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Archive for the ‘Local government’ Category

Northern Virginia just got buried by more than two feet of snow.

This has two implications. First, I’m going to have a fun time shoveling my driveway.

Second, I’m going to add to my collection of humor that pokes fun at libertarians.

And now, courtesy of a left-leaning, quasi-populist softball buddy, we have our new addition: The tyranny of government snowplows!

Now that we’ve all enjoyed a good laugh (because some of us libertarians can be very doctrinaire and dour, and thus deserve to be teased), it’s worth noting that plenty of places, such as private communities, shopping centers, etc, do rely on the private sector.

And it’s no mystery that the snow in those places is generally cleared faster and at lower cost.

That being said, most libertarian types are far more tolerant of local governments spending money on things that arguably might be public goods.

Indeed, one of our principles is that things tend to go awry (like the water scandal in Flint) when responsibility and accountability are blurred because of involvement by state government or the federal government.

So most of us will tolerate snow removal by local governments, even if we would prefer the private sector.

P.S. I also have a collection of pro-libertarian humor.

P.P.S. Just in case you want to vicariously share my snow-shoveling misery, this picture will give you an idea of the size of the problem.

Though it is nice that one of the cats is helping to point the way.

And another one of the kitties seems rather fascinated by the walls of snow.

For what it’s worth, this snow definitely beats the December 2009 storm and also is heavier than the February 2010 storm.

P.P.P.S. Since I’m not as smart as my neighbor, who parked at the end of his driveway, I have hours of work ahead of me. Too bad there aren’t any criminal, unlicensed teenagers looking for work.

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Remember the cluster-you-know-what in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina? Corrupt and incompetent politicians in both the city and at the state level acted passively, assuming that Uncle Sam somehow should be responsible for dealing with the storm.

And we’ve seen similar behavior from other state and local politicians before, during, and after other natural disasters.

The obvious lesson to be learned is that the federal government shouldn’t have any responsibility for dealing with natural disasters. All that does it create a wasteful layer of bureaucracy, while also inculcating a sense of learned helplessness on the part of state and local officials who should be responsible for dealing with storms and other local crises.

In other words, the answer is federalism. State and local governments should be solely responsible for state and local issues.

But not just because of some abstract principle. There’s a very strong practical argument that you get more sensible decisions when the public sector is limited (as Mark Steyn humorously explained) and there is clear responsibility and accountability at various levels of government.

And this is why the biggest lesson from the scandal of tainted water in Flint, Michigan, is that local politicians and bureaucrats should not be able to shift the blame either to the state or federal government. Which was my main point in this interview.

To be sure, it is outrageous that state and federal bureaucrats knew about the problem and didn’t make it public, so I surely don’t object to officials in Lansing and Washington getting fired.

But I do object to the political finger pointing, with Democrats trying to blame the Republican Governor and Republicans trying to blame the Democratic President.

Nope, the problem is an incompetent local government that failed to fulfill a core responsibility.

The Wall Street Journal has the same perspective, opining that the mess in Flint is a failure of government.

…the real Flint story is a cascade of government failure, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

More specifically (and as I noted in the interview), we have a local government that became a fiefdom for a self-serving bureaucracy that was more concerned with its privileged status than in providing core government services.

…after decades of misrule: More than 40% of residents live in poverty; the population has fallen by half since the 1960s to about 100,000. Bloated pensions and retiree health care gobble up about 33 cents of every dollar in the general fund.

And the WSJ editorial also castigated the state and federal bureaucrats that wrote memos rather than warning citizens.

MDEQ and the EPA were chatting about Flint’s system as early as February. MDEQ said it wanted to test the water more before deciding on corrosion controls, though it isn’t clear that federal law allows this. …the region’s top EPA official, political appointee Susan Hedman, responded… “When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the City and MDEQ and MDEQ will be responsible for following up with the City.” She also noted over email that it’s “a preliminary draft” and it’d be “premature to draw any conclusions.” The EPA did not notify the public.

The lesson is that adding state and federal bureaucracy impedes effective and competent local government.

The broader lesson is that ladling on layers of bureaucracy doesn’t result in better oversight and safety. It sometimes lets agencies shirk responsibility for the basic public services like clean water that government is responsible for providing.

Here’s the bottom line.

Federalism is about getting better government by creating clear lines of responsibility and accountability in an environment that allows state and local governments to learn from each other on best practices.

The current system blurs responsibility and accountability, by contrast, while also imposing needless expense and bureaucracy. And we get Katrina and Flint with this dysfunctional approach.

