Archive for the ‘Waste’ Category

Time for a confession.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just like the other bureaucrats who exploited the system.

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

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

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

Here’s some background on the DROP scam.

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

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

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


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.

Read Full Post »

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.”


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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: