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Posts Tagged ‘Government Inefficiency’

According to the union bosses at the National Education Association, November 18-22 is National Education Week and a “wonderful opportunity to celebrate public education.”

I care about facts and I care about kids, and all the evidence shows that government schools do a terrible job. So, instead of celebrating, I’m going to focus this week on government’s destructive impact.

Let’s start with this stunning visual from Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute. As you can see, the main takeaways are that costs have soared and bureaucracy has expanded.

And if you look at this chart, you’ll see that test scores have been flat.

Indeed, the unambiguous conclusion is that taxpayers are being asked to cough up ever-growing amounts of cash. Yet we never see any improvements in the quality of government schooling.

Indeed, an article in National Review explains that all this money and this bureaucracy has produced a negative rate of return

A Nation at Risk…revealed, in the words of Ronald Reagan, an education system plagued by “low standards, lack of purpose, ineffective use of resources, and a failure to challenge students to push performance to the boundaries of individual ability.” …Since then the nation has devoted a great deal of attention to getting education right. To little avail. …The results of the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)…, released this month, are dismal. Fewer than half of students are rated “proficient” in each of these subjects.

But it’s not just folks on the right who think the current system is a failure.

An article in left-of-center Vox is even more dour about the effectiveness of government schools.

…cast a cold look at the performance of schools… Consider the trends: Since 2005, SAT reading scores have dropped by 14 points. A writing component was added to the SAT in 2006, and scores have dropped every year since then except for two years when they were flat. Math scores for 2015 were the lowest in 20 years. …On the ACT’s measure of “college readiness” in math, English, reading, and science, slightly more than one-third of test takers met the benchmarks in three subjects, while another one-third did not meet any(!) of the benchmarks. …According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exams (the “Nation’s Report Card,” administered by the Education Department’s National Center for Educational Statistics), only one-quarter of 12th-graders are proficient in civics, one-fifth in geography, just over one-third (37 percent) in reading, one-fifth (22 percent) in science, and one-eighth (12 percent) in US history. Only one-quarter of them reach proficiency in math. …At the same time, we have another discrepancy, outcomes versus public school funding. …Adjusted for inflation, the national average for per-pupil spending rose steadily…the cost-benefit numbers continue to look bleak.

The fundamental problem is that teacher unions are in bed with politicians.

This doesn’t just mean that government schools are needlessly expensive (and they are). It also means that the government monopoly primarily exists as a tool to serve bureaucracy rather than students.

Consider these scholarly findings.

Does collective bargaining by teachers help or hurt students?Two Cornell academics— Michael Lovenheim, an associate professor of policy analysis and management, and Alexander Willén, a doctoral student—have recently completed a study that tries to answer it. In “A Bad Bargain: How teacher collective bargaining affects students’ employment and earnings later in life,” the professors conclude: “We find strong evidence that teacher collective bargaining has a negative effect on students’ earnings as adults.” …Students who spent all 12 years of their elementary and secondary education in schools with mandatory collective bargain earned $795 less per year as adults than their peers who weren’t in such schools. They also worked on average a half hour less per week, were 0.9% less likely to be employed, and were in occupations requiring lower skills. The authors found that these add up to a large overall loss of $196 billion per year…collective bargaining may be profitable for the teachers and staff of public schools, but the price is being paid by the students.

Washington-driven policies certainly haven’t helped. Bush’s so-called No Child Left Behind scheme failed, and the same is true for Obama’s Common Core.

Indeed, this article from the Federalist documents the failure of Obama’s approach.

…the Obama administration lured states into adopting Common Core sight unseen, with promises it would improve student achievement. Like President Obama’s other big promises — “If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” — this one’s been proven a scam. …Race to the Top was a $4 billion money pot inside the 2009 stimulus that helped bribe states into Common Core. …Are American children increasingly prepared…? We’re actually seeing the opposite. They’re increasingly less prepared. And there’s mounting evidence that Common Core deserves some of the blame. …ACT scores released earlier this month show that students’ math achievement is at a 20-year low. The latest English ACT scores are slightly down since 2007, and students’ readiness for college-level English was at its lowest level since ACT’s creators began measuring that item…the latest round of international tests…showed U.S. fourth graders declining on reading achievement. …Common Core sucked all the energy, money, and motivation right out of desperately needed potential reforms to U.S. public schools for a decade, and for nothing. It’s more money right down our nation’s gigantic debt hole, another generation lost to sickening ignorance, another set of corrupt bureaucrats‘ careers and bank accounts built out of the wreckage of American minds.

