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Archive for the ‘Waste’ Category

If you did a word-association test with people after describing jaw-dropping examples of government incompetence, you would probably get answers like “angry” or “wasteful.” Especially if you asked around April 15.

Though in some cases of spectacular and inexplicable ineptitude by government, you reach a stage where the answers might even be “preposterous” or “comical.”

Unfortunately, today we’re going to look at an example of bone-headed government behavior that can only be described as “deadly.”

That’s because the New York Times just revealed that there were very obvious red flags about one of the San Bernardino terrorists, yet federal bureaucrats apparently were too stupid, lazy, or incompetent to check sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband carried out the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., passed three background checks by American immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan. None uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad. She said she supported it. And she said she wanted to be a part of it. …The discovery of the old social media posts has exposed a significant — and perhaps inevitable — shortcoming in how foreigners are screened when they enter the United States, particularly as people everywhere disclose more about themselves online. …In an era when technology has given intelligence agencies seemingly limitless ability to collect information on people, it may seem surprising that a Facebook or Twitter post could go unnoticed in a background screening.

But you’ll be happy to know that the Keystone Cops in the bureaucracy are now contemplating whether to even look at the barn door now that we know the horses keep escaping.

…a debate is underway at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that approves visas and green cards, over whether officers conducting interviews should be allowed to routinely use material gathered from social media for interviews where they assess whether foreigners are credible or pose any security risk.

What makes this story so aggravating is that national security is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government.

Yet we get glaring examples of failure, perhaps because Washington has become so bloated that sensible management is increasingly difficult.

For another example of government incompetence in the area of national security, let’s go to the Middle East, where ABC News reported that a program to train supposedly moderate fighters in Syria achieved remarkable levels of inefficiency.

…only “four or five” of the first 54 U.S.trained moderate Syrian fighters remain in the fight against ISIS. …there are currently between 100 and 120 fighters in a program that was slated to have trained 5,400 fighters in its first 12 months. …So far, $42 million has been spent to develop the $500 million program which began training in April.

Wow. If my math is right, that’s about $10 million per fighter. I’m tempted to joke about getting fighters for a lot cheaper by placing an advertisement in Solider of Fortune.

But a more serious point is that  the fact that the program surely has been a huge success for the bureaucrats and contractors. After all, they got lots of taxpayer money, so who cares about actual results.

But the more serious point is why the US is involved in Syria in the first place? Writing for Reason, Steve Chapman argues for nonintervention and even makes the point that the U.S. should instead welcome Russia’s involvement.

Vladimir Putin…has sent Russian planes to bomb rebels in Syria. …he reaffirmed his commitment to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. …Republicans regard this as a calamity. But what’s the downside? There are two main ways this gambit could go. …The first possibility is that he will inflict significant damage on Islamic State. In that case, one of our most vicious enemies would be weakened—at little cost or risk to Americans. The only thing better than defeating Islamic State is getting someone to do it for us. …The second possibility is that Putin will fail… He could find himself in a costly, bloody war. Or he might decide the prize is not worth the effort and pull back, which would dash his dreams of regional power and discredit him at home. Either way, he’s worse off, and we’re not.

Now let’s shift to a story that goes beyond routine government incompetence and deserves a special category.

Because when you read about military bureaucrats turning a blind eye to child rape in Afghanistan, words like “evil” and “soulless” are far more appropriate.

Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population. The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene — in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records. …soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages.

Unsurprisingly, as reported by the Washington Examiner, the Obama Administration is leading from behind.

The White House dodged questions…about allegations that U.S. military officials are ordering U.S. soldiers to ignore child abuse in Afghanistan committed by Afghan militia, military and police, and instead indicated that those orders reflect Defense Department policy.

Not exactly a proud moment for the United States.

To be sure, you have to make compromises with right and wrong during wartime. Heck, we were allies in World War II with one of the world’s most murderous and sinister regimes.

But surely we can disallow child rape on American military bases!

Let’s return to a more mundane example of bad policy, one that shows the U.S. government can waste money overseas just as effectively as it wastes money at home.

U.S. taxpayers footed the bill for a $43 million natural-gas filling station in Afghanistan, a boondoggle that should have cost $500,000 and has virtually no value to average Afghans… A Pentagon task force awarded a $3 million contract to build the station in Sheberghan, Afghanistan, but ended up spending $12 million in construction costs and $30 million in “overhead” between 2011 and 2014.