So whether it’s Medicaid, education, transportation, welfare, or disasters, involvement from Washington makes things worse rather than better.

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

Obamacare is a particularly painful example from recent history.

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

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

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

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

And what are taxpayers getting for that “investment”?

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

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

But major delays are just the tip of the iceberg.

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

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

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

Here are some of the details on why costs exploded.

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

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

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

So what’s the bottom line?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Let’s revisit the issue of urban unrest, with special attention to the challenges for both entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens.

While potential police misconduct may serve as a trigger for riots, the powder keg is already in place because of decades of bad government policy.

Jay Steinmetz, who runs a supply-chain management company in Baltimore, provides a real-world perspective on what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in a city run by kleptocrats. Here are some excerpts from his Wall Street Journal column.

When the building alarm goes off, the police charge us a fee. If the graffiti isn’t removed in a certain amount of time, we are fined. This penalize-first approach is of a piece with Baltimore’s legendary tax and regulatory burden.  …Maryland still lags most states in its appeal to companies, according to well-documented business-climate comparisons put out by think tanks, financial-services firms, site-selection consultants and financial media. Baltimore fares even worse than other Maryland jurisdictions, having the highest individual income and property taxes at 3.2% and $2.25 for every $100 of assessed property value, respectively.

Here’s what it means, in terms of lost revenue, to Mr. Steinmetz’s company.

The bottom line is that our modest 14,000-square-foot building is hit with $50,000 in annual property taxes. And when we refinanced our building loan in 2006, Maryland and Baltimore real-estate taxes drove up the cost of this routine financial transaction by $36,000. State and city regulations overlap in a number of areas, most notably employment and hiring practices, where litigious employees can game the system and easily find an attorney to represent them in court. Building-permit requirements, sales-tax collection procedures for our multistate clients, workers’ compensation and unemployment trust-fund hearings add to the expensive distractions that impede hiring.

So it’s no surprise to learn that the geese with the golden eggs (as well as the silver and bronze eggs) are flying away.

Our employees reduce their tax burden and receive better public services in the suburbs.  …The financial problem Baltimore does face is a declining tax base, the most pronounced in the state. According to the Internal Revenue Service, $125 million in taxable annual income in Baltimore vanished between 2009 and 2010.

I’m not sure why Mr. Steinmetz hasn’t left as well. I guess it’s both admirable and foolish for him to persevere is such a hostile environment.

Thomas Sowell, in an article published by National Review, demolishes the argument that criminal behavior can be blamed on racism or poverty.

He starts by drawing attention to the 1960s as a key turning point.

The “legacy of slavery” argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. …Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s.

Prof. Sowell then makes the obvious point that blacks faced much harsher conditions before the 1960s, yet crime was much lower.

And the black family was much more stable before the so-called war on poverty in the 1960s.

We are told that such riots are a result of black poverty and white racism. But in fact — for those who still have some respect for facts — black poverty was far worse, and white racism was far worse, prior to 1960. But violent crime within black ghettos was far less. Murder rates among black males were going down — repeat, down — during the much-lamented 1950s, while it went up after the much celebrated 1960s, reaching levels more than double what they had been before. Most black children were raised in two-parent families prior to the 1960s. But today the great majority of black children are raised in one-parent families.

Sowell’s point is that the welfare state created incentives for dysfunctional behavior.

And he stresses that this isn’t a racial issue.

Such trends are not unique to blacks, nor even to the United States. The welfare state has led to remarkably similar trends among the white underclass in England over the same period. …You cannot take any people, of any color, and exempt them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility, and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain — without ruinous consequences to them and to society at large. Non-judgmental subsidies of counterproductive lifestyles are treating people as if they were livestock.

I particularly appreciate his point about the importance of social capital, what he calls the requirements of civilization.

But this doesn’t mean black citizens don’t have some legitimate grievances. Radley Balko of the Washington Post explains that African-Americans are getting abused by greedy governments, just like Mr. Steinmetz.

He starts his article by sharing some good news on falling crime rates and big reductions in police deaths. But for our purposes today, the most powerful and relevant part of his story deals with one citizen’s interaction with government.

Antonio Morgan [is] a 29-year-old resident of Hazelwood, Missouri. He owns his own small business, a car repair and body shop he’d been saving up to buy since he was a teenager. He has also been arrested more than 20 times. All but two of those arrests were for misdemeanors. Morgan saved up for his business by fixing cars in his mother’s driveway. That required him to occasionally park cars on the street. That earned him parking tickets. He paid them when he could, but he occasionally missed deadlines. And that would lead to an arrest warrant. All of this also put Morgan on the radar of local police.