We can also see the dismal impact of bigger budgets by looking at experiences in various cities.

Throwing more money at the government monopoly didn’t work in New York City.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is canceling one of his signature education initiatives, acknowledging that despite spending $773 million he was unable to turn around many long-struggling public schools in three years after decades of previous interventions had also failed. …the program has been plagued by bureaucratic confusion and uneven academic results… The question of how to fix broken schools is a great unknown in education…no large school system has cracked the code, despite decades of often costly attempts. …the program was based on the union-friendly theory that struggling schools need more resources.

(For some very grim first-hand accounts of New York City’s government schools, click here, here, and here.)

It didn’t work in Newark.

Booker pitched Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that, with $100 million, they “could flip a whole city!” In September 2010, the troika appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s television show to present and accept the gift. For education reformers convinced that poverty could be solved given the will and the money, it was a dream come true. …the reformers’ dreams turned into a political nightmare. …Hopes for a game-changing teacher contract were quickly dashed, as reformers learned that teacher tenure protections were enshrined in state law. …Newark public schools spend $19,650 per pupil, but only $9,604 reaches the classroom.

And it didn’t work in Denver.

Denver’s once-celebrated ProComp pay system…was jointly developed by the DCTA and Denver Public Schools in 2005. …Back then, ProComp was heralded as a pioneering step forward on pay-for-performance/merit pay… The only problem? This narrative is bunk. For all the talk about “merit” and “performance,” ProComp is almost wholly devoid of any links between pay and teacher performance. …ProComp is mostly designed to reward the usual credentialism… Denver’s situation is so noteworthy because Denver is no laggard. Indeed, for many years, it has been celebrated as a “model” district by reformers. So it’s disheartening how little progress the city has actually made.

And you won’t be surprised to learn it didn’t work in D.C.

The much-celebrated success of education reform in the nation’s capital turns out to have been a lie. …Education reformers used to celebrate D.C.’s dramatic decline in school suspensions. Then a Washington Post investigation revealed that it was fake; administrators had merely taken suspensions off the books. The same reformers used to celebrate D.C.’s sharp increase in high-school graduations. Then an NPR investigation revealed that it, too, was fake; almost half of students who missed more than half the year graduated. …consider Abdullah Zaki, who back in 2013 was named DCPS principal of the year. He was just placed on administrative leave (not fired, mind you) after an audit revealed that 4,000 changes were made to 118 students’ attendance records at his high school. …consider Yetunde Reeves…who took Ballou High School from 57 percent graduation to 100 percent college acceptance in just one year. She was placed on administrative leave (again, not fired) after NPR reported teacher allegations that she leveraged the teacher-evaluation system to coerce teachers to go along with her scheme.

I realize I’m being repetitive, but more money for the government monopoly also didn’t work in Providence.

Rhode Island’s politicians this summer made a show of decrying the shameful condition of Providence public schools…peeling lead paint, vermin, brown water, leaking sewage—from a Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy 93-page report on Providence schools… Student test scores are the worst in Rhode Island and lower than districts in other states with similar demographics. …“the district’s performance is continuing to decline despite increased interventions and funding.” Providence’s school budget has increased by nearly a quarter since 2011.

You can also click here to read about failure in Patterson, N.J., and Los Angeles, CA. The bottom line is that more spending does not lead to better student performance.

It’s also nauseating that government schools try to brainwash kids with leftist pabulum.

Consider what’s happening in California.

California’s Education Department has issued an “Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum”…written by an advisory board of teachers, academics and bureaucrats. It’s as bad as you imagine. …The document is filled with fashionable academic jargon like “positionalities,” “hybridities,” “nepantlas” and “misogynoir.” It includes faddish social-science lingo like “cis-heteropatriarchy”… It is difficult to comprehend the depth and breadth of the ideological bias and misrepresentations without reading the whole curriculum—something few will want to do. Begin with economics. Capitalism is described as a “form of power and oppression,” alongside “patriarchy,” “racism,” “white supremacy” and “ableism.” …Housing policy gets the treatment. The curriculum describes subprime loans as an attack on home buyers with low incomes rather than a misguided attempt by the government to help such home buyers. …This curriculum explicitly aims at encouraging students to become “agents of change, social justice organizers and advocates.”