Wow. Reminds me of being in a meeting last decade and a representative of the Bush Administration was arguing that its nation-building exercise (I forget whether it was Iraq or Afghanistan) was going well because we had successfully built so many schools and sewer systems.

I was being a curmudgeonly libertarian and made myself unpopular by pointing out that I didn’t think it was the responsibility of the federal government to fund those projects in the United States, much less overseas.

Let’s end where we started, with an example of government incompetence that could have deadly consequences.

Hillary Clinton’s “reset” with Russia was a miserable failure and the United States increasingly is worried about Putin’s adventurism. Yet the federal government didn’t exercise sufficient oversight to make sure that citizens of a potential enemy didn’t get to work on classified computer code.

The Pentagon was tipped off in 2011 by a longtime Army contractor that Russian computer programmers were helping to write computer software for sensitive U.S. military communications systems…the software they wrote had made it possible for the Pentagon’s communications systems to be infected with viruses. …the work had been done in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.

Doesn’t exactly leave one with a great feeling of confidence.

So there are two lessons from today.

First, politicians and bureaucrats and wasteful and incompetent, and that applies even in areas where there is a legitimate role for government.

Second, we’ll have a better chance of getting sensible and competent decisions if government is a lot smaller. After all, it will be a lot easier to have oversight when government is doing 100 things instead of 10,000 things.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2014.

There are some legitimate functions of government and I want those to be handled efficiently. But I worry that effective government is increasingly unlikely because politicians are so busy intervening in areas that should be left to families, civil society, and the private sector.

Mark Steyn made the same point in a much more amusing fashion.

Which is why these cartoons are such a good depiction of government.

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The Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, created to highlight government workers who go above and beyond the call of duty, is apparently such a prestigious honor that there’s been a strong competition between Americans and foreigners to engage in behavior that merits this great award.

Consider the U.S. bureaucrats who have earned membership so far in 2015.

The civil servant at the Patent and Trademark Office who was paid to shoot pool and drink beer.

The bureaucrat at the National Weather Service who pulled an impressive get-reclassified-as-a-consultant-for-a-lot-more-money scam.

A drone from the Commerce Department managed to combine porn downloading, obstruction of justice, overseas shopping trips, and not showing up to work.

Bureaucrats from overseas also have earned membership this year.

The French official who had a taxpayer provided car and chauffeur, yet still billed taxpayers for $44,000 worth of taxis.

Or the Indian bureaucrat who kept his job for more than 20 years even though he stopped going to work.

As I look at these 2015 honorees, I feel like the system is a bit unfair. Maybe it’s just me, but it appears that the foreign bureaucrats are more deserving than their American counterparts.

And I’m guessing that a senior-level bureaucrat at the Department of Veterans Affairs felt the same way. So he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Literally.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the Daily Caller.

…the Department of Veterans Affairs’ former top watchdog, resigned after being caught masturbating in the agency’s all-glass conference room in full view of people across the street, including school teachers at an education conference. …investigators confronted him with detailed instances of public masturbation in multiple states, according to a previously undisclosed report by the Department of the Interior inspector general and obtained by The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Obviously a very deserving member of the of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. And he’s definitely upped the ante on what it take to become a member.

For all intents and purposes, he’s thrown down the gauntlet to foreign bureaucrats: What can they do to…um…beat this?

But let’s set aside the U.S. vs. foreigners aspect of this issue and look more closely at our new honoree.

He apparently had lots of time on his hands (so to speak) because his office decided that it was okay for the Department to operate de facto death panels.

Sort of a trial run for Obamacare!

It was during Wooditch’s tenure as deputy inspector general that the VA IG first uncovered — then all but ignored — dozens of clues of the widespread patient wait-list manipulation that contributed to the deaths of dozens of veterans.

It’s also impressive that he got a promotion shortly after getting caught with porn on his computer.

He was caught with porn on his work computer in 2003, but VA officials only “counseled” him. Not long afterward, he was promoted to the top job.

Not surprisingly, he won’t face any penalties. Indeed, the net result is that he’ll go from being an overpaid bureaucrat to being an over-compensated retiree.

Wooditch retired with a federal pension without ever facing administrative discipline or criminal charges.

Though I don’t want to think what he’ll be doing with all this extra time on his hands.

And here’s a final excerpt.

