in high-risk areas pay just one-third of full market rates.

But the biggest problem is that the program encourages imprudent – and even dangerous – behavior.

…artificially low rates subsidize people to live in high-risk flood areas. …NFIP is that it has encouraged development in hazardous areas. As Duke University coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey puts it, “we are subsidizing, even encouraging, very dangerous development.” Federal flood insurance has incentivized individuals and developers to build in hazardous areas…more lives and property are put in harm’s way.

And the program has plenty of repeat business.

…some property owners repeatedly rebuild in hazardous locations knowing that the government will bail them out after each flood. Repetitive loss properties account for only about 1 percent of all policies, but are responsible for about one-third of all NFIP claims. …One Mississippi home valued at $69,900 has flooded 34 times since 1978, and the owner has received $663,000 in NFIP payments over the years.

Here’s an image from Reddit’s libertarian page. Very appropriate given today’s topic.

An article for The Week looks specifically at how the program lured the people of Houston into taking excessive risk.

Why would the practical, fiscally conservative people of Texas anchor their financial security in houses that are now literally underwater? …a major culprit is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and specifically its subsidiary, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). …Well-meaning but drenched in perverse incentives, they are complicit in the horrifying destruction now racking the Texas gulf coast. …a normal insurance company would jack up the premium price to cover the high risk of floodplain construction, thus discouraging vulnerable building plans among those who cannot afford to cover the cost of disaster, the NFIP will insure this construction at a discount. …an artificially low premium like the NFIP offers cruelly deludes homeowners into believing their flood-prone houses are far safer than they are. …NFIP has taxpayers subsidizing unrealistically low premiums that incentivize new construction on dangerous land, and its discounts are available even to wealthy homeowners with pricey properties. “About 80 percent of NFIP households are in counties that rank in the top income quintile,” notes a recent report at Politico, and “[w]ealthier households also tend to receive larger subsidies.”

How do we solve this government-created problem?

With the same answer that Chris gave.

Axing the NFIP and transitioning back to private flood insurance, with its accurate risk signaling, is much overdue.

Writing for Reason, Ronald Bailey explains the perverse incentives created by the program.

The main lesson that the public and policymakers ought to learn from Harvey is: Don’t build in flood plains, and especially don’t rebuild in flood plains. Unfortunately, the flood insurance program teaches the exact opposite lesson, selling subsidized insurance whose premiums do not come close to covering the risks home and business owners in flood prone areas face. As a result, the NFIP is currently $25 billion in debt. Federally subsidized flood insurance represents a moral hazard, Kevin Starbuck, Assistant City Manager and former Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Amarillo, argues, because it encourages people to take on more risk because taxpayers bear the cost of those hazards.

And, in many cases, bear those costs over and over and over again.

Federal Emergency Management Agency data shows that from 1978 through 2015, 3.8 percent of flood insurance policyholders have filed repetitively for losses that account for a disproportionate 35.5 percent of flood loss claims and 30.5 percent of claim payments, Starbuck says.

The solution, once again, is obvious.

…taxpayers should not be required to subsidize people who choose to build and live on flood plains. When Congress reauthorizes the NFIP, it should initiate a phase-in of charging grandfathered properties premiums commensurate with their risks. This will likely lower the market values of affected homes and businesses and thus send a strong signal to others to avoid building and living in such risky areas.

A couple of months ago, before Harvey, the Wall Street Journal presciently opined about the downside of government-provided flood insurance.

A classic example of government dysfunction is a federal insurance program that helps pay to drain basements in millions of America’s second homes. …The 1968 program insures more than $1 trillion in property, with about five million policies in 2016 for those who live in areas prone to flooding. The program is more than $24 billion in debt. One reason for the hole is that about 20% of policies are directly subsidized. More than 75% of such policies are in counties in the top 30% for home values, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis, and many dot the affluent coasts of Florida, California and Texas. In other words, this is a wealth transfer from low and middle-income families to the folks who own real estate on Nantucket. …The best reform would be to convert the program into a private operation, though Members of both parties would pile together like sandbags to block it.

The editorial noted that Representative Jeb Hensarling, Chairman of the Financial Services Committee, has tried to limit the program. Since he’s a Texan, it will be interesting to see if his pro-market principles remain in the aftermath of Harvey (based on his record, I’m guessing yes).

