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Posts Tagged ‘Government Incompetence’

In America’s sprawling intelligence network, costing tens of billions of dollars, who got fired after the 9-11 terror attacks for failing to connect the dots?

Who in the military got fired after the Fort Hood terrorist attack for failing to connect the dots?

More recently, who in the FBI or Department of Homeland Security got fired after the San Bernardino terrorist attack for failing to connect the dots?

And who in the government will get fired after the Orlando terrorist massacre for failing to connect the dots?

If you answered “nobody” in response to all these questions, don’t expect special congratulations. Failure in government is both pervasive and without consequences, so any other answer would have required a degree of near-malicious naiveté normally found at Bernie Sanders’ rallies.

And there are lots of dots that should have been connected in Orlando.

Jim Geraghty of National Review gathered several examples.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

…on Sept. 11, 2001. As classmates looked on in shock, Mateen celebrated the terrorist attacks that day… At a barbecue in the spring of 2007, Mateen…told the class he ought to kill all of them…

The Daily Beast reports:

Mateen first came to the FBI’s attention in May 2013, after making a series of “boasts” to co-workers about his various ties to terrorist groups

The Miami Herald reports:

The Islamic Center was also attended on occasion by Moner Mohammad Abusalha, who is believed to be the first American suicide bomber in Syria.

And here’s what CNN has reported:

…he was a security guard at the St. Lucie County Courthouse, often manning the metal detectors at the front of the building.Sheriff Ken Mascara said that in 2013 his staff requested Mateen be transferred from the courthouse because he made inflammatory comments. Mateen’s supervisor notified federal agents, after which, the sheriff said, the FBI investigated the guard.

And here is some amazing evidence from a report by Fox2:

A Florida gun store owner says his employees refused to sell to the Orlando nightclub gunman before the attack. The Florida gun store owner noticed several red flags right away — and alerted the FBI. But, there was never an investigation, and Omar Mateen slipped through the cracks.

It may turn out, of course, that some of these reports are wrong. But most of them, if not all of them, are presumably accurate.

Yet the hordes of paper pushers in the federal government decided that this dirtbag didn’t belong on the no-fly list (though somehow the feds decided an eight-year old cub scout shouldn’t be on planes)?!?

And the bureaucrats didn’t think additional investigations of Mateen were warranted given all the above information, which they had before the attack?

I realize I’m venting because of my anger at the senseless slaughter. Yes, I admit that even an efficient government isn’t going to be able to stop all terrorism. And maybe our government quietly thwarts many attacks and actually does a lot better job than we realize.

But in this case and others, mistakes obviously were made. Shouldn’t there be any consequences for that incompetence?

By the way, other governments are equally feckless. If you recall the terrorist bombing of the Brussels Airport, the Belgian government demonstrated unbelievable and near-malignant levels of stupidity.

The Daily Caller has some of the disturbing details.

Turkey detained one of the Brussels suicide bombers, Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, in June 2015 on charges of being a foreign fighter. …Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said Belgium ignored Turkey’s “warning that this person is a foreign fighter.” …Erdogan said…“We reported the deportation to the Belgian Embassy in Ankara on July 14, 2015, but he was later set free.” …El-Bakraoui, 30, was sentenced to nine years in prison in 2010 for a shootout with police officers. He was released early but subsequently violated his parole and was supposed to be back in prison.

Wow, this is like a perfect storm of government incompetence. First, the Belgian government is told the guy is a foreign fighter in Syria. Second, the Belgian government knew he was a bad guy. Third, they let him out of jail early. And fourth, he violated the conditions of his parole but wasn’t thrown back in jail.

But I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, this is the same nation where an official claimed that it was difficult to fight terrorism because of “the small size of the Belgian government” even though the public sector in that country consumes a greater share of economic output than it does even in Italy and Sweden.

So what’s the moral of the story?

There are three. First, the federal government has become such a sprawling and bloated mess that incompetence seems inevitable.

And it doesn’t matter whether it’s on purpose or by accident. We have a government that does a bad job, even when we want good performance.

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.

But there’s a second point that needs to be made about the lack of consequences.

If nobody is ever fired for mistakes, it’s obviously much harder to get good performance. The success of any organization depends in part on the carrots and sticks that are employed.

But in the federal government, there are no sticks.

Heck, you can let veterans die by putting them on secret waiting lists and then get awarded bonuses.

From the perspective of bureaucrats, this is a win-win situation. If you do something bad, there are no consequences.

And if you allow something bad, there are no consequences.

For the third and final point, I’m going to partially absolve bureaucrats because some of the problem is the result of politicians misallocating law-enforcement resources.

Think of all the money, time, energy and manpower that is squandered for the War on Drugs. Wouldn’t it be better if the crowd in Washington shifted those resources to stopping people who want to kill us?

And what about the multi-billion cost of anti-money laundering laws. For all intents and purposes, the government is requiring banks to spy on everybody, which results in a haystack of information, thus making it impossible for law enforcement to find any needles. Call me crazy, I’d rather have law enforcement concentrate on actual criminals.