Seattle is also looking to get in the business of dishing out propaganda.

Seattle’s public-school district has proposed a new math curriculum that would teach its students all about how math has been “appropriated” — and how it “continues to be used to oppress and marginalize people and communities.” …the social-justice approach to teaching math has officially entered the mainstream (and taxpayer-funded!) arena. …this approach to teaching math will only end up harming the very groups it claims it champions. …The minority students, the members of the very groups that this curriculum presumably aims to aid, are actually going to be learning less math than they would have without it — because they will be spending some of that class time learning about how math’s racism has hurt them.

Wow. No wonder young people are sympathetic to socialism. They’re being spoon-fed crazy ideas.

To round out our discussion, here’s a video from Reason.

So what’s the solution?

Writing for Real Clear Politics, Heather Wilhelm says we need to give up on the government monopoly.

…there might not be much left to do but vote with your feet. The term “Go Galt,” which comes from Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” refers to citizens retreating from a political system that basically takes their money and otherwise does them no good. …odds are the public school system isn’t doing you any favors. If you’re a poor kid in the inner city, the damage and injustice is obvious… “If you send your kid to a private school,” Slate’s Allison Benedikt wrote in a 2013 essay-gone-viral, you are “a bad person … ruining one of our nation’s most essential institutions.” News flash: The public school system is already a mess, it’s getting messier, and it can only improve the old-fashioned way — through competition.

If you prefer, this quote from Thomas Sowell is spot on.

The bottom line is that government has created a bad system. It doesn’t matter that most teachers have noble intentions. It doesn’t matter that most kids are capable of higher achievement. Monopolies simply don’t perform, especially when mixed with special-interest politics.

It goes without saying that shutting down the Department of Education would be a positive step. But that’s only a partial solution. We’ll explore the real answer tomorrow.

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I’ve periodically opined about why politicians should not try to control people’s behavior with discriminatory taxes, such as the ones being imposed on soda.

And I’ve cited some examples of how these taxes backfire.

If the following headlines are any indication, we can add Philadelphia to that list.

For instances, this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Or this story from the local CBS affiliate.

These examples reinforce my view that it is not a good idea to let meddling politicians impose more taxes in an effort to control people’s behavior.

Some of my left-leaning friends periodically remind me, however, that there’s a difference between anecdotes and evidence. There’s a lot of truth to that cautionary observation.

To be sure, I could simply respond by saying a pattern is evident when a couple of anecdotes turns into dozens of anecdotes. And when dozens become hundreds, surely it’s possible to say the pattern shows causality.

That being said, it is good to have rigorous, statistics-based analysis if we really want to convince skeptics.

So let’s look at the results of some new academic research from scholars at Stanford, Northwestern, and the University of Minnesota. We’ll start with the abstract, which nicely summarizes their findings about the impact of Philadelphia’s big soda tax.

We analyze the impact of a tax on sweetened beverages, often referred to as a “soda tax,” using a unique data-set of prices, quantities sold and nutritional information across several thousand taxed and untaxed beverages for a large set of stores in Philadelphia and its surrounding area. We find that the tax is passed through at a rate of 75-115%, leading to a 30-40% price increase. Demand in the taxed area decreases dramatically by 42% in response to the tax. There is no significant substitution to untaxed beverages (water and natural juices), but cross-shopping at stores outside of Philadelphia completely o↵sets the reduction in sales within the taxed area. As a consequence, we find no significant reduction in calorie and sugar intake.

Here are some of their conclusions.

We draw several lessons about the effectiveness of local sweetened-beverage taxes from these analyses. First, the tax was ineffective at reducing consumption of unhealthy products. Second, in terms of revenue generation, the tax was only partly effective due to consumers substituting to stores outside of Philadelphia. Third, low income households are less likely to engage in cross-shopping, and instead are more likely to continue to purchase taxed products at a higher price at stores in Philadelphia. The lower propensity for low income households to avoid the tax through cross-shopping leads to a relatively larger tax burden for those households. In summary, the tax does not lead to a shift in consumption towards healthier products, it affects low income households more severely, and it is limited in its ability to raise revenue.

If you’re wondering why consumers responded so strongly, here’s a chart from the study showing the price difference after the tax was imposed.

The bottom numbers in Figure 3 show that some sales still occurred in the city, but a persistent gap between city sales and suburban sales appeared.