IG agents also learned during their investigation of a separate incident…they were told, he made an “inappropriate advance” on his next-door neighbor as she was grieving her husband’s death. …“…she said Wooditch began to pose nude and masturbate in front of a window that was only viewable from her house” repeatedly, the report said. The woman…did have police warn him to stop. Wooditch lectured the police that he was a “high-level government employee.”

I think you’ll agree that it nicely captures the arrogance of the federal bureaucracy.

It’s the mindset that leads to these kinds of outrages.

P.S. Shifting to a different topic, I can’t resist an I-told-you-so moment.

There was a disagreement last year among advocates of smaller government about whether Doug Elmendorf, the then-Director of the Congressional Budget Office, should be replaced since Republicans were in full control of Capitol Hill.

I was one of those who argued a new Director was needed. Here’s some of what I wrote.

Elmendorf’s predecessor was a doctrinaire leftist named Peter Orszag. If Orszag’s policy views were a country, they would be France or Greece. By contrast, I’m guessing that Elmendorf would be like Sweden or Germany. In other words, he wants more government than I do, but at least Elmendorf basically understands that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. …That being said, while it’s much better to be Sweden rather than Greece, I obviously would prefer to be Hong Kong (or, even better, pre-1913 America).

The GOP leadership ultimately decided to replace Elmendorf.

It’s too soon to make any sweeping assessment of his successor, though early indications are somewhat positive.

But that’s not the point of this postscript.

Instead, I want to pat myself on the back for being right about Elmendorf. Now that he’s no longer at CBO, he’s come out of the closet and is openly pushing statist policies.

Here’s some of what he wrote earlier this year about “a fairer approach to fiscal reform.”

…the incomes of people across most of the income distribution have risen quite slowly, while incomes at the high end have risen rapidly. …There are a variety of ways to increase tax revenue for Social Security by imposing a payroll tax on income above the current-law taxable maximum. …this approach…does not offer a free lunch. …would reduce people’s incentives to work and save.

So the bottom line is that he recognizes his preferred policy (which is what Obama has endorsed) will hurt the economy, but his ideological support for redistribution and his myopic fixation on income distribution leads him to the wrong conclusion.

And here’s something else. The Hill reports he’s urging class-warfare tax policy.

Former Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf on Thursday said the tax code should be changed so that the wealthy pay higher taxes…in a video released Thursday by the left-leaning Bookings Institution, where he is a visiting fellow.

Another example of his support for Obama’s preferred policies.

And another reason why those of us who favored a new person at CBO can take a victory lap.

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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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Government intervention has messed up the healthcare sector, leading to needlessly high prices and massive inefficiency.

Fixing the mess won’t be easy since it would involve addressing several contributing problems, including Medicare, Medicaid, the healthcare exclusion in the tax code, Obamacare, and the mess at the Veterans Administration.

But at least we know the right solutions. We need entitlement reform and tax reform in order to restore a genuine free market and solve the government-created third-party payer crisis.

And to bolster the case for reform, we’re going to look at three new examples of how government intervention makes the healthcare system worse rather than better.

For our first example, let’s look at a new report from the National Center for Policy Analysis, which compares what happens when the federal government decides to build a hospital with a similar project constructed by a local government with private-sector involvement.

We’ll start with a look at Veterans Administration project.

…the VA hospital in Denver, Colorado, was run-down, crowded and outdated. …the VA considered renovating the medical facilities of the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center at a cost of $30 million. Then, the University of Colorado Hospital offered to open jointly-operated facilities for $200 million. VA officials passed on both ideas due to cost concerns. Instead, officials sought and received approval for a stand-alone facility.

That decision was very costly for taxpayers.

The VA failed to produce a design that could be built for its budget of $604 million, ultimately causing a budget-busting $1 billion overrun. …Soon, the plan to build an affordable replacement morphed into the most extravagant and expensive hospital construction project in VA history.

And, as is typical of government projects, the cost to taxpayers was far higher than initial estimates used to justify the project.

Now let’s look at another project, this one in Dallas, Texas.

…the original Parkland Hospital was built in Dallas to serve the young city’s indigent population. …its aging facilities could no longer meet the demand of 1 million patients admitted each year. …The project to rebuild Parkland, split roughly 60/40 in revenue sources, was accountable to both the public and its private donors. …Project managers hired an independent auditor to monitor all project transactions. Budget progress reports were made available to both Parkland’s Board and the public.