As you continue reading, keep in mind he was “on the radar” even though he did nothing to infringe on the life, liberty, and property of other citizens.

His unpaid parking tickets led not just to arrest warrants, but to the occasional suspension of his license. That led to more citations, although like many in the area, Morgan was sometimes pulled over and issued only a ticket for driving on a suspended license, or driving a car that wasn’t registered to him. (Morgan sometimes drove his clients’ cars to test them.) But there was no underlying traffic violation — which raises the question of why the officer pulled Morgan over in the first place, if it wasn’t to profile him. Those citations then led to more arrests.

It certainly seems as if St. Louis County in Missouri has been treating Mr. Morgan as a revenue-generating milk cow, much as Baltimore has been squeezing Mr. Steinmetz.

Different approach, but same result.

Cops would show up at his garage and cite his employees for operating without a business license. Morgan has a license; his employees didn’t need one. But to get the citations dismissed, Morgan and his employees would have to go to court, which was held once a month, at night. If they missed their court date, they too would be hit with an arrest warrant. Wealthy people can hire an attorney to go in their stead, and to negotiate their way out of a citation. But neither Morgan nor his employees were wealthy.

Some of you may be wondering about the two ostensibly more serious arrests on his record.

Radley’s column discusses both, and it certainly looks like Mr. Morgan has been mistreated by the justice system.

Here’s the first arrest. And remember it only occurred because he had to be in court to deal with ridiculous fines and petty harassment.

As Morgan walked toward the courthouse a police officer asked him the kids in the truck were his. He replied that they were. The officer asked him why he had left them alone. Morgan replied that he hadn’t, and that the woman parked next to him had agreed to watch them. ..Morgan pleaded with the police officer to flag down his friends, who he said would vouch for him. He says the officer then threatened to Taser him. Morgan put up his hands. The officer then arrested him for child endangerment. …The incident still upsets Morgan — not even the arrest so much as that his children had to see it. “I’m a good father,” he says. “I own my own business. I provide for my kids. Do you know what it’s like for your own children to see you get arrested? For a cop to say, right in front of them, that he’s arresting you because you’re a bad parent?”

I’m not someone who sees racism under every bed and behind every tree, but you can’t help but wonder whether this incident would have even happened if he was a white guy in a business suit.

The second arrest is equally dubious.

…the officer confronted Morgan because he was “trespassing” on a neighbor’s lawn. Morgan responded that he wasn’t trespassing, because the neighbors didn’t mind. Morgan says the cop moved to arrest him, and he lost his cool. He claims he never struck the police officer, but he does admit that he screamed at him. Once he did, he was hit with a Taser and arrested for assaulting a police officer. That charge was later dropped. (The neighbors back Morgan’s account of the entire incident, including his assertion that he never touched the cop.)

It’s always a smart idea to act servile and obsequious when dealing with cops, so Mr. Morgan obviously didn’t play his cards right.

But imagine if you had been endlessly harassed. Wouldn’t you be angry? Radley sure would have been.

I was stunned. But not because Morgan lost his cool with the cop. I was stunned that it had taken him so long to do so. And that even then, he’d manage to restrain himself from physical violence. I’m not sure I’d have been able to say the same.

Here’s the bottom line. Or, to be more accurate, two bottom lines.

First, we should sympathize with Mr. Morgan just as we should sympathize with Mr. Steinmetz. Actually, we should sympathize more with Morgan.

Morgan is no one’s definition of a “thug.” He’s a guy who breaks his back to keep up the business that supports his family, despite obstacles that, frankly, most white business owners don’t have to endure. For all he’s been through, he is remarkably composed. He deals with the daily harassment in a remarkably manner-of-fact way. …Morgan isn’t a drug pusher. He isn’t an absentee father. He isn’t in a gang. He’s a guy trying to do right by his family.

Second, we should recognize that one “root cause” of the problem is greedy government.

The primary source of revenue for the local towns is sales tax. But the poorer (which means blacker) towns don’t generate enough income from sales taxes. So they turn to municipal fines to keep themselves from going under. The poorer the town and its residents, the more likely the town relies on fines for a greater percentage of its annual revenue. Which means that the blacker the town, the more likely its residents are getting treated like ATMs for the local government.

None of this justifies rioting. And I have to imagine that Mr. Morgan would be one of the good guys during any unrest (much like Stretch and his friends in Ferguson).

But stories like this should make all of us appreciate how some communities may have a very sour impression of the police.

