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Archive for the ‘Waste’ Category

The annual budget for our bloated and sclerotic federal government consumes about $4 trillion of America’s economic output, yet President Trump so far has not proposed to reduce that overall spending burden by even one penny.

A few programs are targeted for cuts, to be sure, but I explained last week, that “taxpayers won’t reap the benefits since those savings will be spent elsewhere, mostly for a bigger Pentagon budget.” More worrisome, I also pointed out that his budget proposal is “silent on the very important issues of tax reform and entitlement reform.”

All things considered, you would think that statists, special interest groups, and other denizens of the D.C. swamp would be happy with Trump’s timid budget.

Not exactly. There’s so much wailing and screaming about “savage” and “draconian” budget cuts, you would think the ghost of Ronald Reagan is haunting Washington.

Much of this whining is kabuki theater and political posturing as various beneficiaries (including the bureaucrats, lobbyists, contractors, and other insiders) make lots of noise as part of their never-ending campaigns to get ever-larger slices of the budget pie.

And nothing demonstrates the vapidity of this process more than the imbroglio over the Meals on Wheels program. Based on news reports, the immediate assumption is that Trump’s budget is going to starve needy seniors by ending delivery of meals.

Here’s how CNN characterized the proposal.

The preliminary outline for President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget could slash some funding for a program that provides meals for older, impoverished Americans.

“Slash”? That sounds ominous. Sounds like a cut of 40 percent, 50 percent, or 60 percent!

And a flack for Meals on Wheels added her two cents, painting a picture of doom and despair for hungry seniors.

…spokeswoman Jenny Bertolette said, “It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which they will not be significantly and negatively impacted if the President’s budget were enacted.”

Oh no, “significantly and negatively impacted” sounds brutal. How many tens of thousands of seniors will starve?

Only near the bottom of the story do we learn that this is all nonsense. All that Trump proposed, as part of his plan to shift some spending from the domestic budget to the defense budget, is to shut down a pork-riddled and scandal-plagued program at the Department of Housing Development. However, because a tiny fraction of community development block grants get used for Meals on Wheels, interest groups and leftist journalists decided to concoct a story about hungry old people.

In reality, the national office (appropriately) gets almost all its money from private donations and almost all the subsidies to the local branches are from a separate program.

About 3% of the budget for Meals on Wheels’ national office comes from government grants (84% comes from individual contributions and grants from corporations and foundations)… The Older Americans Act, as a function of the US Department of Health and Human Services, …covers 35% of the costs for the visits, safety checks and meals that the local agencies dole out to 2.4 million senior citizens, Bertolette said.

In other words, CNN engaged in what is now known as fake news, publishing a story designed to advance an agenda rather than to inform readers.

My colleague Walter Olson wrote a very apt summary for National Review.

The story that Trump’s budget would kill the Meals on Wheels program was too good to check. But it was false. …it wouldn’t have taken long for reporters to find and provide some needed context to the relationship between federal block grant programs, specifically Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), and the popular Meals on Wheels program. …From Thursday’s conversation in the press, it was easy to assume that block grant programs — CDBG and similar block grants for community services and social services — are the main source of federal funding for Meals on Wheels. Not so.

And if you want some accurate journalism, the editorial page of Investor’s Business Daily has a superb explanation.

What Trump’s budget does propose is cutting is the corruption-prone Community Development Block Grant program, run out of Housing and Urban Development. Some, but not all, state and local governments use a tiny portion of that grant money, at their own discretion, to “augment funding for Meals on Wheels,” according to the statement. …So what’s really going on? As Meals on Wheels America explained, some Community Development Block Grant money does end up going to some of the local Meals on Wheels programs. But it’s a small amount. HUD’s own website shows that just 1% of CDBG grant money goes to the broad category of “senior services.” And 0.17% goes to “food banks.” …All of this information was easily available to anyone reporting on this story, or anyone commenting on it, which would have prevented the false claims about the Meals on Wheels program from spreading in the first place. But why bother reporting facts when you can make up a story…?

The IBD editorial then shifted to what should be the real lesson from this make-believe controversy

…this fake budget-cutting story ended up revealing how programs like Meals on Wheels can survive without federal help. As soon as the story started to spread, donations began pouring into Meals on Wheels. In two days, the charity got more than $100,000 in donations — 50 times more than they’d normally receive. Clearly, individuals are ready, willing and eager to support this program once they perceive a need. Isn’t this how charity is supposed to work, with people donating their own time, money and resources to causes they feel are important, rather than sitting back and expecting the federal government to do it for them?