The final outcome was far from perfect (after all, local governments are also quite capable of wasting money). But the involvement of the private sector, combined with the fact that the local government was spending its own money, created incentives for a much better outcome.

On the first day of construction, Parkland’s project team was $100 million over budget. But a flexible design, and a willingness to balance needs and wants, allowed the team to deliver a larger, more cost-effective hospital than originally conceived for a mere 6 percent increase in budget.

And here’s a chart from the NCPA report that perfectly captures the difference between the federal government and a project involving a local government and the private sector.

Can you think of a better argument for local private-public partnerships over the federal government?

Yet policy keeps moving in the wrong direction in Washington.

The Obamacare boondoggle was all about increasing the federal government’s control and intervention in the healthcare sector.

And this brings us to our second not-so-great example of government-run healthcare.

The New York Times has a story with a real-world example showing how the President’s failed legislation is hurting small businesses.

LaRonda Hunter…envisioned…a small regional collection of salons. As her sales grew, so did her business, which now encompasses four locations — but her plans for a fifth salon are frozen, perhaps permanently.

And why can’t she expand her business and create jobs?

Because Obamacare makes it impossible.

Starting in January, the Affordable Care Act requires businesses with 50 or more full-time-equivalent employees to offer workers health insurance or face penalties that can exceed $2,000 per employee. Ms. Hunter, who has 45 employees, is determined not to cross that threshold. Paying for health insurance would wipe out her company’s profit and the five-figure salary she pays herself from it, she said.

And Ms. Hunter is just the tip of the iceberg.

For some business owners on the edge of the cutoff, the mandate is forcing them to weigh very carefully the price of growing bigger. “There’s kind of a deer-in-headlights moment for those who say, ‘I have this new potential client, but if I bring them on, I have to hire five additional people,’” said Philip P. Noftsinger, the payroll unit president at CBIZ, a financial services provider for businesses. “They’re really trying to assess how much the 50th employee is going to cost. …Added to that cost are the administrative requirements. Starting this year, all companies with 50 or more full-time workers — even those not yet required to offer health benefits — must file new tax forms with the Internal Revenue Service that provide details on employee head count and any health insurance offered. Gathering the data requires meticulous record-keeping. “These are some of the most complex informational returns we’ve ever seen,” said Roger Prince, a tax lawyer.

Here’s another real-world example.

The expense and distraction of all that paperwork is one of the biggest frustrations for one business owner, Joseph P. Sergio. …He is reluctant to go over the 50-employee line and incur all of the new rules that come with it. That makes bidding for new jobs an arduous and risky exercise. …”If you ramp up, and it pushes you over 50, there’s all these unknown costs and complicated rules. Are we really going to be able to benefit from going after that opportunity? It freezes you at a time when you need to be moving fast.”

And don’t forget that while Obamacare discourages entrepreneurs from creating jobs, it also discourages people from seeking jobs.

That’s the kind of two-for-one special that’s only possible with big government!

Now that we’ve cited examples of bad policy from the Veterans Administration and Obamacare, let’s turn to Medicare for our third example.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center writes about rampant Medicare fraud in her syndicated column.

Medicare is rife with fraud, and every year, billions of dollars are improperly paid out by the federal government’s giant health care bureaucracy. According to the government’s latest estimates, Medicare fee-for-service (parts A and B) made $46 billion in improper payments last year. And Medicare Advantage (Part C) and Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage (Part D) combined for another $15 billion in improper payments. Even more disturbing is the possibility that these numbers underestimate the annual losses to taxpayers from fraud and bureaucratic bungling. According to the work of Harvard University’s Malcolm Sparrow, fraud could account for as much as 20 percent of total federal health care spending, which would be considerably higher than what the government’s figures indicate.

None of this should be a surprise. Medicare has a notorious history of waste, fraud, and abuse.

But there is a glimmer of good news. There’s actually a program to identify and recover wasted funds.

The RAC program is geared toward correcting improper payments… The auditors thus pay for themselves with the money they recoup instead of simply being handed a lump-sum check. That the RAC program has an incentive to reduce wasteful spending and save taxpayers money makes it fairly unusual among government initiatives.

Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished in Washington.