Let’s close with some economic analysis of riots (hey, I’m a policy wonk, so bear with me).

Here’s some of what Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard wrote a few years ago for Bloomberg.

…public disturbances are a classic example of tipping-point phenomena, which occur when there is some positive feedback mechanism that makes an activity more attractive, or less costly, as more people do it. …There is a tipping point in rioting because the cost of participating — the risk of going to jail — gets lower as the number of people involved increases. …riots occur when the shear mass of rioters overwhelms law enforcement.

He then looks at the more challenging issue.

But how do these mass events get started? In some cases, …such as the 1965 Watts Riot, a peaceful crowd provides cover for initial lawlessness. Sporting events, such as Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Vancouver this year, can easily produce the crowds that allow a riot to start. Most strangely, riots can follow an event that creates a combination of anger and the shared perception that others will be rioting. The acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King case seems to have created these conditions in Los Angeles in 1992.

The left-wing excuse for rioting doesn’t seem to have much merit.

…across U.S. cities, there has never been much of a link between unrest and either inequality or poverty. In fact, the riots of the 1960s were actually slightly more common in cities that had more government spending.

But economic analysis gives us good clues, both about how to deter riots and who is most victimized when they occur.

Light penalties widely applied and serious penalties applied to a few can both deter unlawful behavior. This is a central conclusion of Gary Becker’s path-breaking economic analysis of crime and punishment. …Even when they are connected to understandable grievances, they do great harm, particularly to the poorest residents.

The moral of the story is that we should be tough on crime, but that doesn’t mean mistreating people like Antonio Morgan.

Instead, the legal system should focus on trying to deter bad behavior, which is when genuinely bad people infringe on the life, liberty, and property of others.

But how do we get politicians and bureaucrats to properly focus?

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I wrote back in 2010 that riots in Europe were a harbinger of future unrest in the United States.

Given the chaos in Baltimore, I’m tempted to claim profound wisdom and great foresight.

But I’ll reluctantly confess that my main point five years ago was to warn about the long-run consequences of poorly designed entitlement programs and unfavorable demographics (leading to the outcome illustrated by this set of cartoons).

Simply stated, Margaret Thatcher was right when she warned that the problem with big government is that “eventually you run out of other people’s money.”

The riots in Baltimore, by contrast, are a short-run phenomenon exacerbated by factors such as a loss of social capital and potential police misconduct.

But we can still learn something by looking at the dysfunctional consequences of big government in Baltimore and other big cities in America.

Here’s some of what’s been written by my colleague, Michael Tanner.

…there are lessons to be learned about the failures of government and how those failures can create a climate of anger and frustration that just awaits a spark to ignite the flames of violence and destruction. …the powder keg was put in place by decades of big-government liberalism, both in the city of Baltimore and in the state of Maryland. …Maryland has one of the most generous welfare systems in the nation. A mother with two children participating in seven common welfare programs — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), food stamps (SNAP), Medicaid, housing assistance, Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), energy assistance (LIHEAP), and free commodities — could receive benefits worth more than $35,000. Yet, nearly a quarter of the people in Baltimore still live in poverty. In 1960, Baltimore’s poverty rate was just 10 percent. …while Baltimore’s high welfare benefits haven’t reduced poverty, they may well have exacerbated other social problems. For example, some studies have long shown that high welfare benefits correlate with high out-of-wedlock birth rates. It should not come as a surprise, then, that two-thirds of births in the city are to unmarried mothers, and almost 60 percent of Baltimore households are headed by single parents.

While the politicians subsidize bad things in Maryland, they penalize good things.

…while Baltimore’s high welfare benefits haven’t reduced poverty, they may well have exacerbated other social problems. For example, some studies have long shown that high welfare benefits correlate with high out-of-wedlock birth rates. It should not come as a surprise, then, that two-thirds of births in the city are to unmarried mothers, and almost 60 percent of Baltimore households are headed by single parents. …if that were not bad enough, the city of Baltimore adds one of the highest property taxes among comparable cities…a tax rate more than twice the rate of most of the rest of the state.

Mike has lots of additional information, including revelations about bad education policies, dangerous anti-gun laws, and counterproductive drug prohibition.

But let’s now shift to a Wall Street Journal editorial on the same subject.