At the risk of being flippant, Libertarian Jesus would approve that message.

But to be more serious, IBD raises an important point that deserves some attention. Some Republicans think the appropriate response to CNN‘s demagoguery is to point out that Meals on Wheels gets the overwhelming share of its federal subsidies from the Older Americans Act rather than CDBG.

In reality, the correct lesson is that the federal government shouldn’t be subsidizing Meals on Wheels. Or any redistribution program that purports to help people on the state and local level.

There’s a constitutional argument against federal involvement. There’s a fiscal argument against federal involvement. There’s a diversity argument against federal involvement. And there’s a demographic argument against federal involvement.

But there’s also a common-sense argument against federal involvement. And that gives me an excuse to introduce my Third Theorem of Government. Simply stated, it’s a recipe for waste to launder money through Washington.

P.S. For those interested, here is the First Theorem of Government and here is the Second Theorem of Government.

P.P.S. I started today’s column by noting that Trump hasn’t proposed “even one penny” of lower spending. That’s disappointing, of course, but the news is not all bad. The President has  endorsed the Obamacare reform legislation in the House of Representatives, and while that legislation does not solve the real problem in our nation’s health sector, at least it does lower the burden of taxes and spending.

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Donald Trump’s Budget Blueprint doesn’t thrill me, largely because it’s silent on the very important issues of tax reform and entitlement reform.

All that he’s proposing is to rearrange the allocation of annually appropriated spending (the so-called discretionary outlays).

Here’s a chart from a summary prepared by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. As you can see, the federal Leviathan does not shrink in size.

It’s possible, of course, to applaud this shift from domestic discretionary to defense discretionary. Or to criticize the reallocation. But nobody can pretend the net result is smaller government.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that we should accept all the domestic reductions but not boost the defense budget (the U.S. already has a very large military budget compared to potential adversaries).

And speaking of domestic reductions, the main focus of today’s column is to highlight one of my favorite program terminations in Trump’s plan (yesterday’s example was the National Endowment for the Arts). The President has proposed to eliminate all taxpayer handouts for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is the entity that subsidizes National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

This is music to my ears. As I wrote more than six years ago,

Even if we had a giant budget surplus, federal subsidies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be misguided and improper. In an environment where excessive federal spending is strangling growth and threatening the nation’s solvency, the argument to defund PBS and NPR is even stronger…the fact that PBS and NPR have a statist bias is another argument for getting rid of taxpayer subsidies, but that’s barely a blip on my radar screen. It wouldn’t matter if government TV and radio was genuinely fair and balanced. Taxpayers should not subsidize broadcasting of any kind, period.

This should be a slam-dunk issue for congressional Republicans. Even milquetoast GOPers like Mitt Romney have said it’s time for NPR and PBS to be self-supporting.

But the best analysis, as usual, comes from the Cato Institute. Here are some excerpts from a study written by my colleague Trevor Burrus.

Assailed from all sides with allegations of bias, charges of political influence, and threats to defund their operations, public broadcasters have responded with everything from outright denial to personnel changes, but never have they squarely faced the fundamental problem: government-funded media companies are inherently problematic and impossible to reconcile with either the First Amendment or a government of constitutionally limited powers. The Constitution does not give Congress the power to create media companies, and we should heed the Founders’ wisdom on this matter. …before the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created, nonprofit, noncommercial media stations enjoyed a vibrant existence, remaining free to criticize current policies and exhibit whatever bias they wished. Yet today…, public broadcasting suffers the main downside of public funding—political influence and control—yet enjoys little of the upside—a significant taxpayer contribution that would relieve it of the need to seek corporate underwriting and listener donations. But the limited taxpayer funding also shows that defunding can be relatively painless. Public broadcasting not only can survive on its own, it can thrive—and be free.

And Cato’s David Boaz adds another important point, which is that government-subsidized broadcasting is another odious example (Export-Import Bank, agriculture subsidies, TARP bailout, etc) of how government coercion is used to provide goodies to upper-income people at the expense of those with more modest levels of income.

Public broadcasting subsidizes the rich. A PBS survey shows that its viewers are 44 percent more likely than the average American to make more than $150,000 a year, 57 percent more likely to own a vacation home, and 177 percent more likely to have investments worth more than $150,000. Why should middle-class taxpayers be subsidizing the news and entertainment of the rich?

By the way, these numbers are more than 10 years old, so more recent data surely would show that an ever greater share of fans are part of an economic elite that easily can afford to privately finance PBS programming.