…bureaucrats are set to greatly diminish the program’s effectiveness in 2016. Rather than empower these fraud hunters, they are drastically reducing the number of paid claims that auditors can review every 45 days (from 2 percent down to just 0.5 percent). The new limits will make it that much harder for auditors — whose cost already amounts to just a drop in the bucket — to recoup taxpayer losses.

I’ve also written about this absurd effort to curtail the RAC program, but Veronique makes a critically important observation that has widespread applicability to so much of what happens with government.

Agency failure is routinely rewarded in Washington with bigger budgets and greater authority, but here success will not be.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between the private sector and the government.

In my speeches, I sometimes point out that people in the private economy make mistakes all the time, but I also explain that the incentive to earn profits and avoid losses creates a powerful incentive structure to quickly learn from mistakes.

That means resources quickly get reallocated in ways that are more likely to boost economic efficiency and increase growth and living standards.

In government, by contrast, this process is reversed. Bureaucrats and politicians reflexively argue that failure simply means that budgets should be expanded.

All of which explains why these cartoons are such perfect depictions of government.

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The Transportation Security Administration has become infamous over the years for things that it doesn’t allow on planes.

Consider these examples of the Keystone Cops in action.

Confiscating a plastic hammer from a mentally retarded man.

Detaining a woman for carrying breast milk.

Hassling a woman for the unexplained red flag of having sequentially numbered checks.

Demanding that a handicapped 4-year old boy walk through a metal detector without his leg braces.

Putting an 8-year old cub scout on the no-fly list.

o Stopping a teenager from flying because her purse had an image of a gun.

o Seizing raygun belt buckles and Kitty Cat keychains.

Though, to be fair, other governments are similarly brainless.

I was quite amused by this bit of news from Ireland.

When passing through security at the airport, a Minion fart gun…was seized from a young toddler and taken away. The security officers claimed it was a ‘threat’ and took the toy gun away from the child.

Just in case you think a “fart gun” is too realistic and that a potential terrorist might grab it from the child and use it to take over the plane, here’s a picture to put your mind at ease.

And let’s not forget that airport bureaucrats all over the planet are on guard against criminal toiletries. I’ve had obviously dangerous toothpaste and deodorant confiscated not only in the United States, but also at airports in seemingly sensible places such as Australia and Cayman.

But let’s be fair. The TSA gets a lot of attention for things it doesn’t allow on planes, so perhaps it is time to give the bureaucrats some attention for the things it does allow.

Unfortunately, as reported by Politico, the TSA apparently is better at blocking fake weapons rather than real weapons.

…news that the Transportation Security Administration failed to detect 67 of 70 mock weapons in a secret test shook the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees it, and led to renewed calls for the TSA to clean up its act. …Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who used to chair the transportation committee, said the 95 percent failure rate is evidence of a sweeping conceptual failure. …“They’re spending billions of dollars on a huge screening bureaucracy,” he added. …the TSA also cannot publicly point to many significant attacks thwarted at airport gates, leading experts to insist that its protocols should be considered largely ineffective. Rafi Sela, president of international transportation security consultancy AR Challenges, said the agency’s nearly $8 billion budget is largely being misspent on a misguided model.

Great, we’re flushing $8 billion down the toilet on a system that does a bad job based on a bad methodology.

Heck, the bureaucrats can’t even stop the wrong people from getting through security.

A man with a stolen boarding pass got through airport security in Salt Lake City and checked in at a gate for a flight to California… Salata, who is on the sex offender registry in Utah, grabbed a boarding pass that a woman accidently left at a check-in kiosk and used it to get through a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, said Craig Vargo, chief of airport police.

He was only stopped because the woman obtained another boarding pass.

Salata was detained when the woman who had left the pass checked in using a replacement ticket that had been uploaded to her phone.

The TSA tried to rationalize this goof by stating that at least he wasn’t able to smuggle any guns or bombs past security.

TSA spokeswoman Lori Dankers said an agent made a mistake in identifying Salata, but the man was properly screened to determine if he was carrying anything dangerous.

Gee, how reassuring.

Now that we’ve mocked the TSA for stopping harmless items and allowing potentially dangerous items (or people), let’s contemplate some actual solutions.

In previous columns, I’ve argued that it’s time to put the private sector in charge, citing the good work of Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz. And as Steve Chapman has explained, there were lots of benefits to the pre-TSA system.

Let’s now add to that list.

We’ll start with some passages from Jeff Jacoby’s column in the Boston Globe.