I’m not expecting perfection from Washington. Or even great performance. But it sure would be nice if the government was semi-effective.

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I’ve never been susceptible to the claim that you solve problems with taxpayer money.

Indeed, this amusing poster is a pretty good summary of my views on the effectiveness of government spending.

But what about the horrific stories about veterans dying because of secret waiting lists and bureaucratic skullduggery at the Veterans Administration?

I want to take care of former soldiers who need treatment because of their service, and national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government. So is this one of the rare cases where a budget needs to increase? That’s certainly the mentality in some quarters on Capitol Hill.

Here are some excerpts from Byron York’s column in the Washington Examiner.

Sanders and his fellow Democrats want to give the VA billions more. …What is striking about Sanders’ bill is not just its price tag but how irrelevant it is to the most serious problems besetting the VA health care system. It was like adding new chrome to a car that won’t run. When Republicans stopped the bill earlier this year, Democrats predictably accused them of being insensitive to veterans’ needs. …It’s unclear what Congress will do, but one certainty in the debate is that the Sanders bill won’t solve the problem.

But what do the actual budget numbers show?

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the VA already has lots of money.

Here’s some of what has been reported by the Wall Street Journal.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, the agency caught in a political firestorm over its medical care for veterans, has seen its funding grow faster than any other government department in recent years. Since 2000, annual spending has tripled to $63 billion to meet a surge in health-care and other costs. That is on top of the more than $85 billion the VA is set to receive this year for automatic payments such as disability benefits and pensions, a tally that has more than tripled since 2000.

But some may argue that needs are rising even faster because so many soldiers were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Federalist addressed this issue, in an article by Sean Davis.

VA funding has more than kept up with both medical inflation and increased patient loads. An analysis of budget and cost data, as well as data on the total number of VA patients and the number of acute inpatients treated, shows that the VA’s budget has grown much faster than its workload. Even when you take medical inflation into account, the VA budget still grew faster than its patient base since 2000. …The VA has a whole bunch of problems, but a lack of funding ain’t one.

Here’s a chart from Sean’s article. Hard to argue with these numbers.

P.S. Since we’re on the topic of national defense and foreign affairs, let’s take a look at a very provocative column by Steve Chapman. He says that President Obama, whether by accident or design, actually has a reasonable foreign policy. As least if you think good foreign policy should be based on a prudent understanding of the limits of government.

Conservatives generally agree on a few propositions. The federal government should avoid spending money unnecessarily. It shouldn’t exceed its basic constitutional duties. It should encourage self-reliance rather than dependency. It should accept that some problems are beyond its ability to solve.  Barack Obama, they may be surprised to learn, agrees with much of this formula. He just applies it in a realm where conservatives often don’t: foreign relations and national security. The Obama doctrine, as outlined in his policies and his speech at West Point Wednesday, is one of comparatively limited government.

Chapman elaborates, drawing an interesting parallel to domestic issues.

A…sensible view is that the U.S. can indeed remain idle while alleged dangers gather, because most of them won’t materialize. The immortal philosopher Calvin Coolidge said, “If you see 10 troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.” Many conservatives believe in hurrying out to meet all 10 just in case. …Critics charge that Obama’s foreign policy shows an unwillingness to lead, or weakness, or uncertain purposes. The same complaint, of course, could be made about conservative policies on poverty, health care, urban blight, access to housing and more. “Don’t you care?” indignant liberals ask. But sometimes ambitious government undertakings are too expensive to justify, sometimes they fail to solve problems, and sometimes they make things worse. In those instances, declining to act — and explaining why — is the most authentic form of leadership. That’s just as true in the international realm as it is in the domestic one.

I’m not a foreign policy expert, but I’m very sympathetic Chapman’s hypothesis because skepticism is always a good approach when analyzing government. And his piece on NATO is must reading for similar reasons.

That being said, I’m not going to put Obama on a pedestal or assume that he’s doing the right thing on foreign policy for the right reason. My guess is that his default position in foreign affairs is passivity.

That often coincides with the libertarian position of non-intervention. But as I wrote above, libertarians also believe that national defense is one of the few legitimate functions of government, which is why they generally were allied with conservatives during the Cold War, when we faced an aggressive and imperialistic Soviet Bloc.

My guess is that if we went into a time machine and it was 1980 instead of 2014, Obama would be more like Jimmy Carter and less like Ronald Reagan.

P.P.S. Mark Steyn also has written some very wise words about libertarian-ish foreign policy.

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The IRS is worthy of scorn. It is a bloated bureaucracy that routinely violates the rights of taxpayers.

But even I didn’t think it was possible for a collection of bureaucrats to display the blithering incompetence necessary to send $46 million of handouts to nearly 24,000 fake returns filed from a single address.

Yes, a single address. I’m not joking. Read these details from MSN…but only if you don’t have high blood pressure.

If you make an oversight while paying your taxes to the IRS, you better believe you’ll be audited, harshly fined, and held completely accountable. Meanwhile, in 2011, the IRS accidentally sent more than $46 million in refunds to 23,994 “unauthorized” alien workers. And they sent it all to one Atlanta address. This is coming to light thanks to the Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration (TIGTA) audit report.