By the way, there already has been some self-privatization, as John Stossel reports in his Reason column

New York ran a photo of Big Bird, or rather a protester dressed as Big Bird, wearing a sign saying “Keep your mitts off me!” What New York doesn’t say is that the picture is three years old, and Big Bird’s employer, “Sesame Street,” no longer gets government funds. We confronted the article writer, Eric Levitz. He said, “Big Bird has long functioned as a symbol of public broadcasting … Still, considering Sesame Street‘s switch to HBO, I concede that some could have been misled.” You bet. Big Bird doesn’t need government help. Sesame Street is so rich that it paid one of its performers more than $800,000.

Last but not least, here’s a video from Reason that looks at how government-run broadcasting is driven by the interests of the stations rather than consumers.

P.S. Big Bird apparently wasn’t a big fan of Barack Obama, at least according to this bit of satire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyone want to guess whether this means less spending?

Of course not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conclusion is stark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wall Street Journal also opined about this topic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Having lived in the Washington area for more than three decades, I have many friends who work for the federal government. Most of them will privately admit that they are very lucky since federal salaries and benefits are considerably higher than what they could earn in the private sector. And they’ll also admit that there’s lots of featherbedding, inefficiency, and waste where they work.

While I like my buddies, I don’t think it’s fair that taxpayers around the nation (particularly those with modest incomes) are sending so much money to Washington to subsidize overly generous compensation packages for a bloated federal bureaucracy.

So I’m pleased that President Trump announced a hiring freeze yesterday.

President Trump on Monday ordered an across-the-board employment freeze for the federal government, halting hiring for all new and existing positions except those in national security, public safety and the military. In the two-page order, Mr. Trump said the directive was a stopgap way to control the growth of government until his budget director recommends a long-term plan to significantly reduce the federal work force through attrition.

But keep in mind this is just a tiny step in the right direction.

First, it only addresses part of the problem.

For instance, most bureaucrats are at the state and local level, often carrying out mandates, regulations, and spending of the federal government.

The Wall Street Journal put together a good summary of the situation back in 2014.

When you include state and local governments, it’s clear where the public civilian workforce has been growing in recent decades. Local governments, in particular, have boomed from 4 million employees in the 1950s to over 14 million today. In the mid-1950s, state governments employed half as many people as the federal government. Today, state governments employ nearly twice as many.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

Moreover, federal employment numbers don’t include the gigantic “shadow bureaucracy” of government contractors.

And exactly how many people are technically private employees but actually get their pay from federal taxpayers? Well, because the federal government is so big and bloated, we don’t have an exact number.

Indeed, as reported by Government Executive, there’s not even an official inexact number.

How many contractor employees does the federal government rely on, at what cost per person, and how does that compare with the cost of assigning the same task to a full-time hire? When asked by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., ranking member of the House Budget Committee, the Congressional Budget Office took a shot but left the $64,000 question unresolved. “Regrettably, CBO is unaware of any comprehensive information about the size of the federal government’s contracted workforce,” the nonpartisan analysts wrote in response. “However, using a database of federal contracts, CBO determined that federal agencies spent over $500 billion for contracted products and services in 2012.”

But we do know that it’s a very big number. An outside expert crunched the data and concluded that there are 5-1/2 contractors for every federal bureaucrat.

Second, the real issue is that the federal government has accumulated far too much power and is involved in many areas that either belong in the private sector (Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Department of Housing and Urban Development, etc) or should be handled by state and local governments (Department of Transportation, Department of Education, etc).

In other words, as I explain at the end of this video, the correct pay for many federal bureaucrats is zero, for the simple reason that their jobs shouldn’t exist.

This is why I explained a few days ago that the real goal for the Trump Administration should be program terminations. The new hiring freeze is good, to be sure, but it’s largely a symbolic gesture.

And that’s not going to solve our very big problem.

P.S. Though the problem is even bigger in Europe.

P.P.S. A study from the European Central Bank found that excessive pay for bureaucrats undermines entire economies by breaking the link between compensation and productivity.

P.P.P.S. If you want to some bureaucrat-themed humor to make all this bad news more palatable, these posters and this video are the place to start. And if you want more, here’s a joke about an Indian training for a government job, a slide show on how bureaucracies operate, a cartoon strip on bureaucratic incentives, a story on what would happen if Noah tried today to build an Ark, and a top-10 list of ways to tell if you work for the government. I also found a good one-liner from Craig Ferguson, along with some political cartoons from Michael Ramirez, Henry Payne, and Sean Delonas.