He starts by beating up on the TSA.

Fourteen years after the creation of the TSA, there is still no indication that the agency has ever caught a terrorist, or foiled a 9/11-type plot in the offing. Conversely, there are reams of reports documenting the inability of TSA screeners to spot hidden guns, knives, bomb components, and other dangerous contraband as they pass through airport checkpoints. It’s doubtful that anyone is still capable of being surprised by a fresh confirmation of the TSA’s incompetence… The Transportation Security Administration, which annually costs taxpayers more than $7 billion, should never have been created. The responsibility for airport security should never have been federalized, let alone entrusted to a bloated, inflexible workforce.

He then points out that there’s a better approach.

The airlines themselves should bear the chief responsibility for protecting planes and passengers at airports. After all, they have powerful financial incentives to ensure that flights are free of danger, while at the same time minimizing the indignities to which customers are subjected. Their bottom line would be at stake. The TSA feels no such spur. Effective defense against airline terrorism doesn’t require patting down grandmothers or confiscating eyedrops. It requires sophisticated counterterror intelligence (which is what stopped the 2006 liquid bomb plot), and it calls for passengers to be vigilant (which is what ultimately foiled the underwear and shoe bombers). The TSA supplies neither.

A column by Adam Summers in the Orange County Register reaches the same conclusion.

He starts with the indictment of the current system.

TSA’s performance has steadily declined. A 2002 USA Today report revealed that undercover agents got bombs and weapons through security about a quarter of the time. By 2007, the failure rate had increased to 75 percent. Since then, the TSA has increased the number of screeners from 30,000 to 46,000 and spent $550 million on new screening equipment and agent training, yet somehow it continues to get worse. …The TSA has also perpetuated – and even expanded – failed and unproven programs, such as the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, which seeks to weed out evildoers by looking for certain behavioral cues among passengers. The GAO…recommended shuttering the program. Nonetheless, the agency has spent roughly $1 billion on SPOT since 2007 and is defiantly moving forward to “enhance” the program.

And then points to a sensible solution.

The TSA has proven to be abusive, unaccountable and totally ineffective. To restore some sense of competency and accountability, the agency should simply be abolished, and security should be made the responsibility of private airlines and airports, which have a strong incentive to prevent their customers from being killed. Competition among private providers would also lead to adoption of the most efficient and effective security measures while still respecting travelers’ rights.

Wow, what a shocking conclusion. The private sector is more competent than the government. Knock me over with a  feather!

Let’s close with some humor (though the joke is on us). The column by Adam Summers mentioned TSA’s SPOT program, which even the Government Accountability Office has recognized as a wasteful failure.

Well, the folks at Reason have a very amusing video on the characteristics that might lead SPOT bureaucrats to identify you as a potential terrorist.

P.S. Check out this amazing picto-graph if you want more information about the failures of the TSA.

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

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Advocates of limited government favor a small public sector because more resources in the productive sector of the economy translates into faster growth, more job creation, and higher living standards.

Statists, by contrast, favor big government for two main reasons. First, many of them belong to well-connected interest groups that have their snouts in the federal trough. Second, some of them sincerely think government spending “stimulates” an economy and/or “helps” people.

I want to address the latter group of statists, most of whom are well meaning.

I’ve learned over time that such voters generally don’t pay that much attention to economic arguments.

To the extent they sometimes favor small government, it’s because they think Washington wastes money. Indeed, I suspect a majority of voters would agree with P.J. O’Rourke that “giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

Yet many of those voters (perhaps even including some of the ones that recognize that DC is riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse) can be persuaded to support bigger government. Having engaged in thousands of conversations with such people over several decades, I think they’re motivated by a desire to be part of a society that “cares.” So, regardless of Washington’s track record of exacerbating problems rather than solving them, these folks sometimes think more government is the right approach. Like second weddings, this is a triumph of hope over experience.

Today, at the risk of jumbling my analogies, let’s try to convince such people that you don’t want a second wedding if it means you’re getting hitched to an institution that is unavoidably wasteful and incompetent.

And we have some fresh eye-popping evidence. Here are some excerpts from an exposé published by the Washington Post.

…the government has spent more than $1 billion trying to replace its antiquated approach to managing immigration with a system of digitized records, online applications and a full suite of nearly 100 electronic forms. A decade in, all that officials have to show for the effort is a single form that’s now available for online applications and a single type of fee that immigrants pay electronically. The 94 other forms can be filed only with paper.