…what went up in flames in Baltimore Monday night was not merely a senior center, small businesses and police cars. Burning down was also the blue-city model of urban governance. …let’s not forget who has run Baltimore and Maryland for nearly all of the last 40 years. The men and women in charge have been Democrats, and their governing ideas are “progressive.” This model, with its reliance on government and public unions, has dominated urban America as once-vibrant cities such as Baltimore became shells of their former selves. …the main failures are three: high crime, low economic growth and failing public schools that serve primarily as jobs programs for teachers and administrators rather than places of learning. …of late the progressives have been making a comeback, led by Bill de Blasio in New York and the challenge to sometime reform Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago. This week’s nightmare in Baltimore shows where this leads. It’s time for a new urban renewal, this time built on the ideas of private economic development, personal responsibility, “broken windows” policing, and education choice.

One would think that Detroit – and now Baltimore – show the dangers for cities of big government and dependency.

Unfortunately, the election of Mayor de Blasio in New York City suggest many voters are incapable of learning any lessons from the real world.

Last but not least, here’s some of Kevin Williamson’s column for National Review.

American cities are by and large Democratic-party monopolies, monopolies generally dominated by the so-called progressive wing of the party. The results have been catastrophic, and not only in poor black cities such as Baltimore and Detroit. …Would any sentient adult American be shocked to learn that Baltimore has a corrupt and feckless police department enabled by a corrupt and feckless city government? …While the progressives have been running the show in Baltimore, police commissioner Ed Norris was sent to prison on corruption charges (2004), two detectives were sentenced to 454 years in prison for dealing drugs (2005), an officer was dismissed after being videotaped verbally abusing a 14-year-old and then failing to file a report on his use of force against the same teenager (2011), an officer was been fired for sexually abusing a minor (2014), and the city paid a quarter-million-dollar settlement to a man police illegally arrested for the non-crime of recording them at work with his mobile phone. There’s a good deal more.

And who should be blamed for this horrible track record?

No Republican, and certainly no conservative, has left so much as a thumbprint on the public institutions of Baltimore in a generation. Baltimore’s police department is, like Detroit’s economy and Atlanta’s schools, the product of the progressive wing of the Democratic party enabled in no small part by black identity politics. This is entirely a left-wing project, and a Democratic-party project. …Community-organizer — a wretched term — Adam Jackson declared that in Baltimore “the Democrats and the Republicans have both failed.” Really? Which Republicans? Ulysses S. Grant? Unless I’m reading the charts wrong, the Baltimore city council is 100 percent Democratic. …The evidence suggests very strongly that the left-wing, Democratic claques that run a great many American cities…are incompetent, they are corrupt, and they are breathtakingly arrogant. Cleveland, Philadelphia, Detroit, Baltimore — this is what Democrats do.

My one contribution to the wise words in the three articles excerpted above is to point out that the troubles in Baltimore are somewhat similar to riots we’ve seen in Greece and the United Kingdom. There’s no racial or ethnic component to the chaos we’ve seen in most of the European riots, so the analogy is far from exact, but the events are alike in that a big part of the problem is a failure of government and a concomitant erosion of social or cultural capital.

Simply stated, too many people on both sides of the Atlantic now think they are entitled to a life based on freebies from government. This almost surely erodes any sense of self worth and breeds anger and resentment.

Putting the toothpaste of self-reliance back into the societal tube doubtlessly will not be easy. Here’s some of what Jay Nordlinger wrote today.

The young rioters have…been brought up to regard themselves as entitled and victimized, at the same time. In truth, they are among the luckiest people in the whole world: to have been born American. Millions, probably billions, would be happy to trade places with them. The rioters are free to make of life what they will. Their shackles are mental and spiritual. …These young people have been grossly mistaught — misled — by the “grievance industry” (to use shorthand). Just about the worst thing you can do to a child is tell him he’s a victim — when it’s not true. Even when it is true, it may be unwise. It is surely damnable when it’s not true.

While I’m sometimes pessimistic about certain societal trends, one part of the answer is easy.

Stop creating new entitlements (such as Obamacare) that alter the already perverse tradeoff between work and leisure. Then people might feel a greater incentive to get jobs.

And stop imposing punitive taxes, particularly on the investors and entrepreneurs that are willing to put capital at risk to create jobs and wealth for the rest of us.

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I periodically share this poster, in part because it’s funny, but mostly because it’s true.

After all, can you think of many “success stories” involving government?

When I pose this question to my statist friends, I usually get a blank stare in response. Though some of them will offer answers such as the GI Bill, interstate highways, and landing on the moon.

But even if you accept that those policies were successful, it’s rather revealing that folks on the left have a very hard time identifying any success stories from recent decades.

On the other hand, we have a never-ending and ever-growing list of government failures, boondoggles, and screw-ups.

And that’s our focus today. We’re going to look at all levels of government for new examples that confirm Bastiat was right.

