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Archive for the ‘Waste’ Category

Some people say that California is the worst-governed state (I would probably choose Illinois or New Jersey, but it’s a close race).

And if you wanted to pick the worst-governed place in California, San Francisco might be at the top of the list.

The city manages to combine horrible zoning laws with insufferable red tape (there have been efforts to ban everything from Happy Meals to…umm…foreskins).

Most disturbing of all, San Francisco now has a major problem with public defecation (not that the sewer system is anything to brag about).

In an article for City Journal, Erica Sandberg explores the latest bit of upside-down governance from The City by the Bay.

San Francisco is surreptitiously placing homeless people in luxury hotels by designating them as emergency front-line workers, a term that the broader community understands to mean doctors, nurses, and similar professionals. …the city has evoked emergency-disaster law to keep the information private. Officials refuse to notify the public about what is happening in their community and are blocking the press by withholding the list of hotels and preventing reporters from entering the properties. …obfuscation is ultimately futile. Security guards standing outside hotel entrances, where they had never been before, are clear indicators that something is amiss. An uptick in crime, drug activity, and vagrancy around the hotels is another clue.

This sounds crazy, but it gets even worse.

The Department of Public Health manages the controversial free alcohol, cigarette, and cannabis program for homeless people placed in the hotels. …A public-records investigation into the matter has revealed that, as of June 16, DPH approved $3,795.98 to buy the homeless guests vodka and beer (cigarettes have been scrapped). …concerned inside sources report destroyed rooms and rampant illegal drug use. In one hotel, guests are given needle kits and are advised to call the front desk before shooting up. …The hotels were pressured into accepting the homeless guests, though they were also eager for the chance to recoup some revenue lost to the Covid-19 lockdowns. …The city-sponsored guests also receive personal grooming, sanitary, and cleaning supplies, three delivered meals, and laundry service for clothes and linens.

Free hotel room, along with free food and laundry service? And booze and pot?

Who knew being homeless was such a good racket!

Since I’m a fiscal wonk, this is the part that captured my attention.

Rooms are rented at close to $200 per night, totaling $6,000 a month—nearly double the cost of a private one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco.

Though I shouldn’t be surprised by such profligacy. The state government’s “success story” was spending “billions of dollars” to cause homelessness to “dip by 1 percent.”

And San Francisco’s government had a different program for the homeless that cost about $700 per night. So maybe the new approach described in above article is a fiscal bargain.

By the way, it appears that taxpayers across the country are contributing to this insane policy.

Hotel owners consented to the arrangements fully aware of the potential pitfalls, having been assured that FEMA dollars would cover at least some of the damages incurred.

Good ol’ FEMA. Always ready, willing, and able to foolishly spend taxpayer money.

P.S. While San Francisco is a bit of a mess, folks in other cities (such as Seattle, Chicago, New York City, Detroit, etc) can make a legitimate claim that they have the nation’s worst local government.

P.P.S. When he crunched all the numbers, Dean Stansel of Southern Methodist University found that the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario metropolitan statistical area in California had the worst policy in the country (San Francisco was #38 out of the 55 MSAs with at least 1 million residents).

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I wrote yesterday that the Trump tax plan is yielding significant benefits, but one of my caveats at the end of the column warned that Trump’s weak record on spending undermines the long-run sustainability of lower tax rates.

The latest example of Trump’s profligacy is the $1.4 trillion spending bill for the 2020 fiscal year that was just approved (this is the “discretionary” money for the parts of the budget that are annually appropriated, so keep in mind that there’s also more than $3 trillion of “mandatory” spending for entitlement programs in 2020).

This pork-filled spending bill became inevitable when Trump surrendered to the Democrats this summer and agreed to bust the spending caps (something politicians also did in 2013, 2015, and 2018).

It’s hard to capture the utterly reckless nature of the new spending bill.

Here’s how Senator Rick Scott described the legislation.

…a giant spending package — 2,313 pages long — that was…negotiated in secret, spends $1.4 trillion, and is chock full of member projects and special-interest giveaways. …more than $4,200 for every man, woman, and child in America. …This package includes $25 million for the “operation, maintenance, and security” of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It includes a $7.25 million increase in funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the largest increase in a decade. …It includes more than $1 billion in new foreign-aid funding without any discussion about what we’re getting for this funding. …This bill spends $1.4 trillion, with no cuts or reforms. …How many more trillions of dollars do we need to spend before we wake up to the danger…? We need to reform the way Washington works, and we need to do it now.

The Wall Street Journal was similarly dismayed, opining about the bipartisan spending orgy and pointing out the real problem is that all this spending violates the Golden Rule of fiscal policy.

Congress has left town for the year but alas not before another bipartisan spending party that has typified the Trump Presidency. …The budget problem isn’t a shortage of revenue. CBO says tax receipts grew 4% last fiscal year, through September, and 3% in the first two months this year. Economic growth is feeding the Treasury. But spending is growing much faster: 8% last fiscal year, more than four times the inflation rate, and 6% in October and November this year. In addition to the latest discretionary bills, spending on Social Security (6%), Medicare (6.1%) and Medicaid (9.2%) continue to soar this year. Neither party shows any inclination to do anything about those programs, except expand them. Mr. Trump may yet join Barack Obama in the spending record books.

Regarding the final sentence in the above excerpt, I will predict now that Trump will exceed Obama’s profligacy.

And I’ll have the numbers to prove that early next year when I update my data on presidential spending.

In the meantime, I’ll close with this very depressing chart from the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

The bottom line is that Republican big spenders are enablers of Democratic big taxers.

  • In a couple of years, when there’s a big fight to get rid of the Trump tax cuts, every Republican who supported this awful deal (including Trump) will be responsible.
  • When there’s a Democratic president and a big push for class-warfare taxes, every Republican who supported this awful deal (including Trump) will be responsible.
  • When there’s a big fight after that to impose a European-style value-added tax, every Republican who supported this awful deal (including Trump) will be responsible.

Gee, isn’t bipartisanship wonderful?

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Way back in early 2016, I asked whether Donald Trump believed in smaller government.

A few months later, I concluded that the answer was no. Trump – like Bush and Nixon – was a big-government Republican.

I wish that I was wrong.

But if you look at the budget deal he approved last year, there’s no alternative explanation. Especially since there was an approach that would have guaranteed a victory for taxpayers.

Now it appears that he is on the verge of meekly surrendering to another big expansion of the federal budget.

The Washington Post has a story on the new deal to increase spending.

…the final details of a sweeping budget and debt deal are unlikely to include many — if any — actual spending cuts… The agreement appeared likely to mark a retreat for White House officials who had demanded major spending cuts in exchange for a new budget deal. …instead of the $150 billion in new spending cuts recently demanded by White House acting budget director Russell Vought, the agreement would include a significantly lower amount of reductions. And those reductions aren’t expected to represent actual spending cuts, in part because most would take place in future years and likely be reversed by Congress at a later date. …In practical terms, the budget agreement would increase spending by tens of billions of dollars in the next two years, a stark reversal from the White House’s budget request several months ago… Agreeing on new spending levels also avoids onerous budget caps that would otherwise snap into place automatically under an Obama-era deal, and indiscriminately slash $126 billion from domestic and Pentagon budgets.

The establishment-oriented Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB) is aghast at the grotesque profligacy of the purported agreement.

…this agreement is a total abdication of fiscal responsibility by Congress and the President. It may end up being the worst budget agreement in our nation’s history, proposed at a time when our fiscal conditions are already precarious. If this deal passes, President Trump will have increased discretionary spending by as much as 22 percent over his first term… There was a time when Republicans insisted on a dollar of spending cuts for every dollar increase in the debt limit. It’s hard to believe they are now considering the opposite – attaching $2 trillion of spending increases to a similar-sized debt limit hike.

I sometimes differ with the folks at the CRFB because they’re too fixated on debt rather than the size of government.

But in this case, we both find this rumored deal to be utterly irresponsible.