Amazing. After 10 years and $1 billion, the net result is a total cluster-you-know-what.

…officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which includes USCIS, were aware that the project was riddled with hundreds of critical software and other defects. …Only three of the agency’s scores of immigration forms have been digitized — and two of these were taken offline after they debuted because nearly all of the software and hardware from the original system had to be junked. ..A report last year from the DHS inspector general’s office said it sometimes took up to 150 clicks for employees to navigate the system’s various complex features and open documents.

So is the incompetent contractor (IBM) getting punished? Are any of the bureaucrats in charge of the project getting fired?

Of course not. This is government! So why you waste some money, that’s merely a prelude to wasting even more money.

This project, run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was originally supposed to cost a half-billion dollars and be finished in 2013. Instead, it’s now projected to reach up to $3.1 billion and be done nearly four years from now.

By the way, the incompetence revealed in this story this is not an argument for immigration or against immigration.

My point is simply that governments have long track records of squandering other people’s money, with this story simply being another straw on the camel’s back.

Or maybe it would be better to describe it as another bit of dead weight financed by over-burdened taxpayers.

I don’t know if this will make anyone feel better, but other governments are similarly incompetent and foolish.

Here’s an example of government blundering from overseas. As reported by the UK-based Guardian, the European Commission just admitted that it has successfully process 0.00015 percent of refugees.

EU members states agreed in September to relocate 160,000 people in “clear need of international protection” through a scheme set up to relocate Syrian, Eritrean, and Iraqi refugees from the most affected EU states – such as Italy and Greece – to other EU member states. So far 116 people have been relocated, and only 1,418 places have been made available by 14 member states, according to data released on Tuesday by the European Commission.

Wow. It’s been a while since I was a student, but I remember that you need 70.0 percent for a C and 60.0 percent to avoid failing.

With that in mind, I wonder what sort of grade you get for 0.00015 percent? Is there such as thing as F-, though I guess Z- would be more appropriate.

Here’s a graphic from the article.

By the way, the EU’s incompetence at processing refugees is one issue. Another issue is whether European nations should be granting refugee status to hundreds of thousands (and eventually millions) of people from cultures that don’t assimilate very well.

And I imagine that refugee status in Europe means access to welfare, so the system presumably creates the same perverse incentives we find on the American refugee program.

But for today, I’m simply focused on the fact that government bureaucracies are spectacularly incompetent.

Yet there are still many people who want to give more power and money to politicians.

Let’s close with a serious point.

Unless you’re an anarcho-capitalist, there are some things you want government to do, and you want those things to be done well.

So how, given the natural incompetence of the public sector, can you get good (or at least acceptable) results?

The only feasible answer is to have small government, as Mark Steyn has explained with his usual dose of sarcasm. A bloated public sector guarantees slipshod performance everywhere. But if the federal government concentrates on just a few tasks, oversight and monitoring will be easier and it will be easier to weed out incompetence.

And this isn’t just theory. The European Central Bank has produced a measure of public sector efficiency and their research shows that smaller governments are much more competent at producing desired results.

P.S. Bizarrely, some folks acknowledge government incompetence but think the right solution is more power for government.

P.P.S. Some of this is common sense. What government do you think is more competent and effective, France with its big government or Switzerland with its medium-sized government? Where do you think government is more effective, Singapore with its small government or the United States with its medium-sized government?

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Yesterday, I shared several stories that exposed the festering corruption of Washington.

Today, let’s look at one issue that symbolizes the pervasive waste of Washington.

Medicare is the federal government’s one-size-fits-all health program for the elderly. Because of its poor design, it bears considerable responsibility for two massive problems.

  1. It contributes to the systemic third-party payer problem in American health care.
  2. It exacerbates America’s long-run challenge of excessive entitlement spending.

But there’s another issue. Medicare also has a very serious problem with fraud. As is so often the case with government programs, the offer of free money encourages unethical behavior.

Well, we have some good news and bad news about Medicare fraud.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the good news is that there is a small effort to catch fraudsters who bilk taxpayers.