Even I’m amazed, and I have extremely low expectations.

Keep in mind, by the way, that the “refunds” mentioned in the story almost surely aren’t refunds. Instead, they’re “earned income credit” payments, which are a form of income redistribution laundered through the tax code.

I explained back in 2010 how this scam works, and it’s worth noting this is a huge problem – more than $10 billion of fraud each and every year.

The nitwits at the IRS even sends housing tax credit checks to prisoners!

And these are the geniuses in charge of enforcing Obamacare. Hey, what could possibly go wrong?

For Heaven’s sake, let’s rip up the entire tax system and replace it with a simple and fair flat tax.

Or, better yet, let’s shrink the federal government down to the size envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Then we wouldn’t need any broad-based tax.

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I’ve written, ad nauseum, about the economic impact of excessive government spending.

But I’ve also acknowledged that Article I, Section VIII of the Constitution grants specific powers to the federal government.

What I’ve neglected to explore, though, is the key issue of how 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.

I’m mostly thinking about reducing the inefficiency and incompetence of Washington, but the same principle applies to other levels of government.

Using lots of humor and sarcasm, Mark Steyn elaborates on this issue.

In political terms, Hurricane Sandy and the Benghazi consulate debacle exemplify at home and abroad the fundamental unseriousness of the United States in the Obama era. …John Brennan, the Counterterrorism guy, and Tony Blinken, the National Security honcho, briefed the president on the stiff breeze, but on Sept. 11, 2012, when a little counterterrorism was called for, nobody bothered calling the Counterterrorism Security Group, the senior U.S. counterterrorism bureaucracy. …our government is more expensive than any government in history – and we have nothing to show for it. …one Obama bill spent a little shy of a trillion dollars, and no one can point to a single thing it built. “A big storm requires Big Government,” pronounced The New York Times. But Washington is so big-hearted with Big Government it spends $188 million an hour that it doesn’t have – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including Thanksgiving, Christmas and Ramadan. And yet, mysteriously, multitrillion-dollar Big Government Obama-style can’t doanything except sluice food stamps to the dependent class, lavish benefits and early retirement packages to the bureaucrats that service them, and so-called government “investment” to approved Obama cronies. …Last week, Nanny Bloomberg, Mayor of New York, rivaled his own personal best for worst mayoral performance since that snowstorm a couple of years back. This is a man who spends his days micromanaging the amount of soda New Yorkers are allowed to have in their beverage containers rather than, say, the amount of ocean New Yorkers are allowed to have in their subway system – just as, in the previous crisis, the municipal titan who can regulate the salt out of your cheeseburger proved utterly incapable of regulating any salt on to Sixth Avenue. Imagine if this preening buffoon had expended as much executive energy on flood protection for the electrical grid and transit system as he does on approved quantities of carbonated beverages. But that’s leadership 21st-century style: When the going gets tough, the tough ban trans fats. Back in Benghazi, the president who looks so cool in a bomber jacket declined to answer his beleaguered diplomats’ calls for help – even though he had aircraft and Special Forces in the region. Too bad. He’s all jacket and no bombers. This, too, is an example of America’s uniquely profligate impotence. When something goes screwy at a ramshackle consulate halfway round the globe, very few governments have the technological capacity to watch it unfold in real time. Even fewer have deployable military assets only a couple of hours away. What is the point of unmanned drones, of military bases around the planet, of elite Special Forces trained to the peak of perfection if the president and the vast bloated federal bureaucracy cannot rouse themselves to action? What is the point of outspending Russia, Britain, France, China, Germany and every middle-rank military power combined if, when it matters, America cannot urge into the air one plane with a couple of dozen commandoes? In Iraq, al-Qaida is running training camps in the western desert. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are all but certain to return most of the country to its pre-9/11 glories. But in Washington the head of the world’s biggest “counterterrorism” bureaucracy briefs the president on flood damage and downed trees.

Amen. Four Americans are dead in part because the idiots in Washington are focused on things that are not the proper responsibility of the federal government.

I don’t know if this was his intent, but Steyn just made a very compelling argument for the libertarian vision.

Here are a few of my favorite examples of Steyn’s writings.

This post is about the link between effective government and small government, with the obvious implication that the current federal behemoth is largely incapable of handling its legitimate responsibilities. Well, the flip side is that doesn’t do a good job in areas where it shouldn’t be involved, as cleverly illustrated by this cartoon.

P.S. Speaking of libertarianism, here’s some self-mocking humor. We’ll start with a video portraying Somalia as a libertarian paradise, followed by cartoons on libertarian ice fishing and libertarian lifeguards, then an info-graphic showing 24 types of libertarians, and close with a poster showing how the world sees libertarians.

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I’ve written about the TSA being a wasteful, stupid, and ineffective bureaucracy, and I’ve also shared some good anti-TSA humor (see the links in this post, which also contains an amazing visual).

Today, let’s focus on the wasteful and ineffective part. It seems that Keystone Cops of airport security have a new “pilot program” that is unpleasantly reminiscent of the old internal passport regime maintained by South Africa in the apartheid era.