From a liberty-minded perspective, the Wall Street Journal opines about the spendthrift agreement.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin are negotiating another spending blowout as part of a two-year budget deal, and let’s hope the talks break down. The price could be another $2 trillion in deficit spending… The Budget Control Act of 2011 puts caps on spending that both parties have to agree to lift. In 2018 Congress passed a two-year budget deal that blew out domestic spending by more than $130 billion in exchange for a buildup in defense. The bipartisan spending party is hoping to repeat the exercise for fiscal 2020 and 2021… After the last two-year deal Mr. Trump vowed never to sign another one, but here he is again. …The GOP may…underestimate the political cost of campaigning on another spending deal that increases the size of government. It will be harder to run against the spending plans of Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris with Mr. Trump’s first-term spending record.

I’ll close with a chart I prepared based on the numbers for domestic discretionary spending from the Mid-Session Review, as well as Table 8.1 from the Historical Tables, both from the Office of Management and Budget.

The numbers show that we had more fiscal restraint under Obama (blue line) than Trump (orange line). And Trump’s numbers will now be even worse with the new deal.

I added the Excel-generated trendline to show what would have happened if Obama-era policies were maintained.

But since that produced an unrealistic assessment, I also showed (green line) what spending would have looked like if politicians had obeyed commitments from the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).

Some of these numbers are back-of-the-envelope calculations, but the bottom line is clear. Trump is worse than Obama on spending.

And that means big tax increases inevitably will be the result.

P.S. When I recently issued a report card for Trump’s economic policy, I gave him a “B-” because I decided his good tax policy outweighed his bad spending policy. If this deal gets finalized, he drops to a “C-” because of the big expansion in the burden of spending.

P.P.S. Trump also is weak on entitlement spending, which is the biggest part of the federal spending burden.

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San Francisco used to be famous for cable cars.

Now it’s getting well known for its “poop patrol” and maps that warn people about the ubiquitous presence of human excrement.

Why are people defecating on city sidewalks? Because there’s a major problem with government-created homelessness thanks to rent control and zoning restrictions.

And homelessness gives us our topic for today because we have an astounding example of government waste.

More specifically, a story from the San Francisco Chronicle nicely summarizes the efficiency and competence of the public sector.

An experiment to put a homeless shelter in a San Francisco public school gym has so far been a costly failure, …costing taxpayers about $700 for each person who spends the night. …only five families have used the facility at 23rd and Valencia streets in the Mission, with an average occupancy of less than two people per night… The facility is completely empty several nights each month, Kositsky said, although shelter workers are on-site seven nights a week and through holidays, whether anyone shows up or not.

I’ve been to San Francisco many times. Hotels are not cheap.

But I’ve never had to pay anywhere close to $700 per night.

Though maybe this San Francisco program is a bargain since it costs the state $1.3 million per year to house a homeless person.

So why did the city create this boondoggle? For the same reason that many programs are created. Politicians and bureaucrats exaggerated about a problem.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen and the school’s administrators…advocated for the shelter, saying there were dozens of families facing homelessness at Buena Vista Horace Mann who needed someplace to sleep. The principal at the time, Richard Zapien, said he had identified 60 families in unstable housing.

But here’s a passage that captures the real story.

This program was created to funnel money to a non-profit group and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that officers of this group are supporters (campaign cash, get-out-the-vote, etc) of the politicians who created the program.

The city has been paying the nonprofit Dolores Street Community Services $40,000 per month to manage the shelter, and if it were to be successful, would spend up to $900,000 per year to serve up to 20 families at a time with all-night staffing, food and support services to help them find permanent housing.

In other words, we have another example of how government is a racket.

No matter how flawed and foolish a program may be, never forget that it’s putting unearned money in the pockets of some group of people. And that group of people know how to play the game, since they then recycle some of the loot back to the politicians.

Politicians don’t care if the money is wasted. They don’t care if there’s rampant fraud.

They’re simply buying votes. With our money.

P.S. There is a sure-fire way of reducing this kind of corrupt behavior, but don’t hold your breath expecting it to happen.

P.P.S. Though you may want to hold your breath if you visit the city.

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The Bureaucrat Hall of Fame recognizes government employees who go above and beyond the call of duty in terms of getting over-paid or being under-worked.

Or both.

Adding insult to injury, many recipients of this award are employed by bureaucracies that shouldn’t even exist.

Today we’re going to look at the Oakland police department, which is a part of the government that presumably should exist (though Camden, NJ, shows that maybe we shouldn’t make that assumption).

The Oakland PD is notorious for being over-compensated, but one cop stands out.

Eric Boehm of Reason has the sordid details.

When Oakland, California, police officers are needed at Golden State Warriors basketball games and other special events, Malcolm Miller is the officer in charge of making those assignments. Often, he assigns himself. As a result, Miller has become one of the highest paid officers in the department. He’s earned nearly $2.5 million over the past five years—most of it overtime pay—according to data collected by Transparent California, a watchdog group.

What a scam.

It’s highly likely that Mr. Miller is a basketball fan, so he’s figured out a great racket.

He basically gets a big pile of money for going to the games.

He and his colleagues are making out like bandits.

…he’s hardly the only officer to take advantage of poor oversight and a general lack of accountability. According to the audit, 217 officers worked roughly 520 hours of overtime last year, helping to cost the department more than $30 million in overtime pay—about twice as much as had been budgeted. Over the past four years, overtime expenditures have ranged from $28 million to $31 million. Proper documentation of overtime work was lacking in 83 percent of cases, the auditors found.

Though Officer Miller might not be the worst of the group.

One officer was paid for more than 2,600 hours of overtime—equal to 108 days of round-the-clock work—in just a single year.

So how do cops get away with this scam?

Simple, they make sure to negotiate contracts that have sweetheart provisions that they can exploit.

And why does Oakland agree to such contracts?

Well, as Michael Ramirez illustrated, bureaucrat unions give lots of money to state and local politicians, and those politicians then conspire with the unions to give them contracts with the sweetheart provisions.

Let’s close by looking at an example of this kind of scam.

Perhaps the most stunning part of the audit is the explanation of a department-wide policy that allows Oakland cops to accrue 1.5 hours of “comp time” for every hour of overtime worked. When an officer cashes in that comp time and isn’t working, other officers have to work overtime to fill the gap. That creates a cascade of additional overtime pay—10 hours of overtime creates 15 hours of comp time, which some other cop has to work, earning 22.5 hours of comp time (if they’re also working overtime), and so on.

Here’s the accompanying illustration.

How ridiculous. Extra money for overtime, combined with being able to work fewer hours in the future. Which then gives other cops an opening to rack up more overtime pay.

Everyone wins…except for taxpayers.

P.S. Some bureaucrats earn admission to the Bureaucrats Hall of Fame by misbehaving. Often in very strange ways.

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Every so often, I’ll see a story (or sometimes even just a photo, a court decision, or a phrase) that sums up the essence of government – a unseemly combination of venality and incompetence.

Today, we’re going to review three examples that make my point.

We’ll lead with a story that is a perfect case study of Washington.

It starts with Trump imposing tax increases on imports. That’s bad.

Then Trump says we have to subsidize sectors of the economy hurt by retaliatory tariffs. That’s one bad policy leading to another bad policy (hmmm…., there’s a name for that).

And that second bad policy leads to something else bad, at least according to the New York Daily News.

The Department of Agriculture cut a contract in January to purchase $22.3 million worth of pork from plants operated by JBS USA, a Colorado-based subsidiary of Brazil’s JBS SA, which ranks as the largest meatpacker in the world. …The bailout raised eyebrows from industry insiders at the time, as it was sourced from a $12 billion program meant for American farmers harmed by President Trump’s escalating trade war with China and other countries. …previously undisclosed purchase reports…reveal the administration has since issued at least two more bailouts to JBS, even as Trump’s own Justice Department began investigating the meatpacker, whose owners are Joesley and Wesley Batista — two wealthy brothers who have confessed to bribing hundreds of top officials in Brazil. Both brothers have spent time in jail over the sweeping corruption scandal. …Nonetheless, Trump’s Agriculture Department issued $14.5 million in bailout cash for pork products from JBS in February and another $25.6 million earlier this month, totaling more than $62.4 million, according to the purchase reports. …Including the JBS bailouts, the administration doled out $11 billion in relief payments to farmers hurt in the trade war last year.