And here’s what happened to sales inside the city (taxed) and outside the city (untaxed).

Wow. This data makes me wonder if suburban sellers will start contributing to the Philadelphia politicians who have generated this windfall?

Others have noticed how the tax is hurting rather than helping.

The Wall Street Journal opined about the failure of Philly’s soda tax.

When Philadelphia became the first major U.S. city to pass a soda tax in 2016, Mayor Jim Kenney said it would improve public health while funding universal pre-K. Two years in, the policy hasn’t delivered on that elite ideological goal. But the tax has come at the expense of working people… On Jan. 2, Brown’s Super Stores announced the closure of a ShopRite on Haverford Avenue. The supermarket is close to the city limit, and customers discovered they could avoid the soda tax by shopping outside Philly. …the once-profitable store began losing about $1 million a year. …That means fewer opportunities for workers with a criminal record. Mr. Brown’s supermarkets employ more than 600 of them, with the majority in Philadelphia. Some of the ex-cons have become his most-valued employees.

And Kyle Smith explained in National Review how the tax backfired.

Philadelphia’s outlandish soda tax is what Democratic-party politics looks like when it lets its freak flag fly. So many classic elements are there: (failed) social engineering and “think of the children!” on one side, paid for with a punitive tax on poor people and destroyed businesses, which means destroyed jobs, which in turn means lives upended. …Now that beer is, in some cases, cheaper than soda in Philadelphia, alcohol sales are up sharply. …the total loss attributable to the tax in sales of all items was $300,000 a month per store. Other, untaxed drinks also suffered sales declines within the city, suggesting people were simply saving up their shopping trips for when they left town.

I don’t feel compelled to add much to what’s been cited.

Though I will cite a headline from the Seattle Times to reinforce one of the points in the academic study about consumers bearing the cost of the tax rather than the soda companies.

And my one modest contribution to all this analysis is this comparison of the winners and loser from Philadelphia’s new tax.

For what it’s worth, similar comparisons could be developed for just about every action by every government. Academics call this “public choice” while ordinary people realize it’s just common sense.

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My previous columns about the Transportation Security Administration have focused on bureaucratic inefficiency and incompetence (as well as laughable examples of “security theater”).

Today, let’s take advantage of the shutdown and focus instead on why TSA should be disbanded so that airports can use more efficient private security firms.

An article in Reason gives some important details on why privatized airport screening is the best way of making lemonade out of shutdown lemons.

…the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reported that 10 percent of its agents were absent from their posts, up from three percent in the same time period last year. …The result has been longer wait times, closed security checkpoints… While it’s difficult to feel any sympathy at all for the professional privacy violators at the TSA… It’s also an unfortunate consequence of federalizing so much of crucial airport operations, says Baruch Feigenbaum, a transportation expert… There are already a number of airports in the country that have contracted out their passenger screenings to private companies through the TSA’s Screening Partnership Program (SPP), helping to immunize them from the effects of the shutdown. This includes San Francisco International Airport (the busiest airport to participate in the SPP program), where some 1,200 privately employed security screeners have continued to be paid despite all the budget drama in Washington. …Contracting out these services would ensure that they don’t come to a screeching halt every time the government shuts down. Putting that distance between the government and security and safety services would also improve oversight.

For all intents and purposes, the folks at Reason want to make a virtue out of necessity. The government shutdown is making air travel an even bigger hassle, so why “let a crisis go to waste” when this is a great opportunity to push for sweeping reform?

As a frequent flyer, I say Amen.

Here’s a good example. Because of my support for the Georgia Bulldogs, I have to endure the Atlanta airport several times each year. It is one of the worst airports I’ve ever experienced.

It’s so bad that the city’s politicians are exploring private security.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed…said he wants to take a closer look at privatizing security screening at the Atlanta airport to address the issue of long lines. …Southwell…earlier this year sent a letter to the Transportation Security Administration, raising the idea of privatizing security screening at the Atlanta airport if long lines were not addressed. …Reed said Monday that the city has been in conversations with San Francisco International Airport, which privatized its security screening. “We’re going to explore that and see if it’s the best decision,” Reed said. “The lines are very concerning to me…. We’re going to do every single thing we can do, and it’s going to have urgency to it.”

It’s quite possible that Atlanta’s politicians are merely bluffing and that their real goal is to simply get more TSA bureaucrats, but I hope this is a serious initiative and that Atlanta escapes the TSA.