Let’s start with Montgomery County in Maryland, where bureaucrats are waging a legal battle against parents who – gasp! – allow unsupervised play for their children.

Here are some troubling passages from a Washington Post report.

The Maryland parents investigated for letting their young children walk home by themselves from a park were found responsible for “unsubstantiated” child neglect…the finding of unsubstantiated child neglect means CPS will keep a file on the family for at least five years and leaves open the question of what would happen if the Meitiv children get reported again for walking without adult supervision. The parents say they will continue to allow their son, Rafi, 10, and daughter Dvora, 6, to play or walk together, and won’t be swayed by the CPS finding. …The case dates to Dec. 20, when police picked up the two Meitiv children walking in Silver Spring on a Saturday afternoon after someone reported them. …The Meitivs said they would not have allowed the one-mile outing from Woodside Park to their home if they did not feel their children were up to it. …The Meitivs, both scientists by training, embrace a “free-range” philosophy of parenting, believing that children learn self-reliance by being allowed to make choices, build independence and progressively experience the world on their own. …Danielle Meitiv said when she first read the decision, she felt numb. As she reread it, she recalled turning to her husband and saying: “Oh my God, they really believe we did something wrong.” …Danielle Meitiv said that in spite of the decision, her children played at a nearby park by themselves Monday, when schools were closed for the snow day.

I confess that I was more paranoid than the Meitivs when my kids were young, so I can’t claim to have followed the same “free-range” approach.

But I also tried to avoid being a “helicopter” parent.

Not that my decisions on child rearing matter. What’s important from the perspective of public policy is that the Montgomery County bureaucracy is trying to dictate how to raise kids. And there’s a very clear implicit threat that it will arrest the parents and/or confiscate the children if the Meitivs don’t acquiesce.

And if you think I’m exaggerating and governments don’t behave this way, check out the story of the mom who was jailed overnight because her kids played outside – while she was watching them!

All of us should be outraged, regardless of our parenting approach.

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

As reported by the Washington Post, the Georgia State Patrol enjoyed a Keystone Cops moment when it raided an old man because…drum roll, please…he was growing okra.

Georgia police raided a retired Atlanta man’s garden last Wednesday after a helicopter crew with the Governor’s Task Force for Drug Suppression spotted suspicious-looking plants on the man’s property. A heavily-armed K9 unit arrived and discovered that the plants were, in fact, okra bushes. …Okra busts like these are good reason for taxpayers to be skeptical about the wisdom of sending guys up in helicopters to fly around aimlessly, looking for drugs in suburban gardens. And that’s not to mention the issue of whether we want a society where heavily-armed cops can burst into your property, with no grounds for suspicion beyond what somebody thought he saw from several hundred yards up in a helicopter.

In some sense, this is an amusing story of government incompetence.

But military-type raids, when the supposed offense involves a possible “crime” with no victims, are a recipe for disaster. Let’s be glad that the cops didn’t accidentally kill anybody in this raid.

By the way, this isn’t the first time cops have seized okra bushes. Or looked foolish because of an inability to identify marijuana leaves.

At the point, I don’t want to miss an opportunity to say that it’s time to end the foolish Drug War. People who abuse drugs may be stupid, but they’re not infringing on the rights of others. The War on Drugs, by contrast, has led to all sorts of policies that do infringe on our rights, from disgusting asset forfeiture policies to pointless snooping on our bank accounts. Or, as we just read, raids on okra growers.

Time now for a look at an example of federal government fecklessness.

But this story from the Washington Times won’t surprise anybody. Because anybody with a pulse already knows that there is a lot of waste in Washington.

Federal agencies across the board are continuing to waste tens of billions of taxpayer dollars on duplicative spending efforts, even after Congress‘ official watchdog has made hundreds of recommendations for cutting back. The spending issues, ranging from Medicare and Medicaid mismanagement to transportation programs to weapon systems acquisitions, cost taxpayers $125 billion in improper payments in 2014 alone, as highlighted in a new report from the Government Accountability Office. …GAO investigators noted in the report that the government can’t continue to sustain its wasteful spending habits… “The federal government faces an unsustainable long-term fiscal path. Changing this path will require difficult fiscal policy decisions to alter both long-term federal spending and revenue,” the GAO analysts concluded. …The GAO report targeted both the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Health and Human Services for mismanaging programs that saw rampant wasteful spending. …“These programs combined account for over 76 percent of the government-wide estimate. We have made numerous recommendations that if effectively implemented, could help improve program management, reduce improper payments in these programs, and achieve cost savings.”

Notice that HHS and the IRS win the prize for wasteful incompetence.

But don’t laugh. After all, those are the two bureaucracies that got lots of new power and authority as a result of the costly Obamacare boondoggle. So the joke’s on us.

By the way, the GAO’s definition of waste is very narrow. It merely applies to funds that are improperly disbursed.

If you also include monies that are squandered, then the amount of waste includes every penny at the Department of Agriculture, Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Transportation, etc.

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

I’ve written about the crazy Greek government on many occasions. And given that this collection of misfits does utterly bizarre things (such as giving handouts to pedophiles and requiring stool samples when setting up online companies), I’m never surprised to learn when they adopt foolish policies.

But even I was taken aback to learn about the latest gimmick they concocted to “solve” the nation’s fiscal crisis. Here are some excerpts from a report in the U.K.-based Guardian.

The Greek government has told its eurozone creditors it has a novel way of tackling the country’s chronic tax evasion culture – wiring students, tourists, and housewives for sound and video to spy on tax dodgers while posing as shoppers and customers. …Varoufakis’s plans for a new government-sponsored amateur snoopers’ charter…attracted most attention. …He said the prospects of successfully countering tax dodging were dismal because of the demoralised and understaffed state of the tax inspection service. Instead, he proposed recruiting large numbers of “non-professional inspectors” on short-term casual contracts of no longer than two months who would be paid by the hour. They would be “wired for sound and video”, trained to pose as “customers” and “will be hard to detect by offending tax dodgers.” …Varoufakis said the launch of the amateur snoopers would act as a deterrent, “engendering a new tax compliance culture” in Greece. He added that Athens would need to ask eurozone partners for help with the equipment and the training. Germany has previously offered to send 500 tax inspectors to Athens. …In Athens, news of the undercover tax agents was quick to spark ridicule and widespread disbelief.

Hmmm….so the Germans offered to send 500 tax inspectors? Sounds like a perfect job for ex-Stasi officials.

And there are some bureaucrats in Chicago who almost surely would want to help implement this snitch-on-your-neighbor scheme. And the governor of New York has related experience, though his police-state policy focused on guns rather than tax revenue. Let’s also not overlook the U.K. politicians who have a tax-enforcement-über-alles mentality.

Never mind that all the research shows that low rates are honest government are the best ways of getting high compliance.

So I’m not holding my breath expecting success from this latest Greek scheme.

But I can say it’s a perfect example of how governments operate. Screw up, grab for more money, screw up some more. Lather, rinse, repeat.

It’s almost a shame that there’s no life on Mars. We could make today’s list even longer if there was another layer of government.

Now you know why it’s almost always the right time to mock politicians.

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One of the most important bulwarks of a just society is equal justice under law.

That principle is even etched in stone above the entrance to the Supreme Court.

My belief in equal treatment is one of the reasons I support the flat tax. As an economist, I like the pro-growth impact of tax reform. But as someone who believes in justice, I also support the flat tax because I don’t like class-warfare policies that punish some taxpayers and corrupt loopholes that give preferential status to other taxpayers.

Indeed, my support for equality of law is so strong that I even object to policies that benefit me, such as special TSA lines in airports for frequent flyers.

But sometimes it’s not clear how a principle should be applied. So let’s revive the “you be the judge” series, which asks thorny questions about the workings of a free society, and explore the case of income-based traffic fines.

Check out these excerpts from a BBC story.

Finland’s speeding fines are linked to income, with penalties calculated on daily earnings, meaning high earners get hit with bigger penalties for breaking the law. So, when businessman Reima Kuisla was caught doing 103km/h (64mph) in an area where the speed limit is 80km/h (50mph), authorities turned to his 2013 tax return, the Iltalehti newspaper reports. He earned 6.5m euros (£4.72m) that year, so was told to hand over 54,000 euros. …Mr Kuisla might be grateful he doesn’t earn more. In 2002, an executive at Nokia was slapped with a 116,000-euro fine for speeding on his Harley Davidson motorbike. His penalty was based on a salary of 14m euros.

So is this a case of greedy government targeting people for the sin of success?

Well, I’m sure the government is greedy, but what about the morality of income-based fines?

The driver isn’t happy, but others argue that deterrence doesn’t work unless the actual impact of the fine is the same for rich and poor alike.

The scale of the fine hasn’t gone down well with Mr Kuisla. “Ten years ago I wouldn’t have believed that I would seriously consider moving abroad,” he says on his Facebook page. “Finland is impossible to live in for certain kinds of people who have high incomes and wealth.” There’s little sympathy from his fellow Finns on social media. …person says: “Small fines won’t deter the rich – fines have to ‘bite’ everyone the same way.”