Recovery audit contractors, as they are known, recouped $2.4 billion in improper payments in 2014, down from $3.7 billion in 2013 before the agency scaled back other audit activities and temporarily suspended the program… Those recoveries represent just a fraction of the total amount Medicare estimates it spends on incorrect payments. The Medicare program made $58 billion in improper payments to medical providers and health plans in 2014, according to PaymentAccuracy.gov, a federal website that tracks agencies’ estimates of waste.

But the bad news is this small program is being curtailed.

The federal Medicare agency is sharply cutting back the work of auditors that review hospital claims and seek to recoup improper payments for the government… Starting in January, the auditors will be able to review only 0.5% of the claims the agency pays to each hospital or provider every 45 days, according to an Oct. 28 letter to the contractors. That is a quarter of the prior threshold: 2% of claims. The contractors say the new directive, in what is known as a “technical direction letter,” will further limit their ability to pursue undue payments.

Readers are probably wondering why this effort is being hamstrung instead of expanded.

Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that the folks who benefit from waste want to keep the gravy train rolling.

The latest step is a sign of how the $600-billion-a-year Medicare program can struggle to effectively rein in improper payments, fraud and waste, sometimes under pressure from medical providers… The Medicare agency “is getting a lot of pressure from the provider community to scale back the [audit] program,” said Kristin Walter… Hospital representatives welcomed further restrictions on the auditors.

Sort of like burglars welcoming “further restrictions” on police officers.

Unfortunately, the interest groups benefiting from waste and fraud have allies in government.

The American Thinker has a nauseating story about the fraudulent actions of a hospital in Houston

The president of Riverside, his son, and five others were arrested on October 4 as part of a nationwide Medicare fraud sweep.  Earnest Gibson III, chief executive officer of Riverside General Hospital for 30 years, has been charged with bilking $158 million out of Medicare over the last seven years. …Friday’s arrests at Riverside came nine months after the arrest of Mohammad Khan, the hospital’s acting administrator, who pled guilty to his role in the Medicare fraud scheme…the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services suspended payments to Riverside.

You may be wondering why this is a nauseating story when it appears that some bad guys were nailed for screwing taxpayers.

Well, now we get to the disgusting part. A politician in Washington has been fighting to enable that bad behavior.

Sheila Jackson Lee, congresswoman for Houston’s 18th district…wrote CMS Acting Director Marilyn Tavenner requesting she reconsider the agency’s decision. …Jackson Lee…asks taxpayers who have already been bilked out of hundreds of millions of dollars to pour more money into a…hospital run by alleged crooks…while administrators and politicians rake in more dough.

Sadly, the Congresswoman’s political pressure generated results.

…a month after Jackson Lee appealed to CMS…, 70% of the hospital’s Medicare payments were restored.  CMS lifted the suspension even though federal investigators were only two months away from arresting Gibson and the others.  Jackson Lee’s intervention seems to have caused even more taxpayer monies to be directed toward a hospital brimming with corruption. …This is why Washington, D.C. is broken.  Like Jackson Lee, too many politicians think that redistributing other people’s hard-earned money into the pockets of potential felons is okay as long as they get political benefit.

By the way, it’s not just Democrats. The Daily Surge reports that some Republicans are helping providers rip off taxpayers.

…efforts to rid Medicare of waste, fraud and abuse have been stymied by the power of the hospital lobby that refuses to payback excessive payments made by Medicare and are working with friends and allies in government to ensure the improper payments are never returned to the taxpayers. …at least one GOP members, Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) has actually introduced legislation further limiting the ability of the auditors to sniff out waste. His bill would block audits of Medicare providers unless their estimated error rate exceeded 40% of total billing. More than one third of all Medicare bills would have fraudulent before an audit could be triggered. So much for good government.

Ugh, makes me want to take a shower.

So what’s the bottom line? Unfortunately, fraud is an inherent part of government. When politicians create redistribution programs, amoral and immoral people will figure out ways to maximize their share of the loot.

In the case of Medicare, it means that providers have huge incentives to over-charge, over-diagnose, over-treat, and over-test.

After all, thanks to third-party payer, the patient doesn’t care.

That’s why I’m in favor of programs to combat fraud. And the RAC program doesn’t even cost taxpayers any money since the auditors are compensated by getting a slice of the improper payments that are recovered.

Imagine that, a policy where the incentives are to save money for taxpayers!

However, the only long-run and permanent solution is to shrink the size of government.

And that’s why it’s time to restructure Medicare. We have 50 years of evidence that the current approach doesn’t work.

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