Experts who study this issue says private contractors are both more efficient and safer.

For those who want to understand the background on this issue, here are a couple of very good articles.

The first piece, from Skift, explain how we got to the current situation.

Airports could actually do something about the hated agency, and a few are weighing a radical option: firing TSA screeners and hiring private replacements. The frustration over queue times—which have topped two and three hours at airports in Atlanta, Chicago, Charlotte and Denver—has prompted new attention by airport executives to the TSA’s little-known  Screening Partnership Program, in which the federal agency solicits bids for a contractor to handle airport screening. The contractors must follow the same security protocols as federal officers, with similar wages and benefits. At Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, …administrators are “discussing a variety of options,” including replacing the TSA with a private contractor, said Deborah Ostreicher, assistant aviation director at the airport. Sky Harbor officials have considered their TSA service “less than satisfactory for many months,” she said. The Phoenix airport is a hub for American Airlines Group Inc., which has blamed the TSA delays across the country for causing more than 70,000 passengers to miss flights so far this year ….The former general manager of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport  wrote a letter to the TSA in February warning that the world’s busiest airport was “conducting exhaustive research” into privatized security screening.

There are 22 airports that already have opted out.

The power to replace TSA employees with private screeners dates to the birth of the agency in 2002, shortly after the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks. Congress designated five airports at the time to offer screening by private firms as a way to compare the federal approach. Another 17 smaller airports have since joined the original five. The most recent to make the switch to private security screeners, Punta Gorda Airport in Florida, expects to finish the transition next week. San Francisco International is the largest U.S. airport with private screeners. Now other large airports are researching private-sector alternatives.

One of the benefits of privatization is that contractors have more flexibility to do a better job.

…airports that have switched to private firms say they consider the contractors more responsive and better able to adjust staffing to address traffic surges and lulls. …said Brian Sprenger, director at Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport in Montana, which began private screening in 2014. “We now have a little bit more say in ensuring that the customer service side is a little more elevated in the process.”

Though TSA is reluctant to allow more airports to escape.

Christopher Bidwell, vice president of security for Airports Council International-North America, faulted the TSA in the past for making it difficult for airports to switch to private screeners, regularly denying airports’ applications for the program. …Any airport wishing to switch must be pass a security and cost analysis by the TSA to demonstrate that hiring private contractors will not harm the agency’s budget or compromise security.

A column in City Journal adds some more historical background, noting that the failures on 9/11 were the result of government guidelines.

Even by Washington standards, the creation of the TSA was a blunder of colossal proportions. Experts from around the world warned at the time—in 2001—that federalizing airport security would be ruinously expensive, inefficient, and unsafe. Israel and many European countries had already rejected similar systems. …Democrats who controlled the Senate were especially eager to gain campaign contributions from tens of thousands of new federal employees. …Legislators and bureaucrats scapegoated the private security companies that had been screening passengers for the airlines. Citing the lapse in security on September 11… It was the federal government, not the private screeners, that set the policy allowing small knives and box cutters to be brought onto planes. Federal guidelines prevented airlines from arming pilots and reinforcing cockpit doors. The feds also stopped the private security firms from using an existing system to identify high-risk passengers, which would have singled out some of the hijackers for special screening.

Here’s some great data on the superiority of private airport screeners.

…the TSA blames its failures on lack of funding. But it’s already spending way too much, as demonstrated in a congressional study comparing TSA screeners in Los Angeles with non-TSA screeners in San Francisco, one of the few airports allowed to run its own system, contracting with a private company. If LAX switched to the San Francisco model, the study concluded, it could cut its screening costs by more than 40 percent. The San Francisco private company’s screeners received the same salary and benefits as TSA screeners, but they were so much better trained and deployed that each one processed 65 percent more passengers than a TSA screener in Los Angeles. They apparently enjoyed better working conditions, too, because they were much less likely to quit their jobs. And in tests by federal investigators, they were three times better at detecting contraband.

Unfortunately, TSA has institutional hostility to private screeners.

Those results, as well as other research showing that private screeners get better ratings from passengers and airport managers, inspired congressional Republicans to pass legislation giving more airports the option of switching to private contractors. But, as anyone could have predicted in 2001, it’s not easy to get rid of a federal monopoly, especially now that unionized screeners can intimidate local politicians—as they did in blocking an attempt to replace them at Sacramento’s airport. Even if local officials stand up to the union, they still need to get permission from the TSA.

And, as noted in the Wall Street Journal, many politicians don’t care about the private sector’s superior performance because they’re more intreested in expanding bureaucracy.

TSA runs a Screening Partnership Program, which in theory allows an airport to “opt out” of TSA and bring in a certified private security firm. In a 2011 report, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure compared Los Angeles data with a private operation running San Francisco’s airport. A contract screener in San Fran moved through 65% more passengers than TSA employees in L.A. But only a handful of airports participate, as TSA chooses the security company and micromanages the contract. That isn’t a partnership. Congress could stipulate that an airport manage its own bidding and operations; the government would remain a safety regulator. …Congress nationalized airport screening after 9/ll, as Democrats saw a political opening to add thousands of new union workers. But after nearly a decade and a half, TSA’s legend of incompetence grows.

Sadly, growing incompetence is not matched by growing pressure for privatization.

But hopefully that will change.

Let’s close with a rather humorous Venn diagram.

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

P.P.S. In addition to letting airports escape the TSA, we should copy Canada and achieve better results at lower cost by privatizing air traffic control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is outrageous on several levels.

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

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

Nobody at the CBP will get fired.

Nobody at the CBP will be demoted.

Nobody at the CBP will lose a bonus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s an amazing story from Romania.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I try not to pay much attention to the staffing decisions of President Trump’s “Boston-phone-book presidency.” Yes, I realize those choices are important, but my focus is policy.

As such, I don’t have any strong opinions on the ouster of David Shulkin, the now-former Secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But I definitely have something to say about whether America’s military vets should be consigned to an inefficient (at best) and costly form of government-run healthcare.

We should never forget that the VA put vets on secret – and sometimes fatal – waiting lists. And then the bureaucrats awarded themselves big bonuses. That is horribly disgusting.

By the way, the VA scandals haven’t stopped.

Here are some excerpts from a report in USA Today.

A USA TODAY investigation found the VA — the nation’s largest employer of health care workers — has for years concealed mistakes and misdeeds by staff members entrusted with the care of veterans. …In some cases, agency managers do not report troubled practitioners to the National Practitioner Data Bank, making it easier for them to keep working with patients elsewhere. The agency also failed to ensure VA hospitals reported disciplined providers to state licensing boards. In other cases, veterans’ hospitals signed secret settlement deals with dozens of doctors, nurses and health care workers that included promises to conceal serious mistakes — from inappropriate relationships and breakdowns in supervision to dangerous medical errors – even after forcing them out of the VA. …The VA has been under fire in recent years for serious problems, including revelations of life-threatening delays in treating veterans in 2014 and efforts to cover up shortfalls by falsifying records.

So what’s the answer? How can we fix a dysfunctional bureaucracy?

The honest answer is that we can’t. Inefficiency, sloth, and failure are inherent parts of government (yes, the free market also is far from perfect, but at least there’s a profit-and-loss incentive that rewards good firms and punishes bad ones).

So it’s time to get the private sector involved. Though I noted in the TV discussion that not all privatization is created equal. If the government simply contracts with selected healthcare providers, that could be a recipe for cronyism since politicians would try to help their campaign contributors.

I much prefer the advance-funding model developed by Chris Preble and Michael Cannon, which would give active-duty service members added money, up front, to purchase a benefits package to cover future costs related to their military service.

For what it’s worth, former VA Secretary Shulkin, in a recent column for the New York Times, was very critical of privatization. But it isn’t clear whether he was referring to the contracted-out version or the advance-funding version.

I am convinced that privatization is a political issue aimed at rewarding select people and companies with profits, even if it undermines care for veterans. …individuals, who seek to privatize veteran health care as an alternative to government-run V.A. care, unfortunately fail to engage in realistic plans regarding who will care for the more than 9 million veterans who rely on the department for life-sustaining care. …privatization leading to the dismantling of the department’s extensive health care system is a terrible idea.

But even if you accept that he’s criticizing the less-preferred from or privatization, he definitely likes throwing rocks in a giant glass house considering the VA received ever-larger amounts of money and generated a horrible track record.

As I said at the end of my interview, a private healthcare provider might get a contract via cronyism, but it still would be a better option for vets since that company presumably wouldn’t let them die on secret waiting lists.

And since the advance-funding option obviously would be for future veterans, we do need a better market-based approach for current veterans.

I’ll close by sharing a Politico article on the infamous boondoggle that got Shulkin in trouble.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin’s chief of staff altered an email to create a pretext for taxpayers to pay for Shulkin’s wife to accompany him on a 10-day trip to Europe last summer, the agency’s inspector general reported… The report by Inspector General Michael Missal also claims that Shulkin improperly accepted a gift of Wimbledon tickets during the trip, and a VA employee’s time was misused planning tourist activities for Shulkin and his entourage. …the VA paid for Shulkin’s wife’s airfare, which cost more than $4,300.

This obviously does not reflect well on Shulkin. But the real scandal almost certainly is that the trip to Europe occurred. We don’t know how many bureaucrats participated and what supposedly was going to be achieved by this junked, but I’m guessing the total tab was enormous and the total value was zero. The fact that taxpayers also were saddled with the cost of Shulkin’s wife’s trip merely added insult to injury.

P.S. Since money isn’t unlimited, I think the focus should be on helping veterans injured in battle rather than providing lavish benefits to anyone and everyone who ever wore a uniform.

P.P.S. I mentioned in the interview that the VA is run for the benefit of its bureaucrats. If you doubt me, check out this double-dipping bureaucrat with the triple-dipping scam.

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Every so often, I run across a chart, cartoon, or story that captures the essence of an issue. And when that happens, I make it part of my “everything you need to know” series.

I don’t actually think those columns tell us everything we need to know, of course, but they do show something very important. At least I hope.

And now, from our (normally) semi-rational northern neighbor, I have a new example.

This story from Toronto truly is a powerful example of the difference between government action and private action.

A Toronto man who spent $550 building a set of stairs in his community park says he has no regrets, despite the city’s insistence that he should have waited for a $65,000 city project to handle the problem. …Retired mechanic Adi Astl says he took it upon himself to build the stairs after several neighbours fell down the steep path to a community garden in Tom Riley Park, in Etobicoke, Ont. Astl says his neighbours chipped in on the project, which only ended up costing $550 – a far cry from the $65,000-$150,000 price tag the city had estimated for the job. …Astl says he hired a homeless person to help him and built the eight steps in a matter of hours. …Astl says members of his gardening group have been thanking him for taking care of the project, especially after one of them broke her wrist falling down the slope last year.

There are actually two profound lessons to learn from this story.

Since I’m a fiscal wonk, the part that grabbed my attention was the $550 cost of private action compared to $65,000 for government. Or maybe $150,000. Heck, probably more considering government cost overruns.

Though we’re not actually talking about government action. God only knows how long it would have taken the bureaucracy to complete this task. So this is a story of inexpensive private action vs. costly government inaction.

But there’s another part of this story that also caught my eye. The bureaucracy is responding with spite.

The city is now threatening to tear down the stairs because they were not built to regulation standards. …City bylaw officers have taped off the stairs while officials make a decision on what to do with it. …Mayor John Tory…says that still doesn’t justify allowing private citizens to bypass city bylaws to build public structures themselves. …“We just can’t have people decide to go out to Home Depot and build a staircase in a park because that’s what they would like to have.”

But there is a silver lining. With infinite mercy, the government isn’t going to throw Mr. Astl in jail or make him pay a fine. At least not yet.

Astl has not been charged with any sort of violation.

Gee, how nice and thoughtful.

One woman has drawn the appropriate conclusion from this episode.

Area resident Dana Beamon told CTV Toronto she’s happy to have the stairs there, whether or not they are up to city standards. “We have far too much bureaucracy,” she said. “We don’t have enough self-initiative in our city, so I’m impressed.”

Which is the lesson I think everybody should take away. Private initiative works much faster – and much cheaper – than government.

P.S. Let’s also call this an example of super-federalism, or super-decentralization. Imagine how expensive it would have been for the national government in Ottawa to build the stairs? Or how long it would have taken? Probably millions of dollars and a couple of years.

Now imagine how costly and time-consuming it would have been if the Ontario provincial government was in charge? Perhaps not as bad, but still very expensive and time-consuming.

And we already know the cost (and inaction) of the city government. Reminds me of the $1 million bus stop in Arlington, VA.

But when actual users of the park take responsibility (both in terms of action and money), the stairs were built quickly and efficiently.

In other words, let’s have decentralization. But the most radical federalism is when private action replaces government.

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