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Posts Tagged ‘Government stupidity’

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) must be anxious to get on my list of government bureaucracies that shouldn’t exist.

The bureaucrats have engaged in some really silly and petty behavior (such as confiscating Airsoft toy guns because they might be machine guns), and they’ve engaged in some behavior that is criminally stupid and dangerous (running guns to Mexican drug gangs as part of the “Fast and Furious” fiasco).

Now we have another example. Though it’s so bizarre that I’m not sure how to classify it. Basically, the bureaucrats created an illegal slush fund, and then used the money illegally.

The New York Times has been on top of this story. Here are excerpts from the latest report.

For seven years, agents at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives followed an unwritten policy: If you needed to buy something for one of your cases, do not bother asking Washington. Talk to agents in Bristol, Va., who controlled a multimillion-dollar account unrestricted by Congress or the bureaucracy. …thousands of pages of newly unsealed records reveal a widespread scheme — a highly unorthodox merger of an undercover law enforcement operation and a legitimate business. What began as a way to catch black-market cigarette dealers quickly transformed into a nearly untraceable A.T.F. slush fund that agents from around the country could tap. …One agent steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate, electronics and money to his church and his children’s sports teams, records show. …At least tens of millions of dollars moved through the account before it was shut down in 2013, but no one can say for sure how much. The government never tracked it.

Oh, by the way, the BATF was breaking the law.

Federal law prohibits mixing government and private money. The A.T.F. now acknowledges it can point to no legal justification for the scheme.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that there have been no consequences.

…no one was ever prosecuted, Congress was only recently notified, and the Justice Department tried for years to keep the records secret.

And it’s also worth noting that this is also a tax issue. As I’ve noted before, high tax rates encourage illegality.

Though cigarettes are available at any corner store, they are extraordinarily profitable to smuggle. That’s because taxes are high and every state sets its own rates. Virginia charges $3 per carton. New York charges $43.50. The simplest scheme — buying cigarettes in Virginia and selling them tax-free in New York — can generate tens of thousands of dollars in illicit cash. By some estimates, more than half of New York’s cigarettes come from the black market.

By the way, I can help but wonder why the federal government is engaging in all sorts of dodgy behavior to help enforce bad state tax laws. Yes, I realize the cigarettes are crossing state lines, but so what? The illegal (but not immoral) behavior occurs when an untaxed cigarette is sold inside the borders of, say, New York. Why should Washington get involved?

In other words, I like the fact that borders limit the power of government. It’s why I don’t like global schemes to undermine tax competition (why should Swiss banks be required to enforce bad U.S. tax law?), and it’s why I don’t like the so-called Marketplace Fairness Act (why should merchants in one state be required to enforce the sales taxes of other states?).

But I’m digressing.

Let’s get back to the Bureau’s misbehavior. Here’s some additional reporting from the U.K.-based Times.

A US government crime-fighting agency ran a secret bank account that its employees used to buy luxury cars, property and trips to casinos. Officers for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), charged with investigating smuggling and gun crimes, built up a slush fund worth tens of millions of dollars through illicit cigarette sales, ostensibly as part of an operation to catch traffickers. The scandal is the latest controversy to hit the agency, which has been criticised in recent years for lack of accountability and allowing the flow of guns and drugs to go unchecked. …Cash from the slush fund generated at an ATF field office in Bristol, Virginia, …funded activities such as a trip to Las Vegas, donations to agents’ children and the booking of a $21,000 suite at a Nascar race.

And what about the overall BATF bureaucracy? Well, it’s getting some unfavorable attention. Keep in mind that this scandal is on top of the “Fast and Furious” scandal of the Obama years.

The ATF has said that it has “implemented substantial enhancements to its policies, and has markedly improved leadership, training, communication, accountability and operational oversight”. Under the previous administration, it was widely derided for a botched weapons operation known as “Fast and Furious”. The agency allowed licensed firearms dealers to sell weapons to illegal buyers, hoping to track the guns to Mexican drug cartel kingpins. But out of the 2,000 firearms sold, only a fraction have been traced. The secret account scandal has renewed calls from across the political spectrum for the department of about 2,000 agents to be reformed or shut down.

Last but not least, I think we have a new member of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

Thomas Lesnak, a senior ATF investigator, began the scheme. …Mr Lesnak retired with his pension and was not reprimanded.

Just like Lois Lerner and the IRS, engaging in corrupt and crooked behavior and then escaping any punishment.

Maybe the two of them should hook up? They’d make a great couple. I’m sure they could even figure out a way to make taxpayers finance their wedding and honeymoon.

P.S. The “Fast and Furious” scheme was just one of scandals that occurred during the Obama years, but it may have been the most foolish. Didn’t anybody at the BATF realize that it wasn’t a good idea to funnel weapons to Mexican drug gangs?!?

P.P.S. The silver lining to that dark cloud is that we got a couple of good one-liners about the Obama Administration’s gun-running scandal from Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon.

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Government subsidies have an unfortunate habit of causing widespread economic damage and often result in huge burdens for taxpayers (though sometimes consumers are the ones getting pillaged).

The common thread is that government intervention interferes with the normal operation of the price system and thus leads to distortions since markets are prevented from functioning properly.

Let’s add another example, and it’s very timely because of the flooding in Texas. The federal government subsidizes flood insurance. And it does so in a way that is bad for taxpayers and bad for the environment, while also giving a windfall to rich people and putting lives at risk.

That’s an impressive list, even by government standards.

In a must-read column for USA Today, my old friend Jim Bovard is very critical of the program.