Here is some of what one passenger wrote about his experience.

I came face-to-face with Big Brother the other day, and it was a frightening experience. He actually presented himself in the deceptive form of a young, attractive female officer, working for the Transportation Security Administration at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. At first she simply seemed chatty and friendly. She looked at my airline boarding pass and noted that I was coming from Denver. Then she mentioned that I was headed from Detroit to Grand Rapids. “That’s a pretty short flight,” she said. “Talk to my travel agent,” I grumbled. At that point she asked me what my business would be in Grand Rapids. “I’m headed home,” I replied. Then she wanted to know where home was. That’s when the mental alarms went off and I realized I was being interrogated by Big Brother in drag. I asked her why the federal government needed to know where I was going and what I would be doing. She explained that the questions were part of a new security “pilot program.” I then told her I am an American citizen, traveling within my own country, and I wasn’t breaking any laws. That’s all the federal government needed to know, and I wasn’t going to share any more. Not because I had anything to hide. It was because we live in a free country where innocent people are supposedly protected from unwarranted government intrusion and harassment.

Good for Mr. Gunn. Here’s more of his story.

At that point the agent yelled out, “We have another refusal.” One of my bags was seized and I was momentarily detained and given a hand-swab, which I believe was to test for residue from bomb-making materials. I passed the bomb test and was told I could move on, but I hung around a moment and told everyone within listening range what I thought about this terrifying experience. So, this is what we’ve come to. The federal government now has a need to know where citizens are going and what they are doing before they are allowed to peacefully pass. I’m starting to wonder what separates us from Russia or Cuba. …TSA officers, being the brilliant people they are, are given the responsibility of picking out airline passengers “whose facial expressions, body language or other behavior indicate a security risk.” They are then subjected to a “chat down,” where officers interrogate you and decide if you are indeed a terrorist.

I confess I’m not as brave as Mr. Gunn. I wouldn’t want to risk missing a flight because a peevish bureaucrat deliberately delayed me. But I fully agree with his conclusion.

This program is a bizarre and outlandish violation of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which is supposed to protect us from “unreasonable search and seizure” by agents of the government, unless they have probable cause. I doubt any judge would have considered my droopy face as sufficient cause for harassment. I lived through 9/11 and I understand the need for tight security at airports. …The idea is to keep dangerous materials that could be used in a terrorist attack off commercial airliners. Fair enough. But stopping people because they look sort of funny to security agents, and probing into their personal business, is going too far. What’s next? Check lanes on city streets, where jackbooted thugs from Washington, D.C., will stop everyone every morning to ask them where they’re going and what they’re up to? And if our answers are not what the government wants to hear, perhaps we’ll be sent home and put under surveillance, to make sure we’re not involved in anything that Big Brother doesn’t approve of. Our freedom is severely compromised when government is allowed to do this sort of thing. We are supposed to be presumed innocent and able to come and go as we please, as long as we don’t break any laws or give authorities reason to believe we may have. The “chat down” program has been a failure, by the way, at least according to a recent editorial published in USA Today. TSA officials interviewed about 725,000 travelers at Logan International Airport in Boston over the course of one year, and none of them turned out to be terrorists. ..There is no justification for this type of unwarranted harassment in America. Even people who look a little different should be allowed to move about as they please, unless they give authorities a specific reason to stop them.

So what’s all this mean? What’s the answer. Simple. Put the private sector in charge, as Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz have argued. As Steve Chapman explains, there were lots of benefits to the pre-TSA system.

(h/t: J.D. Tuccille)

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I’ve commented on the TSA’s incompetence in previous posts.

I’ve also shared some horror stories about TSA abuse.

And I’ve posted many jokes about the Keystone Cops of airport security (for more laughs, see this, this, this, and this).

But this graphic, sent to me by Tony Shin, is a superb visual display of what the TSA really means.

TSA Waste
Created by: OnlineCriminalJusticeDegree.com

All of this underscores why the private sector would do a better job.

Unfortunately, the Obama White House seems more interested in using airport security as an opportunity to expand the universe of unionized bureaucrats.

And to make matters worse, it’s very distressing that the ideologues in the Obama Administration are trying to reverse the very successful policy of arming pilots (many of whom are former military).

Remember, this poster sums up everything that happens in Washington.

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While I’m obviously not a fan of big government, I have mixed feelings about why the public sector is so blindly wasteful.

Is it because politicians and bureaucrats are well-intentioned morons who accidentally do damage (as illustrated by this cartoon), or is it that they are venal vultures looking to grab as much loot as possible before the house of cards comes crashing down (powerfully demonstrated by this example)?

The answer is probably a combination, so the real challenge is figuring out whether specific examples of government stupidity fall into one category or another.

Let’s look at three recent examples.

First, we have a story from the surveillance state known as the United Kingdom.

On a cold, dark night on the mean streets of the UK, an undercover police officer was radioed and informed that a potential suspect was close by. Keen to do the right thing, he set off in hot pursuit. Twenty fraught minutes later, he learned he’d been chasing… himself. The CCTV operator reported to police that someone was ‘acting suspiciously’, according to The Telegraph. Unfortunately, the officer who decided to follow up on the report was actually the shadowy figure in question. …The poor guy doing the chasing reassured the CCTV operator that he was “hot on the heels” of the suspect. Uh, at least until the police officer’s boss turned up in the CCTV control room and recognized him.

This definitely falls into the incompetence and stupidity category. Why didn’t the camera operator figure our that there was only one person on the screen. Then again, I once spent a minute or so looking in my bedroom for a cell phone that I was holding in my left hand, so I don’t want to be overly judgmental.

So let’s look at another case of government in action. Indeed, this could become the start of a new TV program: The Fart Police.

Harold Wayne Hadley, Jr., 19, was arrested at a Mississippi junior college after he allegedly wrote a note on a piece of toilet paper on Tuesday, containing the word ‘bomb,’ according to Weirdnews.net. The note prompted 11 emergency agencies to respond to the school, but there was no bomb. Hadley and his family contend that he was only explaining the joy of flatulating in the library. “He was in the restroom doodling on some toilet paper … we are from the country, and he calls passing gas, bombs,” said Hadley’s aunt, who wouldn’t give her name to WDAM. “[He] put ‘I passed a bomb in the library,’ talking about passing gas, and somebody came in and found it, gave it to a teacher that recognized his hand writing and it blew all out of proportion.” …Hadley was arrested and held on $20,000 bail. If convicted of threatening to blow up the school, he faces 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine,according to WAPT.

Part of me wants to forgive this example of government excess. After all, we live in a post-Columbine world and I suppose schools have to plan for the worst in case they have unstable Anthony-Weiner-type students.

But then I notice two things in the story that set off alarm bells, beginning with the fact that 11 government agencies responded. If that doesn’t tell you right away that we have too many government bureaucracies and too many bureaucrats with nothing to do, then you must be in a coma.

The other thing I noticed is that a teacher recognized the student’s handwriting. So if that was true, why didn’t someone contact the student before going nuclear on the situation?

Last but not least, let’s look at an example of government misbehavior that defies description.

[A] West Hoke Elementary School student was in her More at Four classroom when a state agent who was inspecting lunch boxes decided that her packed lunch — which consisted of a turkey and cheese sandwich, a banana, apple juice and potato chips — “did not meet U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines,” the Journal reports. The decision was made under consideration of a regulation put in place by the the Division of Child Development and Early Education at the Department of Health and Human Services, which requires all lunches served in pre-kindergarten programs to meet USDA guidelines. “When home-packed lunches do not include all of the required items, child care providers must supplement them with the missing ones,” the Journal reports. The student’s mother told the Journal she received a note from the school about the incident and was charged $1.25 for the cafeteria tray, from which her daughter only ate three chicken nuggets. …The mother, who was not identified in the report, expressed concern about school officials telling her daughter that she wasn’t “packing her lunch box properly.”

This is downright horrifying, perhaps even more disgusting than any of these stories of government malfeasance and idiocy. Several questions come to mind.

  • Is the bureaucracy so bloated that we have food police in schools?
  • Why is the Department of Agriculture preparing food guidelines?
  • Why is there a Division of Child Development and Early Education
  • More important, why is there a Department of Health and Human Services?
  • When did the nanny state get the power to overrule parents on what kids eat for lunch?
  • And why are pencil-neck bureaucrats in charge of lunch box packing etiquette?

I rarely comment about religion on this blog, but reading this story almost makes me hope there’s no such thing as Heaven. That’s because I would hate to think our Founding Fathers are looking down from above and seeing what has happened to the land of the free and the home of the brave.

P.S. I’ll re-ask the question I posed last year: Why should we ever agree to more taxes when politicians and bureaucrats do such a rotten job with the money we’re already giving them?

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I periodically write posts about “Great Moments” in government. These usually feature some absurd example of stupidity and incompetence that only is possible when the world’s least competent people have power to coerce.

Examples include:

EU rules banning the selling of items by quantity (can’t have people buying a dozen eggs, for instance);

EEOC rules hindering trucking companies from weeding out drunk drivers (after all, alcoholism is a disability);

European courts ruling that the ability to watch free soccer broadcasts is a human right (if it’s already the job of government to provide you with housing, healthcare, and employment, why not?);

A local politician in Maryland wanting a licensing process to be a bum (I’m at a loss for words), and;

Virginia bureaucrats making it a crime to rescue injured wildlife (better to let Bambi suffer at the side of the road).

If you like high blood pressure, there are more examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

But here’s an example from Italy that may be even more astounding.

First, some background. The political elite in Europe is celebrating because the former Italian Prime Minister has been forced from office and replaced with Mario Monti, a former member of the European Commission who supposedly is one of the “best and brightest” and thus can bring technocratic efficiency to Italy.

So what do we see from this new government of allegedly competent technocrats? Well, you won’t believe me, so read this excerpt from the UK-based Guardian.

Italy’s new, “technocratic” government of highly qualified bankers, admirals and professors was missing a minister today after he vanished into a fog of misunderstanding. Earlier this week, agriculture expert Francesco Braga, a professor at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, was surprised, if flattered, to be told from Rome that he had been named junior agriculture minister in the new Italian administration. He had, after all, spent the last 28 years living outside his native land. Whatever doubts the professor may have had were swept away in what he called an “avalanche of congratulations”. Among the first to express delight was the Parmesan cheese manufacturers’ association. Back in Rome, the agriculture minister, Mario Catania, declared in irreproachably technocratic fashion that his new deputy would “bring value added”. He admitted that he had not actually spoken to the distinguished Italo-Canadian professor, but added: “I know him by reputation.” All of which must have been pretty confusing for Altero Matteoli, the infrastructure minister in Italy’s last government, who had warmly recommended for a post in the new government one Franco Braga, also a professor, but of construction engineering at Rome’s Sapienza University. “To tell the truth,” Matteoli was quoted as saying in the daily Corriere della Sera: “I recommended him for infrastructure, but they put him in agriculture.” Only they – whoever they were – found a professor with a similar name who would have known something about farming. Which perhaps explains why Franco Braga, an expert on anti-seismic building techniques, was refusing either to answer his telephone, or be sworn in to a job for which he is wholly unqualified.

There are several levels of jaw-dropping incompetence in this story, including the fact that the job at the Agriculture Ministry was offered to the wrong person and the supposed right person was recommended for a different job at the Infrastructure Ministry .

But the real moral to the story isn’t that the technocratic geniuses screwed up an appointment. It’s that Italy is suffering from too much government and a genuinely competent group of technocrats would abolish useless government bureaucracies.

But that’s not happening, so don’t expect a turnaround. Heck, Italy should sack the new government and give the job of Prime Minister to the former porn star who used to be in the Parliament. At least that would provide entertainment value.

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These two stories are completely unrelated, but they both struck me as examples of why governments have a well-deserved reputation for squandering money and making life more difficult for ordinary people.

And even though the stories are radically different, they give us a good opportunity to ask whether government is more stupid and incompetent in Europe or the United States.

Our European entry in the contest is from Germany, where the government apparently has lost blueprints for its new spy headquarters. Here are some excerpts from a BBC report, though I can’t help thinking it should be in the Onion.

Germany is investigating reports that the blueprints for the future headquarters of its BND intelligence agency have gone missing. If the report in Focus magazine is confirmed, it could pose a serious security risk – and would be a huge embarrassment for the spy agency. The new 1.6bn euro (£1.4bn; $2.3bn) agency headquarters are currently under construction in Berlin. …They purportedly show extremely sensitive aspects of the building’s construction, such as the alarm system, anti-terror installations, emergency exits, cable routes and sewers.

By the way, I’m also shocked by the $2.3 billion price tag for the building. But cost overruns and waste are so routine that only fiscal policy wonks like me seem to get upset about such things.

The American entry is from (I’m embarrassed to admit) Georgia, where the Keystone Cops in Midway have stopped a major crime wave of…(get ready to be shocked)…unregulated lemonade! Here’s part of the AP report.

Police in Georgia have shut down a lemonade stand run by three girls trying to save up for a trip to a water park, saying they didn’t have a business license or the required permits. Midway Police Chief Kelly Morningstar says police also didn’t know how the lemonade was made, who made it or what was in it. The girls had been operating for one day when Morningstar and another officer cruised by. The girls needed a business license, peddler’s permit and food permit to operate, even on residential property. The permits cost $50 a day or $180 per year.

Other local governments have been guilty of this type of petty harassment, but what’s remarkable about the Midway story is that the Barney-Fife-wannabee police chief shut down the lemonade stand, in part, because the girls “didn’t know how the lemonade was made.”

So I guess this means that the kids not only should have coughed up big bucks for a permit, but they also should have posted the recipe for some regulator to approve?

I weep for my country.

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Regular readers know that I don’t have high regard for government. I’m willing to believe just about anything bad about politicians and bureaucrats, and I am not the least bit surprised when I hear horror stories about counterproductive government programs riddled with waste, fraud, and abuse.

So you can imagine that it takes something truly mind-boggling to make me lower my opinion of government.

Well, that’s happened. Apparently, a woman drowned in a government-run pool and it took two days for the bureaucrats to notice her dead body. Here are some excerpts from a Boston news report.

The body of a Fall River woman was discovered floating in a state run pool late Tuesday night, two days after she apparently drowned in that same pool. Police say lifeguards were on duty and people were swimming in the Veterans Memorial pool at Lafayette Park Sunday, Monday and Tuesday and it appears no one noticed the dead body. …Police say Joseph was watching her 9-year-old neighbor at the pool on Sunday when she apparently had an accident sliding down a waterside. Family friends tell FOX25 the little boy told lifeguards that she did not come up from above water but no action was taken.

I actually hope this story is somehow false. Sure, I enjoy mocking the incompetence of government, but I would hate to think that lifeguards, other staff, and supervisors (not to mention other swimmers) could overlook a dead body for two days.

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Alex Tabarrok has a fascinating article in the Wilson Quarterly about the history of bail bondsmen and their role in this privatized segment of the criminal justice system. Let’s start by excerpting some history of the system.

Bail began in medieval England as a progressive measure to help defendants get out of jail while they waited, sometimes for many months, for a roving judge to show up to conduct a trial. If the local sheriff knew the accused, he might release him on the defendant’s promise to return for the hearing. More often, however, the sheriff would release the accused to the custody of a surety, usually a brother or friend, who guaranteed that the defendant would present himself when the time came. So, in the common law, custody of the accused was never relinquished but instead was transferred to the surety—the brother became the keeper—which explains the origin of the strong rights bail bondsmen have to pursue and capture escaped defendants. Initially, the surety’s guarantee to the sheriff was simple: If the accused failed to show, the surety would take his place and be judged as if he were the offender. The English system provided lots of incentives for sureties to make certain that the accused showed up for trial, but not a lot of incentive to be a surety. The risk to sureties was lessened when courts began to accept pledges of cash rather than of one’s person, but the system was not perfected until personal surety was slowly replaced by a commercial surety system in the United States. That system put incentives on both sides of the equation. Bondsmen had an incentive both to bail defendants out of jail and to chase them down should they flee. By the end of the 19th century, commercial sureties were the norm in the United States. (The Philippines is the only other country with a similar system.)

In recent decades, however, some states have begun to restrict or ban the use of private bail bondsmen. Not surprisingly, this hasn’t been good news. The cost to taxpayers rises and the effectiveness of the criminal justice system falls. Here’s another excerpt.

Every state now has some kind of pretrial services program, and four (Illinois, Kentucky, Oregon, and Wisconsin) have outlawed commercial bail altogether. …Today, when a defendant fails to appear, an arrest warrant is issued. But if the defendant was released on his own recognizance or on government bail, very little else happens. In many states and cities, the police are overwhelmed with outstanding arrest warrants. In California, about two million warrants have gone unserved. Many are for minor offenses, but hundreds of thousands are for felonies, including thousands of homicides. In Philadelphia, where commercial bail has been regulated out of existence, The Philadelphia Inquirer recently found that “fugitives jump bail . . . with virtual impunity.” At the end of 2009, the City of Brotherly Love had more than 47,000 unserved arrest warrants. About the only time the city’s bail jumpers are recaptured is when they are arrested for some other crime. …Unserved warrants tend not to pile up in jurisdictions with commercial bondsmen. In those places, the bail bond agent is on the hook for the bond and thus has a strong incentive to bring those who jump bail to justice. My interest in commercial bail and bounty hunting began when economist Eric Helland and I used data on 36,231 felony defendants released between 1988 and 1996 to investigate the differences between the public and private systems of bail and fugitive recovery. Our study, published in TheJournal of Law and Economics in 2004, is the largest and most comprehensive ever written on the bail system. Our research backs up what I found on the street: Bail bondsmen and bounty hunters get their charges to show up for trial, and they recapture them quickly when they do flee. Nationally, the failure-to-appear rate for defendants released on commercial bail is 28 percent lower than the rate for defendants released on their own recognizance, and 18 percent lower than the rate for those released on government bond. Even more important, when a defendant does skip town, the bounty hunters are the ones who pursue justice with the greatest determination and energy. Defendants sought by bounty hunters are a whopping 50 percent less likely to be on the loose after one year than other bail jumpers. In addition to being effective, bail bondsmen and bounty hunters work at no cost to the taxpayers. The public reaps a double benefit, because when a bounty hunter fails to find his man, the bond is forfeit to the government.

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Here’s another remarkable story illustrating the incompetence of government. A bureaucrat in Norfolk, VA, got paid for 12 years (including benefits) without ever showing up for work. Depending on the agency, this may actually have been a good thing (I wish IRS bureaucrats did this), but it certainly shows how taxpayer money gets wasted when nobody is accountable and there is no bottom-line incentive to use money effectively.
A Community Services Board employee collected a salary with benefits for 12 years and never showed up for work, several City Council members said Wednesday. The head of the agency refused to identify the employee but acknowledged in response to inquiries from The Virginian-Pilot that an employee was “on the board’s payroll who had not reported to work in years.” Maureen Womack, the agency’s executive director, said she fired the employee, informed the board that governs her agency and asked City Attorney Bernard A. Pishko to investigate the matter earlier this summer. Pishko’s investigation is nearly complete and will soon be turned over to the Norfolk police, she said. Womack also refused to divulge the employee’s salary. The council also was told in a recent closed meeting that at least one other staffer, a Community Services Board supervisor, is being investigated for alleged complicity. …Councilman Tommy Smigiel said recent revelations about the Community Services Board employee and other matters, including the profligate use of a city credit card by the Commissioner of Revenue and the purchase of a cell phone with city funds for a gang member by an assistant to the city manager, are doing “serious damage” to Norfolk’s image.