Wow. I don’t know if this is better or worse than the Administration spending $13.6 million to hire two agents for the border patrol.

And I don’t know whether it’s better or worse than this next example of government foolishness.

A report published by Quartz estimates the amount of many Washington has wasted on abstinence programs.

Between 1982 and 2017, Congress spent over $2 billion on programs which teach teens that the best way to address their desire to have sex is to wait until they get married, according to a new study… Called abstinence only until marriage (AOUM), these programs accurately explain that the best way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to not have sex. …From 1995 to 2011–2013, the share of US adolescents who received instruction on abstinence but no instruction about birth control methods, increased from 8% to 28% of females and from 9% to 35% of males, according to the report. …Scientific evidence shows the approach doesn’t actually delay teens having sex, or engaging in risky sexual behaviors.

Just like the money spent to encourage marriage is a waste.

By the way, I’m also sure that the money spent on regular sex education and birth control education hasn’t worked, either.

Indeed, I wonder if such spending actually makes things worse (such as the Indiana driver education program that turned kids into worse drivers).

For our third example, here’s some of what the New York Times wrote about refrigerators on Air Force One.

…two of the refrigerators on the president’s plane need to be upgraded, and these specially designed “chillers” aren’t cheap. The Boeing Company was awarded a nearly $24 million contract in December to engineer the refrigerators for Air Force One, the Defense Department said. …Perhaps in anticipation of taxpayer sticker shock, the Air Force also said “the engineering required to design, manufacture, conduct environmental testing and obtain Federal Aviation Administration certification” were all included in the cost. …Air Force One must be able to feed passengers and crew for weeks without resupplying, according to the news website Defense One. …Two galleys can provide up to 100 meals at one sitting, according to the Air Force.

This story presumably involves two common features of government contracting.

First, pay too much for what is ordered (and this doesn’t even count the seemingly inevitable cost overruns).

Second, ask for something excessive in the first place. What’s the point, for instance, of storing several weeks of food when the longest-possible trips are maybe 20 hours? Yes, I watched Independence Day and I realize that Air Force One may become the mobile White House in an emergency, but wouldn’t MREs be acceptable for our pampered politicians and senior staff if there was a real crisis?

I’ll conclude by observing that these three stories reminded me of this satirical version of The Candyman.

P.S. There’s also an Obamaman version of Candyman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is outrageous on several levels.

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

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

Nobody at the CBP will get fired.

Nobody at the CBP will be demoted.

Nobody at the CBP will lose a bonus.

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

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

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

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

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

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When asked to pick the worst international bureaucracy, I generally respond as follows.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) or Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) should be at the top of the list. Both of those bureaucracies aggressively push statist policies designed to give governments more power over people. I have mixed feelings about which one deserves to be called the worst bureaucracy.

Next on my list are the United Nations (UN) and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Many people are surprised the UN isn’t higher on the list, but I point out that the organization generally is very ineffective. Meanwhile, the EBRD is relatively unknown, but I have total disdain for its cronyist business model (basically a global version of the Export-Import Bank).

At the bottom of my list is the World Bank (WB). I don’t have knee-jerk hostility to the WB, in part because the bureaucrats historically have their hearts in the right place (reducing poverty) and even occasionally support the right policies (social security reform and regulatory relief).

Nonetheless, I was disappointed earlier this year to learn that the Trump Administration decided to give more money to the World Bank.

The Trump administration is backing a $13 billion increase in funding for the World Bank… The change…will allow the bank to increase lending to poor-country clients… The U.S. is the only country with veto power over any changes in bank structure, so funding increases cannot proceed without Washington’s support. …The shift to U.S. support for more funding at the Bank took some European governments by surprise, said Suma Chakrabarti, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, a London-based multilateral bank lending in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. He said in an interview Thursday that the capital increase is “very good news,” since it would help efforts to reduce global poverty. …Mr. Mnuchin said he would work with Congress to secure approval for the U.S. contribution, a step that has in the past proved challenging.

Hopefully it will prove impossible rather than challenging to get approval for more funding (though I haven’t been following the issue, so maybe Republicans in Congress already have okayed an expansion).

Assuming the decision hasn’t yet been made, I have some evidence showing why the World Bank doesn’t deserve more funding.

And not merely because aid is not the route to prosperity. Consider the misguided advice that the World Bank is pushing on Romania.

The Romanian government should…consider switching the flat income tax to a progressive tax, said World Bank chief economist for Europe and Central Asia, Hans Timmer. …The World Bank representative…referred to the flat tax rate…, stating that they should think about whether this system is still appropriate. The World Bank’s advice would be to rethink the entire labor market taxation system in coordination with other countries in the region, and not just make small changes. ”We can not tell you what the solution is, but you need to analyze everything, including the single tax, and whether you’d be better off implementing a progressive tax system, meaning those who earn more pay more,” Timmer said.

This is horrible advice. The flat tax is very conducive to prosperity and Romania needs fast growth to help offset the damage caused by decades of communist enslavement.

Moreover, there are problems with corruption in Romania and the World Bank has admitted that tax complexity facilitates corruption.

Given Mr. Timmer’s misguided musings, I may need to get a new version of my cartoon about international bureaucracies. Especially since the World Bank once produced a study giving nations higher grades for having more oppressive tax systems.

P.S. In fairness, the WB has produced some good work on government spending, dependency, financial regulation, and free markets.

P.P.S. And I especially like the World Bank’s comparison of Chile and Venezuela.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s an amazing story from Romania.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time for a confession.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like the other bureaucrats who exploited the system.

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

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

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

Here’s some background on the DROP scam.

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

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

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

Disgusting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now let’s head across the Irish Sea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

Here are some new examples.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In 2011, I wrote about how taxpayers were getting pillaged to finance a new metro line in Fairfax County, Virginia.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that California taxpayers are getting screwed even worse.

I’ve since learned, however, that the real experts at wasting money are in the Big Apple. Earlier this year, as part of a column on why the federal government shouldn’t be involved with infrastructure, I shared some depressing details about a far more expensive subway project in New York City.

And now the New York Times has a must-read report about how another big infrastructure project in NYC is an even more absurd boondoggle. The story starts with an anecdote

The budget showed that 900 workers were being paid to dig caverns for the platforms as part of a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting the historic station to the Long Island Rail Road. But the accountant could only identify about 700 jobs that needed to be done, according to three project supervisors. Officials could not find any reason for the other 200 people to be there. …“All we knew is they were each being paid about $1,000 every day.”

Nice “work” if you can get it, as the old saying goes. A pretend job that pays $1,000 per day.

That makes the gravy train for federal bureaucrats seem miserly by comparison.

Unfortunately, that anecdote is just the tip of the iceberg. The entire project is a monument to how money gets wasted in New York City.

The estimated cost of the Long Island Rail Road project, known as “East Side Access,” has ballooned to $12 billion, or nearly $3.5 billion for each new mile of track — seven times the average elsewhere in the world. …a host of factors have contributed to the transit authority’s exorbitant capital costs. …public officials have stood by as a small group of politically connected labor unions, construction companies and consulting firms have amassed large profits.

In other words, the story’s headline is no exaggeration.

The special deals for unions are jaw-dropping.

Trade unions, which have closely aligned themselves with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other politicians, have secured deals requiring underground construction work to be staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world, documents show. …Worker wages and labor conditions are determined through negotiations between the unions and the companies, none of whom have any incentive to control costs. The transit authority has made no attempt to intervene to contain the spending.

The featherbedding belies belief.

Mr. Roach, a California-based tunneling contractor, was…stunned by how many people were operating the machine churning through soil to create the tunnel. “I actually started counting because I was so surprised, and I counted 25 or 26 people,” he said. “That’s three times what I’m used to.” …documents reveal a dizzying maze of jobs, many of which do not exist on projects elsewhere. There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. …In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on…many similar projects around the world.

The international cost comparisons are the most persuasive part of the story.

Taxpayers in New York City are paying far more to get far less.