In another Reason column, Katherine Mangu-Ward put together a list of things politicians shouldn’t do once the storm is over.

Here are a few things Trump and his pals absolutely shouldn’t do in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, but probably will: …Increase funding for the federal flood insurance program. When it comes time to rebuild, everyone will studiously avoid discussing the fact that maybe we shouldn’t be using a massive federal insurance program to incentivize building in areas that are repeatedly hit by storms. There’s a reason private insurers don’t offer policies to many coastal dwellers, and it ain’t “market failure.”

Needless to say, I’m not optimistic that her advice will be heeded.

Though you would think some Democrats would be on the correct side, if for no other reason than the program is a big fat subsidy for rich people.

One of those fat cats even confessed that the program is a boondoggle that lines his pockets. Here are some excerpts from a 2004 column by John Stossel.

…the biggest welfare queens are the already wealthy. Their lobbyists fawn over politicians, giving them little bits of money — campaign contributions, plane trips, dinners, golf outings — in exchange for huge chunks of taxpayers’ money.

John then confesses that he put his snout if the taxpayer trough.

I got some of your money too. …In 1980 I built a wonderful beach house. Four bedrooms — every room with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. It was an absurd place to build, right on the edge of the ocean. All that stood between my house and ruin was a hundred feet of sand. My father told me: “Don’t do it; it’s too risky. No one should build so close to an ocean.” But I built anyway. Why? As my eager-for-the-business architect said, “Why not? If the ocean destroys your house, the government will pay for a new one.” What? Why would the government do that? Why would it encourage people to build in such risky places? That would be insane. But the architect was right. If the ocean took my house, Uncle Sam would pay to replace it under the National Flood Insurance Program. Since private insurers weren’t dumb enough to sell cheap insurance to people who built on the edges of oceans or rivers, Congress decided the government should step in and do it. …I did have to pay insurance premiums, but they were dirt cheap — mine never exceeded a few hundred dollars a year.

Lots of rich people like this subsidy.

The insurance, of course, has encouraged more people to build on the edges of rivers and oceans. …Subsidized insurance goes to movie stars in Malibu, to rich people in Kennebunkport (where the Bush family has its vacation compound), to rich people in Hyannis (where the Kennedy family has its), and to all sorts of people like me who ought to be paying our own way.

John was even an example of the “flood-rebuild-repeat” syndrome.

…just four years after I built my house, a two-day northeaster swept away my first floor. …After the water receded, the government bought me a new first floor. Federal flood insurance payments are like buying drunken drivers new cars after they wreck theirs. I never invited you taxpayers to my home. You shouldn’t have to pay for my ocean view.

More than once!

On New Year’s Day, 1995, …The ocean had knocked down my government-approved flood-resistant pilings and eaten my house. It was an upsetting loss for me, but financially I made out just fine. You paid for the house — and its contents.

Though now another rich person will get the subsidy.

I could have rebuilt the beach house and possibly ripped you taxpayers off again, but I’d had enough. I sold the land. Now someone’s built an even bigger house on my old property. Bet we’ll soon have to pay for that one, too.

Let’s close with some systematic data on the regressivity of the program.

Two of my other colleagues, Ike Brannon and Ari Blask, authored a study on the flood insurance program. They covered lots of material, but here’s what they wrote about poor-to-rich redistribution.

Wealthier households benefit disproportionately from the reduced average cost of flood insurance brought about by government intervention. Of course, not all NFIP-insured properties are high value, but insured homes are on average more valuable than noninsured homes. …In 2007, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a report containing statistics on the average and median values of properties in the NFIP. …The median value of properties in the NFIP exceeded the median value of an American home across all four categories, as shown in Table 1. …40 percent of coastal properties receiving subsidies were worth more than $500,000 and 12 percent were worth more than $1 million. …Comparisons of NFIP premiums with potential private premiums show that NFIP policyholders with the most risk exposure tend to receive the largest subsidy, with 80 percent of explicit subsidy recipients living in counties in the top income quintile.

And here’s Table 1 from their study.

My guide to having an ethical bleeding heart is very straightforward.

If taking money from rich people to give to poor people is wrong, then taking money from poor people to line the pockets of rich people is utterly reprehensible.

I’ll write in the near future about why the federal government shouldn’t be involved in disaster relief. But I wanted to specifically highlight the wretched impact of subsidized flood insurance because it is such a perverse example of how government promotes unjust inequality.

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