P.P.P.P.S. I laughed when I read about this, but it’s more gross than funny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a rather sobering chart from the story.

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

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

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

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

Let’s close with some blurbs from other stories.

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

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

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

Such as forgetting to change the oil on a ship.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what, then, does the department do?

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

Here’s the bottom line.

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

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As a public finance economist, I normally focus on big-picture issues such as the economically debilitating effect of excessive government spending and punitive taxation.

But as a human being, what irks me most about big government is the way that insiders use the system to enrich themselves. I don’t like it when politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, contractors, cronies, and other well-connected interest groups funnel money to themselves at the expense of ordinary people.

Especially when taxpayers pay twice. They have less take-home income because of higher tax burdens and over time their pre-tax income doesn’t grow as fast because a bloated public sector reduces growth.

In other words, a lose-lose situation for regular folks.

But it’s a win-win situation for insiders. Consider, for instance, this exposé in the Daily Caller about a bureaucrat who double-dipped by getting a big paycheck from Uncle Sam an interior designer while also getting outside contracts as – you guessed it – an interior designer.

A fashionista from Beverly Hills, Calif., collected millions in interior design contracts from federal agencies by claiming to be “disadvantaged,” while simultaneously working at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) sending work to design companies. Ronda C. Jackson was a no-show at her VA job, colleagues said. Records show she instead spent her time running a design company that got $7 million in contracts from the VA and other government agencies since 2008, reselling them marked-up goods like five-seat tables for $17,000.

Here are some of the sordid details.

Jackson worked as a full-time federal employee at the Los Angeles VA center in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, which ran from Oct. 1, 2009 to Sept. 30, 2011. Pay records show she worked as a GS-12 level interior designer and made $80,000 each year. Colleagues said they never saw Jackson in the office. …In fiscal years 2008 through 2010, the company had $222,000 in contracts with the VA, federal records show. …she was being paid as a full-time employee for almost a whole year while also working on a contract for the same agency and at the same hospital and for the same type of work. Her job as an employee was to buy furniture for the VA, and her job as a contractor included selling it.

Wow, sort of reminds me of the bureaucrat from the National Weather Service who created a contractor position for himself.

But Ms. Jackson took it to the next level, getting a paycheck and being a contractor at the same time. How did she get away with all this?

Well, her boss set a good example of how to waste money and bilk the system.

Robert Benkeser, a high-level manager in charge of facilities, was told that Jackson appeared to have a no-show employment arrangement, but did nothing. Benkeser is the same manager who was in charge of an official vehicle fleet from which 30 of 88 cars disappeared. He fired the employee who exposed the missing cars as well as the fact that government credit cards from the same unit appeared to have been used fraudulently. Benkeser received only “counseling” for the misconduct.

Gee, I wonder if he was one of the VA bureaucrats who got a big bonuses after the agency put veterans on secret waiting lists?

But what makes Ms. Jackson special is the way she doubly double-dipped.

That’s an odd way of describing something, but somehow appropriate because she got herself classified as “disadvantaged” so that she could get contracts without the usual competitive bidding process.

A 2009 contract, in which records from USASpending.gov classify the company as HUBZone while listing its Beverly Hills address, says she was paid $72,000 for outfitting the Federal Aviation Administration with “framed artwork for CMEL guest room and main building [and] conference rooms.” The company subsequently moved to Los Angeles. Jackson charged $70,000 for an unspecified “21 [inch] freestanding unit” and $17,000 for a five-person outdoor table. Ninety-eight percent of the nearly $7 million in contracting dollars awarded to Jackson’s company came without the government weighing her offer against those of other companies.

So instead of paying twice as much as something would cost in the private sector, which is typical for government, her no-bid scams probably resulted in taxpayers paying four times as much as necessary. So she was a bureaucrat, a contractor, and disadvantaged, which we can consider a form of triple-dipping.

As the old saying goes, nice “work” if you can get it.

There’s no question that Ms. Jackson has “earned” her way into the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. Congratulations, Ronda!

By the way, the article raises a bigger issue.

Jackson’s case underscores questions about VA’s army of 167 full-time interior designers. Nearly every VA hospital in the country has one or more.

I can understand why it might be acceptable to have one interior designer (assuming the VA stays in the business of running hospitals, which obviously shouldn’t be the case), but why 167 of them?

Oh, it’s government and we need to remember what Milton Friedman said about “other people’s money.” Forget that I even asked such a silly question.

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