…transit construction is booming around the world. At least 150 projects have been initiated since 1990, according to a recent study by Yale University researcher David Schleicher. The approximate average cost of the projects — both in the U.S. and abroad — has been less than $500 million per track mile, the study concluded. “There was one glaring exception,” Mr. Schleicher said. “New York.”

If you want a partial explanation of why this staggering level of graft and corruption is allowed, this sentence is a good place to start.

The unions working on M.T.A. projects have donated more than $1 million combined to Mr. Cuomo during his administration, records show.

And I’m sure huge amounts of money have also been diverted to city politicians as well.

It’s almost as if the whole thing is a racket, with politicians and union bosses conspiring to rip off taxpayers.

“Almost”? I must be getting soft in my old age. Let me rephrase that sentence: It is a racket to rip off taxpayers.

But let’s be fair. I don’t want to imply that it’s all the fault of the unions. The contractors also buy off the politicians.

…the…main engineering firm: WSP USA, …has donated hundreds of thousands to politicians in recent years, and has hired so many transit officials that some in the system refer to it as “the M.T.A. retirement home.”

Speaking of the M.T.A., the bureaucrats also get a sweet deal, with the rest of us picking up the tab.

More than a dozen M.T.A. workers were fined for accepting gifts from contractors during that time, records show. …A Times analysis of the 25 M.T.A. agency presidents who have left over the past two decades found that at least 18 of them became consultants or went to work for authority contractors, including many who have worked on expansion projects. “Is it rigged? Yes,” said Charles G. Moerdler, who has served on the M.T.A. board since 2010.

There’s a lot more to read in the article, including details on how a big French infrastructure project is being built at far lower cost.

It’s basically a perfect example of what Milton Friedman said about what happens when you get to spend other people’s money.

For instance, the story also has grim data about cost overruns, which are a routine feature of government infrastructure scams, both in America and other nations.

But one thing that isn’t in the report is the degree to which Washington is subsidizing this wretched boondoggle.

This is the part that irks me. I wouldn’t get too upset if New York City politicians were conspiring with interest groups to rip off New York City taxpayers. Heck, I wouldn’t even care if they were ripping off taxpayers from elsewhere in the state.

But the fact that I’m also paying for this pork-barrel project is very distressing. And it helps to explain why I want to shut down the Department of Transportation in Washington. That’s the real moral of this story.

P.S. Trump’s infrastructure plan will be unveiled next year. I’m not overflowing with optimism, but hope springs eternal that maybe he’ll listen to my advice.

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I expressed approval when Trump proposed to reduce U.S. funding for international bureaucracies, mostly because of my disdain for the statist policy agenda of the International Monetary Fund and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Sadly, there’s has not been much follow-through by the White House, and it looks like Congress isn’t going to cut either the funding or the authority of these bloated institutions. And that means they will continue to advocate for class-warfare tax policy and bigger government.

But, as reported by AFP, some seeds were planted early in the year that may eventually save money for taxpayers.

…a draft executive order…prepared at the White House could deprive the United Nations of billions of dollars in US financial support. The United States is by far the UN’s biggest financial contributor, providing 22 percent of its operating budget and funding 28 percent of peacekeeping missions, which currently cost $7.8 billion annually. …The Trump administration is proposing a 40 percent cut in some US funding, according to the draft executive order titled “Auditing and Reducing US Funding of International Organizations.”

And it appears that some of the seeds germinated. According to the Associated Press, steps are being taken to reduce the fiscal burden of the United Nations.

The U.S. government says it has negotiated a significant cut in the United Nations budget. The U.S. Mission to the United Nations said on Sunday that the U.N.’s 2018-2019 budget would be slashed by over $285 million. The mission said reductions would also be made to the U.N.’s management and support functions. The announcement didn’t make clear the entire amount of the budget or specify what effect the cut would have on the U.S. contribution. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said that the “inefficiency and overspending” of the organization is well-known, and she would not let “the generosity of the American people be taken advantage of.”

By the way, “nicked” or “trimmed” would be more accurate than “slashed.”

Nonetheless, at least it’s a small step in the right direction.

And the recent U.N. vote against the U.S. may lead to additional budgetary savings, as explained in the Wall Street Journal by John Bolton, a former ambassador from the United States to that bureaucracy.

…the U.N. showed its true colors with a 128-9 vote condemning President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. …America is heard much more clearly at the U.N. when it puts its money where its mouth is. …the White House should also reconsider how Washington funds the U.N. more broadly. …Despite decades of U.N. “reform” efforts, little or nothing in its culture or effectiveness has changed. …Turtle Bay has been impervious to reform largely because most U.N. budgets are financed through effectively mandatory contributions. Under this system, calculated by a “capacity to pay” formula, each U.N. member is assigned a fixed percentage of each agency’s budget to contribute. The highest assessment is 22%, paid by the U.S. This far exceeds other major economies… The U.S. should reject this international taxation regime and move instead to voluntary contributions. This means paying only for what the country wants—and expecting to get what it pays for. Agencies failing to deliver will see their budgets cut, modestly or substantially. Perhaps America will depart some organizations entirely.

Bolton has some targets in mind.

…earlier this year the U.N. dispatched a special rapporteur to investigate poverty in the U.S.? American taxpayers effectively paid a progressive professor to lecture them about how evil their country is. The U.N.’s five regional economic and social councils, which have no concrete accomplishments, don’t deserve American funding either. …Next come vast swaths of U.N. bureaucracy. Most of these budgets could be slashed with little or no real-world impact. Start with the Office for Disarmament Affairs. The U.N. Development Program is another example. Significant savings could be realized by reducing other U.N. offices that are little more than self-licking ice cream cones, including many dealing with “Palestinian” questions. …Thus could Mr. Trump revolutionize the U.N. system. The swamp in Turtle Bay might be drained much more quickly than the one in Washington.

And Rich Lowry of National Review didn’t even wait for the latest controversy.

Here are some excerpts from a column he wrote in late 2016.

We are the chief funder of a swollen, unaccountable U.N. apparatus that has been a gross disappointment for more than 70 years now. …As early as 1947, a U.S. Senate committee flagged “serious problems of overlap, duplication of effort, weak coordination, proliferating mandates and programs, and overly generous compensation of staff within the infant, but rapidly growing, UN system.” And those were the early, lean years. We pay more than anyone else to keep the U.N. in business, about 22 percent of the U.N.’s regular budget. …Because nothing involving the U.N. is clean or straightforward, it’s hard to even know how much the U.S. pays in total into the U.N. system. But it’s probably around $8 billion a year. We should withhold some significant portion of it.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that the United Nations is better (less worse?) than the OECD or IMF.

But that’s mostly because it doesn’t have much power. When it does try to intervene in policy (global warming and gun control, for instance, as well as the Internet, the War on Drugs, monetary policy, and taxpayer-financed birth control), the U.N. inevitably urges more power and control for government.

If you think I’m exaggerating about a statist mindset at the United Nations, check out this jaw-dropping tweet from a high-level bureaucrat.

Wow. Before capitalism, as explained in videos by Deirdre McCloskey and Don Boudreaux, human existence was characterized by grinding poverty. But once free markets were unleashed, the world has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity.

Yet this liberating and enriching system is “an urgent threat” according to the United Nations.

Wouldn’t it be more appropriate if the bureaucrat who sent out this tweet instead focused on hellholes where the free market is suppressed and persecuted – such as Venezuela, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and Cuba?

My friend Walter Williams perhaps has the best response to the U.N.’s vapid sentiment (h/t: libertarian Reddit).

Others share my concern, as illustrated by this passage from a column in the U.K.-based Daily Telegraph.

Hillel Neuer, the head of UN Watch, a campaign group, called this a “loony tweet”, adding: “While millions of people are suffering from genocide, sexual slavery and starvation, it is far from clear why the UN would instead focus its attention on unidentifiable ‘urgent threats’, let alone on economic subjects about which it has neither competence nor expertise.” Mr Neuer pointed out that socialist economics had brought misery to Venezuela without drawing similar criticism from the UN. “The same UN human rights office has failed to issue a single tweet about this past month’s dire human rights crisis in Venezuela, where millions face mass hunger in part due to attacks on the free market,” he said.

Let’s look at other examples of U.N. statism.