At the risk of sounding like a soft-headed leftist, I’m not overly sympathetic to Mr. Kuisla’s position.

Simply stated, if the goal of traffic fines is deterrence, then the penalties should vary with income.

I remember when I was young, living on a paycheck-to-paycheck basis, a traffic fine sometimes would chew up a non-trivial part of my disposable income. That affected my behavior.

Now that I’m older and making more money (and especially since my kids are mostly done with their schooling!), a traffic fine is just a nuisance (though I still sometimes get very upset).

Though this discussion wouldn’t be complete without also considering the fact that traffic laws and enforcement oftentimes are motivated by revenue rather than safety.

The most compelling evidence comes from Ferguson, Missouri. It seems that what’s driving the mistreatment of black people is government greed.

Here’s some of what Ian Tuttle wrote on the topic for National Review.

The Department of Justice’s “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department,” released this week…what the material in the report reveals is less a culture of racial animus than one of predatory government: “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices,” states the report, “are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” …myriad municipal regulations that, rigorously enforced, nickel-and-dime the citizenry to the local government’s benefit. This is the injustice on which the Justice Department has stumbled, which helps to explain the city’s racial tensions — and which merits urgent correction.

I fully understand why many blacks in Ferguson are angry.

Imagine if you had a modest income and you were constantly being hit with $50 and $100 fines (oftentimes then made much larger thanks to the scam of “court fees”).

This can wreck a family’s budget when it doesn’t have much money. So wouldn’t you be upset?

Particularly since “predatory government” is a very good description of the Ferguson bureaucracy.

In 2010, the city’s finance director encouraged Ferguson police chief Thomas Jackson to “ramp up” ticket-writing to help mitigate an anticipated sales-tax shortfall. …One stop can yield six or eight citations, and officers have been known to compete to set single-stop records. Indeed, within Ferguson Police Department, because opportunities for promotion have been tied to “productivity” — that is, enthusiasm for ticket-writing — officers have perverse incentives to issue citations, and in concert with police and prosecutors, municipal courts regularly enforce the payment of fines in a way that compounds what a single defendant owes.

Now let’s connect Ferguson with Finland.

Our Finnish driver is upset by his giant fine, but at least he probably can relate to the poor people of Ferguson.

But the more successful people of Ferguson, to the extent that they are even targeted by the local cops, have almost nothing to worry about.

…this practice — of police and prosecutors and courts together — disproportionately affects black communities not because they are black, but because they are poor. They do not have the means to escape the justice apparatus, unlike the comparatively wealthy, who can pay a fine and be done with the matter — or hire an attorney, and inconvenience courts that prefer the ease of collecting fees to the challenge of arbitrating cases.

Here’s the bottom line.

If we want a just society, there should be few laws and they should be enforced on the basis of protecting public safety rather than enriching the bureaucracy.

In such a system, income-based fines and penalties are a reasonable way of making sure deterrence applies equally to rich and poor.

Unfortunately, we have far too many laws and they are used as back-door taxes on the citizenry.

So if we adopt income-based fines, the politicians will simply have more money to spend and even less incentive to scale back excessive and thuggish government.

Heck, just look at how asset-forfeiture laws and money-laundering laws have turned into revenue scams for Leviathan.

P.S. Since today’s post ended with a depressing conclusion, let’s share some a bit of offsetting good news.

As reported by The Hill, the spirit of civil disobedience lives even in Washington!

From sledding to snowball fights, dozens of children and their parents took to Capitol Hill Thursday afternoon to protest a controversial sledding ban. Capitol Police have refused to lift the sledding ban, but some parents organized a “sled in” on the west lawn of the Capitol to put a spotlight on the unpopular rule. …Capitol Police pointed out that more than 20,000 sledding injuries occur in the U.S. each year…, but officers on the ground also refused to enforce it. …It’s turning into a public relations nightmare for those who oppose sledding and support the ban.

You’ll doubtlessly be horrified to learn that illegal sledding is – gasp! – a gateway crime to other forms of misbehavior.

…the children were not only sledding but also climbing trees, building snowmen and throwing snowballs at one another.

Oh My God, unlicensed snowmen, unregistered tree climbing, and illegal snowballs! Freedom is obviously too dangerous.

Next thing you know, these kids will grow up to engage in other forms of civil disobedience, just like Arizona drivers and Connecticut gun owners.

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