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I take second place to nobody in my view that government is horribly incompetent, but I even I’m shocked by this story I saw linked on Drudge. According to a news report out of Indiana, students who take the government’s driver’s ed class are four times more likely to crash than those who don’t take the classes. There almost certainly must be other factors that account for this surprising difference, as suggested in the excerpt below. After all, even I don’t believe bureaucrats can turn people into more dangerous drivers. At the very least, though, this presumably shows that government classes have no positive impact. Maybe the right way to deal with young drivers is to put parents back in charge, backed up by the discipline of auto insurance rates determined by market forces. How’s that for a radical idea?

Indiana lawmakers say they are puzzled by a study that shows teenagers who take driver’s education classes are more likely to crash than those who do not take the classes. The Indiana BMV released the study that it says shows current drivers under 18 who took driver’s ed had nearly four times the crashes than those without the training. Some lawmakers say it might be time for an overhaul. The state’s drivers ed program has not changed in the past 30 years. But the BMV says the numbers might be skewed by the fact that teens with driver’s ed get their permits earlier and have more time on the road.

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Using road management as an example, John Stossel explains that government does a worse job than the private sector, even at things that theoretically are a government responsibility. Part of this is because of the profit motive, to be sure, but a big reason is probably because government bureaucracies inevitably are filled with overpaid bureaucrats who understand that job security is best assured by maintaining problems rather than solving them. Stossel makes an excellent point by noting that “contracting out” is not the same thing as genuine free enterprise. But at least it means whatever government is doing (either good things or bad things) will be done for less cost and with more competence.

Free enterprise does everything better. Why? Because if private companies don’t do things efficiently, they lose money and die. Unlike government, they cannot compel payment through the power to tax. Even when a private company operates a public facility under contract to government, it must perform. If it doesn’t, it will be “fired” — its contract won’t be renewed. Government is never fired. Contracting out to private enterprise isn’t the same thing as letting fully competitive free markets operate, but it still works better than government. Roads are one example. Politicians call road management a “public good” that “government must control.” Nonsense. In 1995, a private road company added two lanes in the middle of California Highway 91, right where the median strip used to be. It then used “congestion pricing” to let some drivers pay to speed past rush-hour traffic. Using the principles of supply and demand, road operators charge higher tolls at times of day when demand is high. That encourages those who are most in a hurry to pay for what they need. …for years there was a gap in the ring road surrounding Paris that created huge traffic problems. Then private developers made an unsolicited proposal to build a $2 billion toll tunnel in exchange for a 70-year lease to run it. They built a double-decker tunnel that fits six lanes of traffic in the space usually required for just two. The tunnel’s profit-seeking owners have an incentive to keep traffic moving. They collect tolls based on congestion pricing, and tolls are collected electronically, so cars don’t have to stop. The tunnel operators clear accidents quickly. Most are detected within 10 seconds — thanks to 350 cameras inside the tunnel. The private road has cut a 45-minute trip to 10 minutes.

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Paul Light of New York University has a column in the Washington Post that acknowledges an ongoing pattern of incompetence by the federal government. He admits that the bureaucracy is too big. He notes that bureaucratic success is unrelated to merit and that it is well nigh impossible to fire incompetent staff. And he also mentions that huge army of consultants and contractors, which further makes accountability impossible. Unfortunately, he fails to draw the obvious conclusion that the federal government needs to be radically downsized:

The systemic failures that led to the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 are, sadly, all too familiar. Substitute the words “Christmas Day plot” for tainted meat, poisoned peppers, aircraft groundings, the Columbia shuttle accident, Hurricane Katrina, counterfeit Heparin, toxic toys, the banking collapse, Bernie Madoff or even Sept. 11, and the failure to put Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on the “no-fly” list becomes yet another indication that the federal government can no longer guarantee the faithful execution of our laws. …Fifteen years later, a second national commission…looked at the widening federal agenda after the Sept. 11 attacks as well as underlying causes of poor performance and frequent breakdowns. The final report minced no words: “There are too many decision-makers, too much central clearance, too many bases to touch, and too many overseers with conflicting agendas . . . accountability is hard to discern and harder still to enforce.” …four bureaucratic problems that plague the federal government. First, the federal government currently has the most confusing hierarchy in its history. Barack Obama entered office overseeing at least 64 discrete titles just at the top of the government. Even one vacancy in the reporting chain can wreak havoc on performance. With more layers of management and more managers per layer, information must travel a great distance before reaching the president, if it ever does. …Third, front-line government employees have expressed serious concerns about their jobs. Interviewed in mid-2008 by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, less than half of a random sample of federal employees said their agencies were able to recruit employees with the right skills, just over a third said promotions were based on merit, and even fewer said their agencies took steps to deal with poor performers. …Fourth, the federal government is increasingly dependent on a huge workforce of employees who operate in the shadows. According to estimates from Eagle Eye Publishers, prepared on my behalf, the number of federal contractors grew from an estimated 4.4 million in 1999 to more than 7.5 million by the end of the 2005 fiscal year. Given the continued rise in federal procurement spending, the number of contractors is almost certainly higher today. As the number of large contracts has increased and competition has declined, it has become nearly impossible to hold anyone accountable for what goes right or wrong.

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