For example, the bureaucrats are inserting themselves in American racial issues.

The history of slavery in the United States justifies reparations for African Americans, argues a recent report by a U.N.-affiliated group based in Geneva. …The group of experts, which includes leading human rights lawyers from around the world, presented its findings to the United Nations Human Rights Council on Monday, pointing to the continuing link between present injustices and the dark chapters of American history. “In particular, the legacy of colonial history, enslavement, racial subordination and segregation, racial terrorism and racial inequality in the United States remains a serious challenge, as there has been no real commitment to reparations and to truth and reconciliation for people of African descent,” the report stated. …The reparations could come in a variety of forms, according to the panel, including “a formal apology, health initiatives, educational opportunities … psychological rehabilitation, technology transfer and financial support, and debt cancellation.”

By the way, I’m fine with a formal apology (assuming one hasn’t already been issued). Slavery is a stain on American history, after all.

And I’d be delighted to see a massive school choice initiative, which would benefit students from all backgrounds, but I strongly suspect black kids would disproportionately gain.

I fear, though, that the U.N. panel is primarily interested in “financial support,” which is simply a euphemism for a bigger welfare state. And since the current welfare state already has caused great damage to the black community, making it even bigger would be very ill-advised.

Here’s another example of bizarre policy from a division of the United Nations. The bureaucrats at the World Health Organization want to classify the absence of a sexual partner as a disability.

…the World Health Organisation will change the standard to suggest that a person who is unable to find a suitable sexual partner or is lacking a sexual relationship to have children – will now be equally classified as disabled. WHO says the change will give every individual “the right to reproduce”. …Gareth Johnson MP, former chair of the All Parliamentary Group on Infertility, whose own children were born thanks to fertility treatment, said: “I’m in general a supporter of IVF. But I’ve never regarded infertility as a disability or a disease but rather a medical matter. …Dr David Adamson, an author of the new standards, argued…”It puts a stake in the ground and says an individual’s got a right to reproduce whether or not they have a partner. It’s a big change. …It sets an international legal standard. Countries are bound by it.”

Hey, I’m had many tragic periods of celibacy in my life and I never even got a handicapped parking sticker!

More seriously, I have great sympathy for people with fertility issues. Not only because I have empathy for them, but also because of my concerns about demographic decline.

But there’s a big difference between saying that people have a right to try to have children and the U.N.’s assertion that others are obliged to help people have children.

It doesn’t help that the U.N. newest top bureaucrat has a very dismal track record.

Here are some of the grim details from Claudia Rosett.

…former Prime Minister of Portugal Antonio Guterres…brings to the job a record that suggests he is a perfect fit to head a UN that is prone to overreach, mismanagement, waste, fraud, abuse and government meddling in every aspect of life — provided we all want even more of the same. …Guterres also served as president of the Socialist International, from 1999-2005… From 2005-2015, Guterres served as high commissioner of the UN agency for refugees (UNHCR)… That sounds great, except the UN’s own auditors…issued an audit report identifying a series of “critical” lapses by the UNHCR under Guterres’s management. …If that’s how Guterres managed — or mismanaged — a single UN agency while running it for more than a decade, is it likely he will do a better job as secretary-general? …we get a longtime socialist with a record of managerial incompetence, heading a multi-billion dollar, diplomatically immune, opaque, globe-girdling organization funded with billions of other people’s money (America, which bankrolls roughly one-quarter of the UN system with your tax dollars, being the largest contributor). What could go wrong?

The answer to Claudia’s question is that we’ll probably get business as usual.

And since that means more waste and more advocacy of bad policy, that’s unfortunate news for taxpayers all over the world.

So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the Trump Administration does the right thing and puts the U.N. on a diet.

Let’s close with some humor. Here’s a Jeff MacNelly cartoon, presumably from way back in the 1970s.

P.S. In my experience, many U.N. officials and bureaucrats are smart, well-meaning people. But as I noted during a trip to Switzerland back in 2009, it would be much better if they were in the private sector where their skills and abilities could be used for expanding prosperity.

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When I write about politicians in their role as politicians (rather than their policy prescriptions), it’s usually to mock them for venality, corruption, immorality, sleaze, incompetence, or hypocrisy.

Today, I want to plead with them to exercise self-restraint. Some folks may have seen the stories about President Trump using up the Secret Service budget because of all his vacation trips to his various resorts.

There’s nothing illegal about his actions, but I wish Trump (as well as his predecessors and successors) would sometimes pause and think about whether they’re squandering other people’s money.

But since it’s highly unrealistic to expect politicians to have empathy for taxpayers, maybe we need some reforms. Here’s some of what I wrote in a column for Fortune.

…the Secret Service is way over budget because of President Donald Trump’s frequent vacations… It’s easy to zing Trump for being a hypocrite, as he previously complained about the cost and duration of President Barack Obama’s vacations. …But let’s look at this issue from the perspective of taxpayers. Every time the president hops on Air Force One for a weekend getaway at one of his resorts, that involves a major shift of manpower by the Secret Service, along with major outlays for travel, lodging, and other costs. …it’s time to consider some sensible reforms that could limit the agency’s burden on taxpayers.

I came up with a couple of ideas, which could be implemented by attaching conditions to the spending bills that fund the White House and the Secret Service.

…Congress should put an annual limit on expenditures for unofficial White House travel. …the average American gets 10 paid vacation days a year. …Presidents are not average, of course, so they should get taxpayer-financed protection for around four weeks of vacation. Any more than that would still have a Secret Service detail, but the president would have to pick up the incremental expenses… There should also be similar restrictions for the presidential family, especially with regard to overseas business trips. If Trump’s children feel it is necessary to go overseas to sign a deal, then the company at the very least should pay half the cost for Secret Service protection.

In other words, if the President wants to go to one of his golf clubs every weekend, he would always have full protection from the Secret Service, but he would pay for the added expense. It could come from his own pocket, or from his campaign coffers.

I don’t care, so long as there’s a limit on how much taxpayer are hit.

But what if Trump takes more official trips? Wouldn’t that require more money for the Secret Service?

That’s possible, but I also suggested in the article another way to save money that wouldn’t sacrifice security.

Another reasonable reform would be to…protect taxpayers by limiting the number of other administration staffers that go on junkets. …cut in half the number of political advisors, speechwriters, and flunkies that have turned White House trips into costly boondoggles.

The bottom line is that presidential junkets shouldn’t turn into an excuse to have hundreds of non-Secret Service staffers tagging along at high cost.

And I stressed in the article that I’m not picking on Trump.

They would be permanent reforms to address the systemic problem of wasteful spending and administrative bloat in Washington. This problem existed before the current president. And in the absence of reform, it will be an issue with future administrations.

To emphasize this point, here are some excerpts from a 2014 article from the U.K.-based Guardian (h/t: Mark Steyn) about the excesses of one of Obama’s European trips.

President Barack Obama’s visit on Tuesday will strain the city like never before with €10m ($10.4m, £8.4m) of Belgian money being spent to cover his 24 hours in the country. The president will arrive on Tuesday night with a 900-strong entourage, including 45 vehicles and three cargo planes.

The article didn’t say how many of the 900 staffers were Secret Service agents, but I’m guessing maybe 200 or 300. Heck, even if it was 400 or 500, why did taxpayers have to pick up the tab for another 400 or 500 (or more) staffers who weren’t there for security-related reasons?

Yes, presidents need to have staff to conduct business, but we live in a world with advanced communications technology.

I’m a former congressional staffer, and I’ve had lots of friends work for various administrations, so I understand that a nice overseas trip can be fun for people who otherwise toil in obscurity.

But as the risk of being a curmudgeon, I don’t want taxpayers to foot the bill. I want there to be a mentality of frugality. And if politicians won’t adopt that mentality (and they almost certainly won’t, as shown by this example), then it would be nice to attach some strings to limit their excesses.

P.S. I grouse about goodies for American politicians, but I’d probably be even more upset if I was a taxpayer in Europe.

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Why does government waste so much money? In so many ways? With such reckless abandon?

I suppose I could answer with mockery and say it’s because they have lots of experience squandering our tax dollars.

But let’s seriously contemplate that question and explore one of the reasons for waste. Simply stated, government programs are a magnet for scammers.

Let’s look at three case studies.

Example #1: Fraud is an inherent part of the big entitlement programs. Kevin Williamson has some unseemly details in an article for National Review.

…you know where there’s a lot of waste, fraud, and abuse? Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. …Medicare and Medicaid together account for about $1 trillion in federal spending annually, and estimates suggest that $1 out of ever $10 of that spending is fraud. Some estimates go much higher. We do not have a very good idea of exactly how extensive fraud in the system is, because the federal government has put a fair amount of effort into not knowing.

And what does that mean? How does the government try not to know?

…the government’s approach long has been backward…investigators are asking whether a certain treatment was in fact appropriate for what ails Mrs. Jones, not whether Mrs. Jones exists.

In other words, bureaucrats basically accept all claims as legitimate and simply judges from afar whether the right medical service is provided for the listed ailment.

Even if the ailment is fictional. Or the patient is fake.

As one might imagine, that kind of sloppy approach, combined with programs that dispense hundreds of billions of dollars, is a magnet for professional crooks.

It’s the work of organized crime. As Sparrow points out, when there is a criminal case filed against one of these fraud artists, then billing in a particular category — some years ago, it was HIV fusion treatments — falls off steeply, by as much as 90 percent. The implication here is that fraudulent billing may make up the majority of Medicaid and Medicare spending in some categories. …organized-crime syndicates are being permitted to use our medical entitlements to loot the Treasury, and that not very much is being done about that, which suggests the possibility — only a possibility — that there is political collusion in this at some level.

By the way, Kevin may be on to something when he speculates about collusion.

We already know about examples of politicians intervening to protect fraudsters (who, conveniently, also happen to be campaign donors).

So is it really that much of a stretch to imagine them turning a blind eye (or worse) to industrial-level fraud by criminal enterprises?

Leads me to think this cartoon makes an unnecessary distinction.

Example #2: Welfare programs also are a magnet for fraud.

Here are excerpts from a recent news report.

Another six Lakewood, New Jersey couples were charged Wednesday with welfare fraud, bringing to 26 the number of people implicated since last week in the multimillion-dollar scandal. At the heart of the charges is the allegation that they all, in one way or another, failed to report or otherwise concealed significant income that would have made them ineligible for the assistance programs in which they enrolled. In total, state and federal prosecutors have said the families collected more than $2.4 million in benefits. …They allegedly obtained nearly $400,000 in Medicaid, food and heating benefits fraudulently. …Four other couples were arrested June 26 for allegedly defrauding public assistance programs of more than $1.3 million in benefits.

Welfare fraud must have been a major pastime for residents of the town.

Hundreds of these moochers are now trying to cover their tracks in hopes of avoiding legal trouble.

The specter of more charges has shaken Lakewood. Hundreds of residents have contacted authorities seeking amnesty or help avoiding arrest, the Asbury Park Press reported on June 29. In addition to the hundreds seeking amnesty, dozens more people have contacted social service agencies to cancel their benefits or declare income

Example #3: And nobody should be surprised to learn that there’s plenty of fraud at the Pentagon.

Here’s an example that seems very representative.

The former owners of a Pittsburgh-area military supplier have been accused of defrauding the U.S. government of more than $6 million in defense contract work. …Prosecutors allege the Buckners inflated the cost of the work by falsifying invoices to make it appear as though they had spent $70 per window frame for the materials when in fact they had paid just $20 each for frames manufactured in China. The brothers are also alleged to have sold scrap aluminum collected in the manufacturing process without crediting that money to TACOM. The losses to TACOM are placed at $6,085,709 by the DOJ.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

In 2014, a defense contractor responsible for providing food and water to troops in Afghanistan pleaded guilty to over-charging the U.S. government to the tune of $48 million. This week, two San Diego defense contractors pleaded guilty in a scheme that defrauded the Navy out of at least $1.4 million by over-billing for supplies that the military never ordered, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. Similar stories have cropped up in Florida, California, Maryland, North Carolina and elsewhere in recent years, renewing calls for systemic reforms.

Maybe the reason fraud is so pervasive is that penalties are trivial or nonexistent.

A 2011 DOD report found hundreds of defense contractors that defrauded the U.S. military subsequently went on to receive more than $1.1 trillion in new Pentagon contracts between 2000 and 2010.

Shouldn’t criminal companies be barred from subsequent contracts? Shouldn’t crooked company officials be sent to prison?

Or do these things not happen because the same folks are also campaign contributors?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but surely something is amiss.  It’s almost as if government is simply a racket for the benefit of insiders.

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If I was Captain Ahab in a Herman Melville novel, my Moby Dick would be the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. I have spent more than 15 years fighting that Paris-based bureaucracy. Even to the point that the OECD threatened to throw me in a Mexican jail.

So when I had a chance earlier today to comment on the OECD’s statist agenda, I could barely contain myself

Notwithstanding the glitch at the beginning (the perils of a producer talking in my ear), I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to castigate the OECD.

Indeed, returning to my Moby Dick analogy, I’m increasingly hopeful that the harpoons I keep throwing at the OECD may finally draw some blood.

In his budget, President Trump has proposed to cut overall spending for international organizations. And we’re talking about a real budget cut, not the phony kind of cut where spending merely grows at a slightly slower rate.

The budget doesn’t specify funding levels for the various bureaucracies, but various Administration officials have told me that their goal is to completely defund the Paris-based bureaucracy.

To quote Chris Matthews, this definitely sends a thrill up my leg.

But I’m trying not to get too excited. It’s still up to Congress to decide OECD funding, and the bureaucrats in Paris have been very clever about currying favor with the members of the subcommittee that doles out cash for international organizations.

Though as I mentioned in the interview, the OECD didn’t do itself any favors by openly trashing Trump last year. Even if they have their doubts about Trump, I suspect most GOPers in Congress aren’t happy that the bureaucrats in Paris were trying to tilt the election for Hillary Clinton.

Here are some examples.

The OECD’s number-two bureaucrat, Doug Frantz, actually equated America’s president with the former head of Germany’s National Socialist Workers Party.

The Deputy Secretary General of the OECD has described…Donald Trump as a “lunatic” whose political rise mirrors that of Hitler and Mussolini. …Speaking on RTÉ’s This Week, Doug Frantz said…“if you look at the basis ‘us and them’ that Donald Trump sets up, that Hitler set up, that Mussolini set up, then you can begin to at least be concerned and I’m concerned: I think any right-minded person should be concerned…The person who sits in the White House is the most powerful person in the world and if that person is someone who follows every whim and appeals to the most base instincts of a population, then we’re all under real threat”.

And another news report caught the OECD’s Secretary General, Angel Gurria, basically asserting that Trump is racist.

Angel Gurria, secretary general of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development  and former Mexican foreign minister, says the word “racist” can be applied to Donald Trump. …Gurria tells UpFront’s Mehdi Hasan: “I would tend to agree with those who say that this is not only misinformed, but yes, I think the word racist can be applied. I think that because the American public is wise, it will then act in consequence,” Gurria adds.

By the way, I’m making sure to share these partisan statements with lots of people in Congress and the Administration.

In an ideal world, lawmakers would defund the OECD because it is an egregious waste of money. But if they defund the bureaucracy because its top two officials tried to interfere with the US election, I’ll still be happy with the final outcome.

I’ll close by recycling the video on the OECD that I narrated for the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

P.S. In the interest of fairness, I’ll acknowledge that the OECD occasionally produces good work. I’ve even favorably cited research from the bureaucracy on issues such as government spending, tax policy, and expenditure limits.

But even if the bureaucracy ended its statist advocacy agenda and gave staff economists carte blanche to produce good papers, that still wouldn’t change my view that American tax dollars should not be funding the OECD. Though I confess it would be a much less attractive target if it returned to its original mission of collecting statistics and publishing studies.

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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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My biggest complaint about government employees is that they work for bureaucracies that shouldn’t exist. As far as I’m concerned, they may be the most wonderful, conscientious, and hard-working people in the world, but we shouldn’t have a Department of Housing and Urban Development or a Department of Agriculture, so these folks – by definition – are getting dramatically overpaid (i.e., anything about $0).