Hurricane Harvey…offers the clearest lesson why Congress should not perpetuate the federal National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)… The ravages in Houston and elsewhere would be far less if the federal government had not offered massively subsidized flood insurance in high risk, environmentally perilous locales. …NFIP embraced a “flood-rebuild-repeat” model that has spawned an almost $25 billion debt.

And when Jim says “flood-rebuild-repeat,” he’s not joking.

NFIP paid to rebuild one Houston home 16 times in 18 years, spending almost a million dollars to perpetually restore a house worth less than $120,000. Harris County, Texas (which includes Houston), has almost 10,000 properties which have filed repetitive flood insurance damage claims. The Washington Post recently reported that a house “outside Baton Rouge, valued at $55,921, has flooded 40 times over the years, amassing $428,379 in claims.

And he points out that the program is reverse class warfare.

Flood insurance subsidies benefit well-off households, and payouts disproportionately go to areas with much higher than average home values. Working stiffs in Idaho and Oklahoma are taxed to underwrite mansions for the elite. …NBC News revealed in 2014 that FEMA revised its flood maps to give 95%+ discounted insurance premiums to “hundreds of oceanfront condo buildings and million-dollar homes,” including properties on its “repetitive loss list.”

My colleague Chris Edwards has a comprehensive study of the federal government’s role in disaster relief. Here’s some of what he wrote about the history of subsidized flood insurance.

In 1968 the National Flood Insurance Act offered federal insurance to properties at risk for flooding. A key justification by supporters of federal flood insurance was that it would alleviate the need to pass special aid legislation after each flood disaster. As it has turned out, however, taxpayers are now both subsidizing flood insurance and paying for special relief bills passed after floods. …NFIP was supposed to save taxpayers money by alleviating the need for Congress to pass emergency aid packages after floods. Taxpayers were also not supposed to be burdened by the program itself because insurance premiums were to cover the system’s costs. Also, the NFIP included floodplain regulations that are imposed on communities adopting the program. These regulations were supposed to mitigate the harm from floods. None of the promises panned out. …Most importantly, rather than reducing the nation’s flooding problems, the NFIP has likely made flood damage worse by encouraging more development in hazardous areas. Since 1970, the estimated number of Americans living in coastal areas designated as Special Flood Hazard Areas (SFHAs) by FEMA has increased from 10 million to more than 16 million. Subsidized flood insurance has backfired by helping to draw more people and development into flood zones.

To add insult to injury, the program is poorly run.

The GAO has had the NFIP on its “high-risk” list of troubled programs for years. …In recent years, the program has accumulated more than $24 billion in debt because payouts have far exceeded premiums. Today, the program is in financial crisis and taxpayers will likely bear the burden of its large debt. The NFIP’s financial shortcomings are typical of government-run businesses. Unlike private insurance, the NFIP charges artificially low rates, does not build capital surpluses, and does not purchase reinsurance to cover catastrophic losses. …The GAO says that “by design, NFIP is not an actuarially sound program.” …A 2011 insurance industry study found that overall NFIP premiums are only half the level needed to cover the system’s full costs, and property owners in high-risk areas pay just one-third of full market rates.

But the biggest problem is that the program encourages imprudent – and even dangerous – behavior.

…artificially low rates subsidize people to live in high-risk flood areas. …NFIP is that it has encouraged development in hazardous areas. As Duke University coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey puts it, “we are subsidizing, even encouraging, very dangerous development.” Federal flood insurance has incentivized individuals and developers to build in hazardous areas…more lives and property are put in harm’s way.

And the program has plenty of repeat business.

…some property owners repeatedly rebuild in hazardous locations knowing that the government will bail them out after each flood. Repetitive loss properties account for only about 1 percent of all policies, but are responsible for about one-third of all NFIP claims. …One Mississippi home valued at $69,900 has flooded 34 times since 1978, and the owner has received $663,000 in NFIP payments over the years.

Here’s an image from Reddit’s libertarian page. Very appropriate given today’s topic.

An article for The Week looks specifically at how the program lured the people of Houston into taking excessive risk.

Why would the practical, fiscally conservative people of Texas anchor their financial security in houses that are now literally underwater? …a major culprit is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and specifically its subsidiary, the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). …Well-meaning but drenched in perverse incentives, they are complicit in the horrifying destruction now racking the Texas gulf coast. …a normal insurance company would jack up the premium price to cover the high risk of floodplain construction, thus discouraging vulnerable building plans among those who cannot afford to cover the cost of disaster, the NFIP will insure this construction at a discount. …an artificially low premium like the NFIP offers cruelly deludes homeowners into believing their flood-prone houses are far safer than they are. …NFIP has taxpayers subsidizing unrealistically low premiums that incentivize new construction on dangerous land, and its discounts are available even to wealthy homeowners with pricey properties. “About 80 percent of NFIP households are in counties that rank in the top income quintile,” notes a recent report at Politico, and “[w]ealthier households also tend to receive larger subsidies.”

How do we solve this government-created problem?

With the same answer that Chris gave.

Axing the NFIP and transitioning back to private flood insurance, with its accurate risk signaling, is much overdue.

Writing for Reason, Ronald Bailey explains the perverse incentives created by the program.

The main lesson that the public and policymakers ought to learn from Harvey is: Don’t build in flood plains, and especially don’t rebuild in flood plains. Unfortunately, the flood insurance program teaches the exact opposite lesson, selling subsidized insurance whose premiums do not come close to covering the risks home and business owners in flood prone areas face. As a result, the NFIP is currently $25 billion in debt. Federally subsidized flood insurance represents a moral hazard, Kevin Starbuck, Assistant City Manager and former Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Amarillo, argues, because it encourages people to take on more risk because taxpayers bear the cost of those hazards.

And, in many cases, bear those costs over and over and over again.

Federal Emergency Management Agency data shows that from 1978 through 2015, 3.8 percent of flood insurance policyholders have filed repetitively for losses that account for a disproportionate 35.5 percent of flood loss claims and 30.5 percent of claim payments, Starbuck says.

The solution, once again, is obvious.

…taxpayers should not be required to subsidize people who choose to build and live on flood plains. When Congress reauthorizes the NFIP, it should initiate a phase-in of charging grandfathered properties premiums commensurate with their risks. This will likely lower the market values of affected homes and businesses and thus send a strong signal to others to avoid building and living in such risky areas.

A couple of months ago, before Harvey, the Wall Street Journal presciently opined about the downside of government-provided flood insurance.

A classic example of government dysfunction is a federal insurance program that helps pay to drain basements in millions of America’s second homes. …The 1968 program insures more than $1 trillion in property, with about five million policies in 2016 for those who live in areas prone to flooding. The program is more than $24 billion in debt. One reason for the hole is that about 20% of policies are directly subsidized. More than 75% of such policies are in counties in the top 30% for home values, according to a Government Accountability Office analysis, and many dot the affluent coasts of Florida, California and Texas. In other words, this is a wealth transfer from low and middle-income families to the folks who own real estate on Nantucket. …The best reform would be to convert the program into a private operation, though Members of both parties would pile together like sandbags to block it.

The editorial noted that Representative Jeb Hensarling, Chairman of the Financial Services Committee, has tried to limit the program. Since he’s a Texan, it will be interesting to see if his pro-market principles remain in the aftermath of Harvey (based on his record, I’m guessing yes).

In another Reason column, Katherine Mangu-Ward put together a list of things politicians shouldn’t do once the storm is over.

Here are a few things Trump and his pals absolutely shouldn’t do in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, but probably will: …Increase funding for the federal flood insurance program. When it comes time to rebuild, everyone will studiously avoid discussing the fact that maybe we shouldn’t be using a massive federal insurance program to incentivize building in areas that are repeatedly hit by storms. There’s a reason private insurers don’t offer policies to many coastal dwellers, and it ain’t “market failure.”

Needless to say, I’m not optimistic that her advice will be heeded.

Though you would think some Democrats would be on the correct side, if for no other reason than the program is a big fat subsidy for rich people.

One of those fat cats even confessed that the program is a boondoggle that lines his pockets. Here are some excerpts from a 2004 column by John Stossel.

…the biggest welfare queens are the already wealthy. Their lobbyists fawn over politicians, giving them little bits of money — campaign contributions, plane trips, dinners, golf outings — in exchange for huge chunks of taxpayers’ money.

John then confesses that he put his snout if the taxpayer trough.

I got some of your money too. …In 1980 I built a wonderful beach house. Four bedrooms — every room with a view of the Atlantic Ocean. It was an absurd place to build, right on the edge of the ocean. All that stood between my house and ruin was a hundred feet of sand. My father told me: “Don’t do it; it’s too risky. No one should build so close to an ocean.” But I built anyway. Why? As my eager-for-the-business architect said, “Why not? If the ocean destroys your house, the government will pay for a new one.” What? Why would the government do that? Why would it encourage people to build in such risky places? That would be insane. But the architect was right. If the ocean took my house, Uncle Sam would pay to replace it under the National Flood Insurance Program. Since private insurers weren’t dumb enough to sell cheap insurance to people who built on the edges of oceans or rivers, Congress decided the government should step in and do it. …I did have to pay insurance premiums, but they were dirt cheap — mine never exceeded a few hundred dollars a year.

Lots of rich people like this subsidy.

The insurance, of course, has encouraged more people to build on the edges of rivers and oceans. …Subsidized insurance goes to movie stars in Malibu, to rich people in Kennebunkport (where the Bush family has its vacation compound), to rich people in Hyannis (where the Kennedy family has its), and to all sorts of people like me who ought to be paying our own way.

John was even an example of the “flood-rebuild-repeat” syndrome.

…just four years after I built my house, a two-day northeaster swept away my first floor. …After the water receded, the government bought me a new first floor. Federal flood insurance payments are like buying drunken drivers new cars after they wreck theirs. I never invited you taxpayers to my home. You shouldn’t have to pay for my ocean view.

More than once!

On New Year’s Day, 1995, …The ocean had knocked down my government-approved flood-resistant pilings and eaten my house. It was an upsetting loss for me, but financially I made out just fine. You paid for the house — and its contents.

Though now another rich person will get the subsidy.

I could have rebuilt the beach house and possibly ripped you taxpayers off again, but I’d had enough. I sold the land. Now someone’s built an even bigger house on my old property. Bet we’ll soon have to pay for that one, too.

Let’s close with some systematic data on the regressivity of the program.

Two of my other colleagues, Ike Brannon and Ari Blask, authored a study on the flood insurance program. They covered lots of material, but here’s what they wrote about poor-to-rich redistribution.

Wealthier households benefit disproportionately from the reduced average cost of flood insurance brought about by government intervention. Of course, not all NFIP-insured properties are high value, but insured homes are on average more valuable than noninsured homes. …In 2007, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) published a report containing statistics on the average and median values of properties in the NFIP. …The median value of properties in the NFIP exceeded the median value of an American home across all four categories, as shown in Table 1. …40 percent of coastal properties receiving subsidies were worth more than $500,000 and 12 percent were worth more than $1 million. …Comparisons of NFIP premiums with potential private premiums show that NFIP policyholders with the most risk exposure tend to receive the largest subsidy, with 80 percent of explicit subsidy recipients living in counties in the top income quintile.

And here’s Table 1 from their study.

My guide to having an ethical bleeding heart is very straightforward.

If taking money from rich people to give to poor people is wrong, then taking money from poor people to line the pockets of rich people is utterly reprehensible.

I’ll write in the near future about why the federal government shouldn’t be involved in disaster relief. But I wanted to specifically highlight the wretched impact of subsidized flood insurance because it is such a perverse example of how government promotes unjust inequality.

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In my writings about “Great Moments in Foreign Government,” I’ve come across amazing examples of bone-headed and incompetent behavior by politicians and bureaucrats in other nations.

Let’s add to this collection with three new stories about failures by foreign governments.

Our first example is from the United Kingdom, where the Times reports that spending on “sex education” actually increased teen pregnancy rates.

Teenage pregnancy rates have been reduced because of government cuts to spending on sex education and birth control for young women, according to a study that challenges conventional wisdom. The state’s efforts to teach adolescents about sex and make access to contraceptives easier may have encouraged risky behaviour rather than curbed it, the research suggests. In 1999, faced with some of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in Europe, ministers paid councils tens of millions of pounds a year to tackle the problem. Some local authorities made the morning-after pill freely available through pharmacies, while most hired teenage pregnancy “co-ordinators”, opened sexual health clinics in schools, and funded sex and relationship education (SRE) classes. The number of pregnancies, however, has fallen at a significantly faster rate since the grants were scrapped in 2010, in spite of critics’ dire prophecies to the contrary. David Paton, of the Nottingham University Business School, and Liam Wright, of the University of Sheffield, found that the decline was steepest in areas where councils slashed their teenage pregnancy budgets most aggressively. …Analysis of 149 local authorities from 2009 to 2014 adds to a body of evidence that suggests that when the government involves itself in teenagers’ sex lives it often winds up achieving the opposite of what was intended.

A government policy backfiring? Perish the thought!

Reminds me of the story about students who took driver education classes from the government in Indiana being more likely to have accidents than the students who didn’t take classes.

Our second example is from Sweden, where a local governments wants to create an entitlement for on-the-clock sex breaks.

Workers in Sweden could soon be allowed to take paid “sex breaks” during the day… A councillor in the northern town of Overtornea presented a motion asking that the area’s workers be given an hour during the day to go home and be intimate with their partners. …Muskos admitted there was no way to check whether workers would actually use the hour for its intended purpose. “You can’t guarantee that a worker doesn’t go out for a walk instead,” he said, adding that employers needed to trust their employees. …”This means that childbirth should be encouraged,” his motion states, as reported by Swedish newspaper Kuriren. …He said single people should also be allowed to take the hour to spend time improving their own well-being.

I wonder if the government will hire additional bureaucrats to monitor current bureaucrats to ensure that they are having sex on their breaks.

But what about those without spouses or significant others? Will the government pay to get them a partner? Don’t laugh, that’s something the British government already has done.

Speaking of which, we return to the United Kingdom for our third and final example. It seems lemonade cops don’t just exist in California, Georgia, and Oregon, they also patrol the mean streets of London.

A five-year-old girl selling lemonade to revellers heading to a festival in east London had her stand shut down by council officers who slapped her and her father with a £150 fine. Andre Spicer said his daughter burst into tears and told him “I’ve done a bad thing” after enforcement officers read out a lengthy legal letter before issuing him the notice. The five-year-old and Mr Spicer, a professor at City University, were given the fine for “trading without a permit” after they set up the make-shift stall near their home in Mile End. …Mr Spicer branded the enforcements officers’ decision an “over-zealous way of applying the rules,” after the pair set out to refresh festival goers heading to Lovebox in Victoria Park on Saturday. He said: “It’s not like she was trying to make a massive profit, this is just a five-year-old kid trying to sell lemonade. …Mr Spicer said he tried to tell his distraught daughter they would set up another stand to sell their homemade pop once they had a permit, but she replied: “No. It’s too scary.”

At least Canada tries to be unique. They bust kids who sell worms instead of lemonade.

But perhaps harassing kids is the best we can expect from the British government. After all, this is the place that is sometimes too incompetent to give away money. Though our cousins across the Atlantic are remarkably effective at producing pointless signs and road markings.

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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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Several years ago, I would regularly share horror stories about innocent kids being abused by politically correct government school administrators who overreacted to anything remotely resembling a gun.

I even had a U.S. vs. U.K. stupidity contest that featured many examples of anti-gun lunacy, though Canada may actually win the prize for the most absurd case of political correctness.

But I eventually stopped sharing these types of stories because it seemed there were so many and I felt like I was making the same points over and over again.

Time for the hiatus to end. I’ve run across a handful of stories that are so preposterous that I can’t resist revisiting the issue.

Here’s our first example. A local television station in North Carolina reports that a little girl was suspended because she pretended that a stick was a gun while playing with her friends.

A local mother is outraged after her 5-year-old daughter was suspended from school because of a stick that resembled a gun. …It started Friday when her mother got a call from the principal about a playground incident. Caitlin explained that she and her two friends were using their imaginations, playing “King and Queen.” In this case, Caitlin was the guard protecting the royals and picked up the gun to imitate shooting an intruder into the kingdom. Hoke County Schools said Caitlin posed a threat to other students when she made a shooting motion, thus violating policy 4331. …Miller says Caitlin was alienated by her friends and teachers as a result of the suspension. She hopes that the school will issue some sort of apology to her daughter.

I’m not the only one who thinks this is insane.

Now for our second story.

It’s about a very dangerous 11-year old girl who – gasp!! – . A Florida television station has the details.

A South Florida couple is outraged after they said their daughter was suspended from her middle school for using a child butter knife at lunchtime to cut a peach. …Souto’s daughter is an honor roll student at Silver Trail Middle School in Pembroke Pines. …Ronald and Andrea Souto told Local 10 News reporter Michael Seiden that their 11-year-old daughter was suspended for six days for bringing the knife to school. “This is a set of a spoon, fork and knife for toddlers — one year old,” Andrea Souto said. “It is made for children to learn how to eat properly. She’s used it since she was baby.” According to the school district, the girl violated the county’s weapon policy when she used her butter knife in the cafeteria to cut the peach. …Ronald said he hopes what happened to his daughter will bring change to the district, specifically new polices when it comes to weapons.

But this rogue child didn’t just get suspended. She may become an actual criminal.

The Soutos said they were shocked about the suspension and are now concerned that their daughter’s act of kindness could lead to criminal charges. …The Pembroke Pines Police Department said it has turned over their investigation to the State Attorney’s Office. It’s unclear whether prosecutors will file charges.

Our third story comes from a St. Louis TV station and it involves a four-year old boy who was suspended for a shell casing.

Hunter, 4, has been suspended from his preschool for bringing a shell casing from a fired bullet to school. He’d been at the preschool for about a year, she said, and now was in tears. Neither she nor Hunter’s dad knew it, but he found something he thought was pretty neat and he took it to school Tuesday to show his friends. …Hunter’s parents got a letter from the school’s director saying Hunter had been suspended for 7 days. …It turns out the casing came from a visit with Hunter’s grandpa who is a Caseyville police officer, Jackson said. …The school’s vice-president e-mailed her that he was notifying the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

The last sentence is particularly chilling since DCFS bureaucrats presumably have the power to take children from their families. So imagine the horrible position of Hunter’s parents, who not only have to deal with their kid being suspended for doing nothing wrong, but also have to worry about the state kidnapping their child if some anti-gun bureaucrat woke up on the wrong side of the bed.

Our fourth and final story is courtesy of the Montgomery Advertiser in Alabama, where a teenager was expelled for a year because of a water gun.

A family is up in arms after their 16-year-old daughter was expelled from Prattville High School for having a water gun on campus. …she was banned from school property and any extra-curricular activities for the same period. …She said a male classmate handed the toy to her daughter “as a joke.” “…the second you picked it up, you know its plastic and a toy,” she said. “So we can understand the initial reaction, not knowing it wasn’t a real gun. But after the principal and school officials knew it was a water gun, things should never have progressed this far.” …The family wants any reference to the expulsion removed from Laney’s academic records, McPhillips’ letters read. …If the expulsion isn’t removed from Laney’s academic record, the family is considering filing legal action

I suppose there are two big-picture lessons to be learned.

First, it’s hard to be optimistic about the education system after reading this type of story.

If bureaucrats at government schools don’t have common sense, how can they teach reading, writing, and arithmetic?

Maybe (especially given the shocking lack of results after record levels of staffing and funding) we should break up the government school monopoly and let parents choose better-quality schools.

Second, keep in mind that anti-gun statists know they can’t win the intellectual argument against private gun ownership, so they’re trying to stigmatize anything remotely connected to guns in hopes of eventually winning the political argument.

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I focus most of my ire on the federal government because bad policy from Washington is the biggest threat to our nation’s freedom and prosperity.

But we also get plenty of bad policy from other levels of government. I periodically focus on the foibles of states such as California, Illinois, and New York.

Today, though, let’s contemplate the inane policies of local government.

I’ve shared plenty of examples in the post, even to the point of putting together two contests (here and here) to pick the craziest action by a local government.

Politicians and bureaucrats in cities and towns do lots of big things that are bad, such as creating massive unfunded liabilities, providing crappy schools, turning law enforcement into back-door tax collectors, and trying to turn children into wusses.

And they do lots of small things that are bad, such as shutting down children’s lemonade stands, arresting people for saving rafters from drowning, fining people for rescuing children from savage dog attacks, leaving a dead body in a pool for two days, requiring permits to be a bum, poisoning water supplies, and paying bureaucrats not to work for 12 years.

Let’s augment these lists.

As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times, here’s an example of Chicago cronyism.

A real estate venture created by President Barack Obama’s onetime boss and a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley squandered $68 million it was given to invest on behalf of pension plans for Chicago teachers, cops, city employees and transit workers… The five public pension funds haven’t made a dime on the investments they made nearly a decade ago… In fact, the financially troubled pension plans have lost most of the money they gave DV Urban… Though the pension funds lost out, DV Urban and its affiliated companies got about $9 million of the pension money for management fees.

Not that this should be a surprise. Being a Daley relative has commonly been a route to undeserved riches. And the same can be said about being an Obama crony.

Speaking of government greed, here are some excerpts from a very depressing Forbes column about shakedowns of poor people in Los Angeles.

An unbuckled seat belt caused Gloria Mata Alvarado to lose her driver’s license. When her husband was driving Mata to a doctor’s appointment for her gastritis in August 2012, her stomach began hurting. For relief, Mata adjusted her seat belt. But a police officer saw her take off the belt and cited her. …In court, Mata was ordered to pay $712, almost half the monthly income for her and her husband. (Both are on disability.) After telling the judge that she couldn’t pay the fine because of her limited means, a judge graciously reduced the fine—to $600. Unable to pay, her license was ultimately suspended. …In Los Angeles County alone, nearly 200,000 drivers had their licenses suspended simply because they failed to pay fines or appear in court. Statewide, from 2006 to 2013, the California Department of Motor Vehicles suspended more than 4.2 million driver’s licenses for those reasons… Throughout the Golden State, motorists are routinely nickeled-and-dimed in traffic court. Looking to raise revenue, state lawmakers slapped on additional fees and surcharges to the base fines for traffic tickets. For instance, the fine for failing to signal or running a stop sign is $35. But after all the surcharges and fees have been imposed, that fine soars to $238. Likewise, a $20 ticket for using a cell phone while driving balloons to $162, while a $100 traffic ticket for failing to carry proof of car insurance actually costs $490. Even worse, failing to pay can trigger an additional $300 “civil assessment” fee. So for many low-income Angelenos, a $20, $35 or $100 ticket can easily become $462, $538, and $815 respectively. …Notably, the courts themselves receive the collected civil assessment penalties, granting them a strong financial incentive to levy fees.

This sickens me. I hate the thought of poor people having their lives made worse because of venal and greedy government.

Especially when many (probably most) of the infractions are for things that don’t actually promote or protect public safety.

At the very least, the fines (and accompanying fees) should be slashed. Though I recognize this could result in more cities being like Detroit, which actually spends more administering parking tickets than it collects in revenue.

Maybe the answer is to levy fines based on income. If a lot of middle class and rich people suddenly experienced severe financial discomfort like the poor, that might generate enough pressure to shut down these revenue-raising scams.

Let’s now travel up the coast to enjoy a classic case of government incompetence from San Francisco.

last year, SFMTA officials excitedly unveiled the first of sixty brand new electric trolley buses purchased by the city of San Francisco. …these $1.1 million-a-piece vehicles were touted as a crucial investment in a public transit system still running buses 20-plus-years old. There’s just one problem: The 60-foot buses can’t go up San Francisco’s hills. In fact, the buses were never designed to handle our iconic hills — anything over a 10 percent grade wears down motor components. …the New Flyer buses also struggle to meet Muni’s internal acceleration standards on inclines of 5 to 10 percent — sometimes taking double the time during tests to accelerate to required speeds on the slight inclines.

But at least the buses are electric, which means they have zero emissions, so the nitwits in San Francisco can feel virtuous (though it does require them to pretend electricity magically appears from nowhere rather than emissions-producing power plants).

This story reminds me of the streetcar boondoggle in DC.

Now let’s go to another city famous for bad policy.

New York City has been padding its budget by ticketing cars that are parked legally.

As of late 2008, in NYC you can park in front of a sidewalk pedestrian ramp, as long as it’s not connected to a crosswalk. …I’ve got a pedestrian ramp leading to nowhere particular in the middle of my block in Brooklyn, and on occasion I have parked there.  Despite the fact that it is legal, I’ve been ticketed for parking there.  Though I get the tickets dismissed, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. And that got me wondering- How common is it for the police to give tickets to cars legally parked in front of pedestrian ramps?

What the reporter discovered is shocking.

…thanks to NYC’s Open Data portal, I was able to look at the most common parking spots in the City where cars were ticketed for blocking pedestrian ramps. …What I found when I dove into the data surprised me.  To start, I found the top address where this ticket were given: in front of 575 Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, where over $48,000 in parking fines were issued in the last 2.5 years. … the spot, (or really spots since there are two ramps), are legal, since they are in the middle of the block, with no crosswalk.  $48,000 in tickets at a legally parked spot, and that is just the last 2.5 years.

The next top spots on the list had the same story to tell.

1705 Canton Avenue in Brooklyn, 273 Tickets, $45,045: Legal. 270-05 76 Avenue in Queens, 256 Tickets ($42,440) Legal. 143-49 Cherry Ave, Queens, 246 Tickets, ($40,590).  Legal. …I started to skip down the list.  This spot in Battery Park, ranked #16 on my list and the top spot in Manhattan, had 116 tickets ($19,140) and turned out to be legal. …I started to skip down the list faster and faster.  Take #1000 in my top list, at 1059 Virginia Avenue, where 8 tickets had been given ($1320).  It is a classic T intersection, meaning it’s legal. …I then selected 30 random spots that had received 5 or more tickets over the time period, and based on Google Maps found that all of them appeared to be legal parking spots!

The good news is that this exposé supposedly is forcing the city to stop this type of illegal ticket, so some stories actually do have a happy ending.

The next step hopefully will deal with extortionate fines for the horrible crime of…gasp…idling for more than three minutes!

But not all stories end well.

Here’s a jaw-dropping report of bureaucratic abuse from Sarasota, Florida.

At 90 years old, Marie Louise Sikorski has lived in her house on Webber Street in Sarasota for most of her life… The city found several code violations at her home. Since then, she’s racked up massive fines, which she says add up to about 150,000 dollars. As a widow receiving only 1,000 dollars a month…, she says there’s little she can do. …That’s when 30-year-old Miles came into her life. …As her neighbor, Miles heard about her situation and began to help with repairs around the home, sometimes putting in 16 hour days, all free of charge.

This sounds like a happy ending, right? A greedy local government hits a senior citizen who is too old to maintain her house with massive fines, but a wonderful neighbor steps in to save the day.

You’re probably thinking the local government then waived the absurd fines.

…the City is still not satisfied, and she says she’s still being charged 500 dollars a day. …Sarasota requires much of the work to be done by a “licensed” contractor, something Miles is not.

In other words, we get a sad end to the story because of a mix of two ugly things, routine government greed and oligopolistic government licensing restrictions. Reminds me of the disgusting actions of the local government in Montgomery, Alabama.

Last but not least, let’s close with a classic story of wasteful spending.

A local politician in Portland, Oregon, squandered tax money taking her staff to a luxury spa in Arizona for supposed diversity training.

Commissioner Amanda Fritz says she will close her office next week to take her six staff members to a retreat in Arizona to learn about diversity at a cost of roughly $40,000. Fritz and her staff, about half of whom are people of color, plan to spend at least 3 1/2 days in Tubac, Arizona, near the Mexican border, participating in a diversity workshop put on by a Portland-based company, White Men as Full Diversity Partners. …The program charges $4,750 per person for tuition, lodging, meals and site fees. Fritz’s office will also have to pay for the staffers’ flights to Arizona.

Though, to be fair, Commissioner Fritz is not the only Portland politician to rip off taxpayers for this type of scam.

Former Mayor Charlie Hales drew criticism for spending $56,000 to send 16 white, male city employees to a resort on Mt. Hood in 2014 for another workshop put on by the same organization. The City of Portland has spent more than $126,000 on programs and consulting from White Men as Full Diversity Partners since August 2014, according to city invoice records.

As you might expect, there are some sketchy connections between the city bureaucracy and the contractor.

Office of Neighborhood Involvement Director Amalia Alarcon Morris worked as a paid associate for the diversity organization more than a decade ago… The diversity company still lists Alarcon Morris as a consultant on its website.

By the way, I fully expect that a search of campaign finance records would reveal that the owners and managers of White Men as Full Diversity Partners have recycled some of the loot they’ve received into the campaigns of Portland politicians.

The politicians win with campaign contributions. The bureaucrats win with a free vacation. The contractor wins by getting a big check.

The only losers are…you guessed it…the taxpayers!

The moral of the story, as explained by Veronique de Rugy in a column for Reason, is that governments at all levels are venal and incompetent.

What do home Bible study classes, transgender bathrooms, lemonade stands, cat litter, and marijuana have in common? To the blind eye, not much—but in fact, they’re all things state and local governments are actively working to regulate. …it turns out local governments are frequently the worst offenders of all when it comes to petty tyranny. …Dozens of places, including Austin, Texas; Sacramento, California; and Thurston County, Washington, have banned supermarkets, convenience stores, and pharmacies from providing customers with free plastic bags. “Many cities restrict the economic freedom of their residents and potential migrants through minimum wage laws, business licensing, rent control, and zoning restrictions,” Mercatus Center state and local policy expert Adam Millsap explains. And many of these regulations, particularly zoning and occupational licensing laws, place a disproportionate burden on poor people and minorities.

And she points out that decentralization, while theoretically very desirable, won’t generate many benefits if misguided federal policies are replaced by bad local policies.

Many on the political right believe that the devolution of power to lower levels of government can help overcome problems created by centralized authority….In a 2014 paper, George Mason University economist Richard Wagner explored whether federalism really supports liberty. He found that devolving power to lower levels can be good for individual freedom under the right conditions—but it’s far from guaranteed.

P.S. Don’t forget to vote for Veronique in the “most influential libertarian” contest. And you don’t even need to make it a write-in vote. She’s been added to the list by popular demand.

P.P.S. I suspect most people won’t care about what’s happening with my local government, but local politicians and bureaucrats are whining about belt-tightening even though spending has climbed much faster than inflation.

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Early last month, in a column on my hopes and fears for 2017, I fretted about fiscal chaos in Italy leading to default and bailouts.

Simply stated, I fear that Italy, along with certain other “Club Med” nations, has passed the point of no return in terms of big government, demographic decline, and societal dependency.

And this means that, sooner or later, the proverbial wheels are going to fall off the bus.

And it might be sooner. I don’t always agree with his policy recommendations, but I regularly read Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute because he is one of the best-informed people in Washington on the fiscal and economic mess in Europe.

And Italy, to be blunt, is in a mess.

Here’s what Desmond just wrote about the country’s economy.

…while the euro could very well survive a Greek exit, it certainly could not survive in anything like its present form were Italy to have a full-blown economic and financial crisis that forced it to default on its public debt mountain. …Among the reasons that there should be greater concern about an Italian, rather than a Greek, economic crisis is that Italy has a very much larger economy than Greece. Being the third-largest economy in the eurozone, Italy’s economy is around 10 times the size of that of Greece. Equally troubling is the fact that Italy has the world’s third-largest sovereign bond market with public debt of more than $2.5 trillion. Much of this debt is held by Europe’s shaky banking system, which heightens the risk that an Italian sovereign debt default could shake the global financial system to its core. …the country’s economic performance since 2008 has been abysmal. Indeed, Italian living standards today are around 10 percent below where they were 10 years ago. Meanwhile, Italy’s banking system has become highly troubled and its public sector debt as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) is now the second highest in the eurozone.

And here’s some of what he wrote late last year.

…today there would seem to be as many reasons for worrying about the Italian economy as there were for worrying about the Greek economy back in 2009. Like Greece then, Italy today checks all too many of the boxes for the making of a full-blown economic and financial crisis within the next year or two. …the Italian economy today is barely above its level in 1999 when the country adopted the Euro as its currency. Worse still, since the Great Global Economic Recession in 2008-2009, the Italian economy has experienced a triple-dip recession that has left its economy today some 7 percent below its pre-2008 crisis peak level and its unemployment rate stuck at over 11 percent. …deficiencies of its ossified labor market that contributes so importantly to the country’s very poor productivity performance. As a result, since adopting the Euro in 1999, Italy’s unit labor costs have increased by around 15 percentage points more than have those in Germany. …Italian banks now have around EUR 360 billion in non-performing loans, which amounts to a staggering 18 percent of their loan portfolio. If that were not bad enough, the Italian banks also hold unhealthily large amounts of Italian government debt, which now total more than 10 percent of their overall assets. …the country’s public debt level has risen from 100 percent of GDP in 2008 to 133 percent of GDP at present.

The numbers shared by Lachman are downright miserable.

And he’s not the only one pointing out that Italy’s economy is in the toilet.

I shared numbers last year showing the pervasive stagnation in the country.

So what’s the Italian government doing to solve these problems? Is it slashing tax rates? Reducing the burden of government? Cutting back on red tape?

Of course not. The politicians are either making things worse or engaging in pointless distractions.

Speaking of which, I’m tempted to laugh at the Italian government’s campaign to boost birthrates. Here’s some of what’s been reported by the New York Times.

…a government effort to promote “Fertility Day” on Sept. 22, a campaign intended to encourage Italians to have more babies. …Italy has one of the lowest birthrates in the world… Italian families have been shrinking for decades. In 2015, 488,000 babies were born in Italy, the fewest since the country first unified in 1861. It has one of the lowest birthrates in Europe, with 1.37 children per woman, compared with a European average of 1.6, according to Eurostat figures.

By the way, I actually commend the government for recognizing that falling birthrates are a problem.

Not because women should feel obliged to have kids if that’s not what they want. But rather because Italy has a massive tax-and-transfer welfare state that is predicated on an ever-expending population of workers (i.e., taxpayers) to finance benefits to retirees.

But old people are living longer and low birthrates mean that there won’t be enough taxpayers to prop up the Ponzi Scheme of big government.

But while the government deserves kudos for acknowledging a problem, it deserves mockery for thinking empty slogans will make a difference.

Moreover, there’s also a problem in that Italian voters have been so conditioned to expect handouts that they think the answer to the problem is even more government!

The problem is not a lack of desire to have children, critics of the campaign say, but rather the lack of meaningful support provided by the government and many employers. …”I still feel very offended,” said Vittoria Iacovella, 37, a journalist and mother of two girls, ages 10 and 8. “The government encourages us to have babies, and then the main welfare system in Italy is still the grandparents.” …Italy’s government has tried to help families with a so-called baby bonus of 80 to 160 euros, or about $90 to $180, for low- and middle-income households, and it has approved labor laws giving more flexibility on parental leave.

Ms. Iacovella is crazy for thinking that more taxes, more spending, more regulation, and more mandates will make things better.

Heck, even leftists are now admitting such laws undermine employment and specifically hurt women by making them less attractive to employers.

Meanwhile, the Italian government is taking lots of other dumb steps. Including, as reported by the Telegraph, creating a new entitlement for teenagers.

Italian school leavers may face the dismal prospect of 40 per cent youth unemployment, but at least they have one thing to look forward to – a €500 “culture bonus”, courtesy of the government. From next month, every 18-year-old will be entitled to claim the money and spend it on culturally enriching pursuits such as going to theatres, concerts and museums, visiting archaeological sites, and buying books. The scheme, which starts on Sept 15, will benefit 575,000 teenagers, at a cost to the government of €290 million (£250 million).

By the way, is anyone shocked to learn that Italian teenagers look forward to these handouts?

…it has been welcomed by 18-year-olds, who face a difficult economic landscape when they leave school – high unemployment, a lack of secure, long-term contracts and an economy that has performed dismally for a decade. “Of course we’re happy…,” said Angelica Magazzino, a teenager from the southern region of Puglia who turns 18 in November.

If you read the entire story, you’ll learn that the government justifies this new entitlement by saying it will fight terrorism. I don’t know if that’s more crazy or less crazy than the American leftists who blame terrorism on climate change or inequality.

Last but not least, CNN is reporting that the government is also enabling other forms of Italian “culture.”

Italy’s highest court has ruled that masturbation in public is not a crime, as long as it is not conducted in the presence of minors.

No, this is not a joke.

The decision came down from the Italian Supreme Court…in the case of a 69-year-old man…The man was convicted in May 2015 after he performed the act in front of students on the University of Catania campus, according to documents filed with Supreme Court. The man was sentenced to three months in prison and ordered to pay a fine of €3,200 (around $3,600). However, the defendant’s lawyer appealed the case to the country’s highest court, which ruled on the side of the accused in June but only just made its decision public. Judges ruled that public masturbation out of the presence of minors is no longer deemed criminal conduct due to a change in the law last year, which decriminalized the act.

Great. I’m looking forward to my next trip to Italy. Though I guess it’s nice to see Italian seniors are staying active in their communities.

More seriously, this is why I’m sympathetic to Italians that are either privately dodging or publicly revolting when you have a government this profligate and senseless.

P.S. Amazingly, some leftists think the United States should have a bigger government and be more like Italy.

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