My second main complaint is that bureaucrats are overpaid relative to their counterparts in the private sector. About twice as much when you include the value of both wages and benefits.

The unions representing bureaucrats sometimes try to argue that this isn’t true, but I always point out the data on voluntary quit rates, which are much higher in the private sector compared to government. Needless to say, this is because folks who get cushy government jobs know they’ve won the employment lottery and have very little desire to switch to the private sector (where, as Dan Aykroyd explained in Ghostbusters, “they expect results”).

A third complaint is that politicians can’t resist catering to the unions that represent government employees, which means not only excessive compensation but also absurdly inefficient rules designed to protect loafers, scroungers, and con artists in the bureaucracy.

Let’s review the example of Queon Jackson. As reported by the Boston Globe, he’s pocketed a lot of money while doing absolutely nothing.

A former acting headmaster in Boston, placed on paid leave more than three years ago amid an investigation into credit card fraud, collected $375,000 in pay during his absence.

In the private sector, employment often is a tenuous situation. You can be fired “at will,” which means for just about any reason.

But unions strike deals with compliant politicians (from the perspective of elected officials, bureaucrats are a special interest group with lots of voters and lots of campaign cash) to provide so-called employment-protection rules for government employees.

And these rules make it very difficult and very expensive to deal with bad bureaucrats.

And it seems that Mr. Jackson meets that definition.

Jackson’s case reflects the thorny issues school systems face when union-protected employees are under federal investigations that drag on for months or years without charges being filed. Jackson, who was classified as an assistant director at the time of his paid leave, is a member of the school system’s union for midlevel school administrators, and the school system would have had to establish just cause to fire him. Thomas Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said…The choice…comes down to this: Either put the person in a low-profile desk job and face a potential public backlash, or fire the employee and run the risk of a lawsuit.

Here’s why Jackson got in trouble.

The school system originally placed Jackson on leave in February 2013, after learning the Secret Service was investigating him for an alleged role in fraudulently obtaining credit and then not paying the bills. But Jackson had contended that he was victimized by someone who stole his identity in an attempt to buy a car.

Though he already had a shady background when he first entered the bureaucracy.

In 2000, a few months before the district hired Jackson as a teacher, he admitted to sufficient facts for a finding of guilty in a drug case and a domestic abuse case that required him to take an anger-management course. That type of plea is commonly used by defendants to avoid a criminal record. …Jackson, who was a state social worker at the time, was charged with possession with intent to distribute counterfeit drugs.

Returning to the current situation, it’s not clear from the story, but I gather investigators from the Secret Service didn’t have enough evidence to nail Jackson, so the school system had no choice but to not only keep him on the payroll, but also to give him a new position.

Now Queon Jackson…is back. …The school system quietly cleared Jackson to return to work on May 9 and gave him a desk job at the agency’s headquarters and the title “special assistant.” The move ended a paid leave of three years and three months, during which he did no work for the school system. …He is receiving an annual salary of about $120,000, equivalent to what he made as a school administrator.

Though he apparently hasn’t been a model employee since his return.

Jackson has been accumulating many absences over the last two months, missing at least 16 days, including seven without pay, according to a Globe review of payroll records. The tally doesn’t include time he took off in mid-July.

Oh, by the way, Jackson is just one of many bureaucrats who get this strange form of paid vacation.

Boston’s school system currently has 34 employees on paid leave.

I shudder to think what the nationwide number looks like, but apparently there are tens of thousand federal bureaucrats getting paid leave. You can see a couple of strange examples by clicking here and here.

The bottom line is that Mr. Jackson isn’t special. Lots of bureaucrats get to scam the system because union contracts protect dodgy employees. So he doesn’t merit membership in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, but it’s still outrageous that taxpayers in the productive sector pay extra tax to subsidize this nonsense.

If you like humor about overpaid government employees (and you’re paying for it, so you may as well get some enjoyment), here’s a great top-10 list from Letterman and here’s a cartoon about the relationship of bureaucrats and taxpayers. Looking through my archives, I also found 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 to build an Ark today, and these two posters. There’s also a good one-liner from Craig Ferguson, along with this political cartoons from  Henry Payne.

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In 2014, I was outraged that more than 80 percent of senior bureaucrats at the Veterans Administration were awarded bonuses, even though this is the bloated bureaucracy that caused the death of many veterans by putting them on secret waiting lists. This, I argued, was a perfect example (in a bad way) of federal bureaucracy in action.

In 2015, I put together a version about bureaucracy in action at the local level, noting that the number of firefighters has climbed by 50 percent since 1980, even though the number of fires has declined by more than 50 percent during the same period.

This year, let’s look at the overseas edition of bureaucracy in action. Our story comes from Italy, where there’s been a government shutdown. Though only in the town of Boscotrecase. And not because of an Obamacare-style budget fight, but rather because a bunch of the local bureaucrats got arrested for routinely skipping work.

The mayor of a small town outside Naples had to shut down most municipal offices after police arrested 23 of his staff in the latest revelations of absenteeism in Italy’s public sector. Staff were filmed clocking in and then leaving to go about their personal business or using multiple swipe cards to register absent colleagues, police said, in scenes that have become familiar after numerous similar scandals. A police video showed one man trying to tamper with a security camera and then putting a cardboard box over his head to hide his identity before swiping two cards. Police arrested around half of all employees in the town hall offices of Boscotrecase following a weeks-long investigation that they said revealed 200 cases of absenteeism involving 30 people. …four major town hall departments had been closed on Tuesday due to a lack of staff. Those arrested, accused of fraud against the state, included the head of the local traffic police and the head of the town’s accounting department. The workers, whose arrest comes amid a government crackdown against absenteeism, have been suspended from work for between six and 12 months and risk eventual dismissal.

What I want to know, of course, is whether the bureaucrats were suspended with pay or without pay.

If it’s the former (which would be my guess), how will their lives be any different? They’ll be goofing off at home while getting overpaid!

No wonder Italy is in a death spiral.

P.S. The Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is comprised of specific government employees who have perfected the art of slacking (such as the Italian doctor who legally worked only 15 days in a nine-year period). That being said, I’m tempted to give adjunct membership to the entire local government of Boscotrecase.

P.P.S. Switching topics, the unpalatable choice between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton does have a silver lining. It’s generated this clever make-believe announcement from the British Monarch.

To the citizens of the United States of America from Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II:

In light of your failure to nominate competent candidates for President of the USA and thus to govern yourselves, we hereby give notice of the revocation of your independence, effective immediately.

Her Sovereign Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will resume monarchical duties over all states, commonwealths, and territories (except North Dakota, which she does not fancy). Your new Prime Minister, Theresa May, will appoint a Governor for America without the need for further elections. Congress and the Senate will be disbanded. A questionnaire may be circulated next year to determine whether any of you noticed.

To aid in the transition to a British Crown dependency, the following rules are introduced with immediate effect:

———————–
1. The letter ‘U’ will be reinstated in words such as ‘colour,’ ‘favour,’ ‘labour’ and ‘neighbour.’ Likewise, you will learn to spell ‘doughnut’ without skipping half the letters, and the suffix ‘-ize’ will be replaced by the suffix ‘-ise.’ Generally, you will be expected to raise your vocabulary to acceptable levels. (look up ‘vocabulary’).
————————
2. Using the same twenty-seven words interspersed with filler noises such as ”like’ and ‘you know’ is an unacceptable and inefficient form of communication. There is no such thing as U.S. English. We will let Microsoft know on your behalf. The Microsoft spell-checker will be adjusted to take into account the reinstated letter ‘u” and the elimination of ‘-ize.’
——————-
3. July 4th will no longer be celebrated as a holiday.
—————–
4. You will learn to resolve personal issues without using lawyers, psychics or therapists. The fact that you need so many lawyers and therapists shows that you’re not quite ready to be independent. If you can’t sort things out without suing someone or speaking to a therapist, then you’re not ready to be a sovereign nation.
———————-
5. Therefore, you will no longer be allowed to own or carry anything more dangerous than a vegetable peeler. Although a permit will be required if you wish to carry a vegetable peeler in public.
———————-
6. All intersections will be replaced with roundabouts, and you will start driving on the left side with immediate effect. At the same time, you will go metric with immediate effect and without the benefit of conversion tables. Both roundabouts and metrication will help you understand the British sense of humour.
——————–
7. The former USA will adopt UK prices on petrol (which you have been calling gasoline) of roughly $10/US gallon. Get used to it.
————–
8. You will learn to make real chips. Those things you call French fries are not real chips, and those things you insist on calling potato chips are properly called crisps. Real chips are thick cut, fried in animal fat, and dressed not with catsup but with vinegar.
——————-
9. The cold, tasteless stuff you insist on calling beer is not actually beer at all. Henceforth, only proper British Bitter will be referred to as beer, and European brews of known and accepted provenance will be referred to as Lager. South African beer is also acceptable, as they are pound for pound the greatest sporting nation on earth and it can only be due to the beer. They are also part of the British Commonwealth – see what it did for them. American brands will be referred to as Near-Frozen Gnat’s Urine, so that all can be sold without risk of further confusion.
———————
10. Hollywood will be required occasionally to cast English actors as good guys. Hollywood will also be required to cast English actors to play English characters. Watching Andie MacDowell attempt English dialect in Four Weddings and a Funeral was an experience akin to having one’s ears removed with a cheese grater.
———————
11. You will cease playing American football. There is only one kind of proper football; you call it soccer.
Those of you brave enough will, in time, be allowed to play rugby (which has some similarities to American football, but does not involve stopping for a rest every twenty seconds or wearing full kevlar body armour like a bunch of nancies).
———————
12. Further, you will stop playing baseball. It is not reasonable to host an event called the World Series for a game which is not played outside of America. Since only 2.1% of you are aware there is a world beyond your borders, your error is understandable. You will learn cricket, and we will let you face the South Africans first to take the sting out of their deliveries.
——————–
13. You must tell us who killed JFK. It’s been driving us mad.
—————–
14. An inland revenue agent (i.e. tax collector) from Her Majesty’s Government will be with you shortly to ensure the acquisition of all monies due (backdated to 1776).
—————
15. Daily Tea Time begins promptly at 4 p.m. with proper cups, with saucers, and never mugs, with high quality biscuits (cookies) and cakes; plus strawberries (with cream) when in season.

Reasonably clever. Reminds me of the somewhat un-PC humor a British friend sent me on how different countries respond to terrorism.

By the way, I’m not sure the part about needing a permit to carry a vegetable peeler is a joke. After all, we’re talking about the country where you need an ID to buy a teaspoon.

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Two months ago, I decided that the new President of the Philippines was the winner of the 2016 award for politician of the year.

It takes a remarkable amount of chutzpah, after all, to freely admit to having mistresses (yes, more than one). But the icing on the cake is that he then bragged that none of them are on the public payroll. I imagine Filipino taxpayers are very grateful that he self-finances his extracurricular activity.

This is all quite noteworthy, but I may have jumped the gun when giving President Duterte this award.

That’s because we now have another politician who has gone above and beyond the call of duty. This politician, you will see, has displayed a stunning degree of arrogance and elitism, acting as if the normal rules of decorum and prudence don’t apply.

No, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton getting a free pass for endangering national security. Though that would be a good guess.

Instead, our new contestant for politician of the year is Monsieur Francois Hollande.

And the reason he has vaulted into contention is this amusing story (though presumably very aggravating story for French taxpayers) about the elitist and wasteful habits of France’s socialist leader.

French President François Hollande’s hairdresser earns a gross salary of €9,895 a month, according to a report in French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, to be published Wednesday. …Over the course of the president’s mandate, which ends next year, the hairdresser will have received a gross salary of more than €590,000. The hairdresser regularly follows Hollande during his travels, according to Le Canard.

I realize I may be a bit old fashioned, and maybe my reactions are influenced by my minimalist approach to hair care (shower, comb with fingers, done), but why does a male politician need an on-staff hairdresser?!?

Especially when he doesn’t have that much hair to begin with!

By the way, it’s not 100 percent clear that taxpayer money is financing Hollande’s hairdresser, though I suspect that’s almost certainly the case. The article mentions that the hairdresser signed the contract with Hollande’s top staffer, which certainly makes it sound as if the French President isn’t spending his own money.

Though maybe the Socialist Party or some other entity is paying the bills, so I will leave open the possibility that Hollande is merely guilty of being a vain clown instead of being a vain clown who wastes taxpayer money.

What makes this story particularly interesting is that Hollande a few years ago publicly cut back on some of the lavish perks he and his cabinet were enjoying. But I guess that was all for show.

Though I’d actually consider it a bargain if politicians spent all their time preening in front of the mirror.

That would leave them less time to tax our earnings.

Or regulate our behavior.

And discourage our productivity.

Or corrupt our nation.

And they’d have less time to reward their donors at our expense!

Or to reward themselves.

Or to be disingenuous hypocrites.

But no need to belabor the point. Maybe now it’s easy to understand why I prefer “do-nothing” politicians.

Heck, I’d be willing to double their pay if they promised to stay home.

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I realize it’s presumptuous, but I periodically make grandiose claims that a single column will tell readers “everything” they need to know about a topic. I’ve used that tactic when writing about tax loopholes, entitlements, fiscal policy, bureaucracy (twice), tax evasion, France, Greece, corporate inversions, and economic policy.

Sometimes I even claim a single image, chart, or cartoon provides a reader with “everything” needed to understand an issue. Examples include the minimum wage, economic policy, the welfare state, supply-side economics, the tax code, Europe’s fiscal crisis, Social Security reform, demographics, overpaid bureaucrats, healthcare economics, inequality, fiscal policy, and the Ryan budget (twice).

Needless to say, I don’t actually think these columns give readers “everything” on a topic. But I do hope the information makes a compelling and informative point about an issue.

So it’s time to expand this tactic and present one sentence that tells readers “everything” they need to know about the failure of big government. And it’s not even the full sentence, just the bolded portion in this excerpt from a BuzzFeed story about how Belgium is trying to deal with terrorism.

One Belgian counterterrorism official told BuzzFeed News last week that due to the small size of the Belgian government and the huge numbers of open investigations…virtually every police detective and military intelligence officer in the country was focused on international jihadi investigations. …the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said. “It’s literally an impossible situation.”

When I read that sentence, my jaw dropped to the floor. Belgium has one of the biggest and most bloated governments in the world.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Go to the OECD’s collection of data and click on Table 25 and you’ll see that the public sector in Belgium consumes almost 54 percent of the nation’s economy. That’s bigger even than the size of government in Sweden and Italy.

So the notion that fighting terrorism is hampered by the “small size of the Belgian government” is utterly absurd.

The real problem is that politicians and bureaucrats have become so focused on redistributing money to various interest groups that there’s not enough attention given to fulfilling the few legitimate functions of government. Not just in Belgium, but all over the world. Here’s what I wrote on this issue back in 2012.

…today’s bloated welfare state interferes with and undermines the government’s ability to competently fulfill its legitimate responsibilities. Imagine, for instance, if we had the kind of limited federal government envisioned by the Founding Fathers and the “best and brightest” people in government – instead of being dispersed across a vast bureaucracy – were concentrated on protecting the national security of the American people. In that hypothetical world, I’m guessing something like the 9-11 attacks would be far less likely.

What I said about America back then is even more true about Belgium today. Big governments are clumsy and ineffective, and bigger governments are even more incompetent. There’s even scholarly research confirming that larger public sectors are associated with higher levels of inefficiency.

And the same point has been made by folks such as Mark Steyn and Robert Samuelson (though David Brooks inexplicably reaches the opposite conclusion).

The good news is that the American people have an instinctive understanding of the problem. When asked to describe the federal government, you’ll notice that “effective” and “efficient” are not the words people choose.

P.S. On a related note, I argued in a column from 2014 that the federal government should be much smaller so it could more effectively focus on genuine threats such as the Ebola virus.

P.S. It’s worth pointing out that Israel, which faces far greater security challenges than Belgium, manages to do a better job with a government that is not nearly as large.

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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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