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Posts Tagged ‘Local government’

As I’ve repeatedly explained, governments generally get in fiscal trouble because politicians can’t resist spending lots of money when the economy is buoyant and therefore generating lots of tax revenue.

And this is why I’m a huge fan of spending caps. If outlays can’t grow faster than, say, 3 percent annually, that make it difficult for politicians to enact unsustainable spending commitments (as we’ve seen in Greece, Alberta, Puerto Rico, California, and Alaska) in years when there is extra revenue.

Now I have a new example, and it’s extra painful because the politicians literally want me to pay for their profligacy.

Here’s part of what was recently written in the Washington Post about the supposed budget hardships in my home county of Fairfax in Virginia.

Virginia’s largest municipality is fraying around the edges. A population that is growing older, poorer and more diverse is sharpening the need for basic services…even as a sluggish local economy maintains a chokehold on the revenue stream. Since the 2008 recession, local officials have whittled away at programs to the tune of $300 million. …Since 2008, the county has eliminated 700 jobs. Libraries operate on shorter schedules and with fewer books, class sizes have swelled past 32 students in some schools… County agencies are stretching out vehicle maintenance — including for school buses and fire engines — and officials say aging athletic courts and deteriorating playgrounds await nearly $20 million in repairs. …The county slashed $3.8 million in summer school funding in 2015 and is trying to use $374,000 less in paper this year.

But all this budget “slashing” apparently isn’t enough to balance the budget.

…there is no fat left to trim. Instead, they are searching for ways to raise taxes… The county is searching for new revenue to cover some of what officials estimate are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of unmet needs. …“We’ve been punting for seven years now,” said John C. Cook (R-Braddock), a county supervisor. “There’s really nothing easy left to cut.” …the County Board of Supervisors will decide whether to raise residential property taxes by as much as four cents — to $1.13 per $100 of assessed value.

Gee, sounds like the government has “cut spending to the bone” and imposed “savage austerity,” which means higher taxes are the only option, right?

Not exactly, Professor Don Boudreaux of George Mason University digs through the data and exposes the truth.

What budget cuts?  In fiscal year 2016 Fairfax County’s government will spend $7.13 billion dollars – the highest inflation-adjusted annual expenditure in County history.  And this real expenditure is the highest in County history even on a per-capita basis.  …Fairfax County’s government today spends, per county resident, 168 percent more real dollars than it spent in 1975, 144 percent more than in 1986, 30 percent more than in 2001, and 1.6 percent more than in 2008 – the year that your reporter suggests marks the beginning of Fairfax County’s budget austerity. …it is emphatically not true that the Fairfax leviathan has cut its spending or suffered budget cuts.  Quite the opposite.

Don included a table of data, which I’ve put into a chart.

Let me know if you can find where spending was “slashed.”

Remember, this is inflation-adjusted spending, and also per-capita-adjusted spending, which means we can do apples-to-apples comparisons.

And the comparison that really matters is that the local government is now spending more than twice as much as it did 30 years ago.

  • Are the schools more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the roads more than twice as good? No.
  • Are the parks more than twice as good? No.

So where did all the money go? Beats me, though I’m going to take a wild guess that the country bureaucracy is now far bigger and getting paid much more.

In other words, the same theorem of government that explains the behavior of Washington also applies at the local level.

P.S. Let’s close with a very appropriate joke about the type of people who create fiscal crises.

A father told his 3 sons when he sent them to the university: “I feel it’s my duty to provide you with the best possible education, and you do not owe me anything for that. However, I want you to appreciate it. As a token, please each put $1,000 into my coffin when I die.”

And so it happened. His sons became a doctor, a lawyer, and a financial planner, each very successful financially. When their father’s time had come and they saw their father in the coffin, they remembered his wish.

First, it was the doctor who put 10 $100 bills onto the chest of the deceased.

Then, came the financial planner, who also put $1,000 there.

Finally, it was the heartbroken lawyer’s turn.He dipped into his pocket, took out his checkbook, wrote a check for $3,000, put it into his father’s coffin, and took the $2,000 cash.

He later went on to become a member of Congress…

If you want more jokes about politicians, click here.

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Even though it’s theoretically possible to design a desirable budget deal that includes a tax increase, I’m a big advocate of the no-tax-hike pledge for the simple reason that – in the real world – support for genuine spending restraint and real entitlement reform evaporates once politicians think higher revenues are an option.

Heck, bumping into the Loch Ness Monster while riding my unicorn is more likely than an acceptable budget deal including tax hikes.

Though I confess that my anti-tax resolve sometimes gets a bit wobbly when I think about unsavory tax breaks such as the ethanol credit, the state and local tax deduction, and the healthcare exclusion. I have to remind myself that while these provisions are very odious, they should be repealed as part of tax reform rather than as part of some deal that gives politicians more money to waste.

Now there’s another example of a tax that is very tempting, and it comes from my home state of Connecticut.

When I was growing up, the Nutmeg State didn’t have an income tax and it was a refuge for overtaxed New Yorkers. But then an income tax was imposed in 1991. And ever since politicians got their hands on this new source of revenue, the burden of spending has skyrocketed and Connecticut has become a fiscal dystopia.

So you would think I’d be reflexively hostile to additional tax hikes by the politicians in Hartford. And I should be, but I’m perversely intrigued by a new levy they’re considering. The Wall Street Journal opines on the proposal.

…most Yale University professors are proud to be progressives. Well, they are now getting the chance to live their convictions as Connecticut Democrats attempt to soak Yale’s rich endowment. Democrats in Hartford have proposed taxing the unspent earnings of university endowments with more than $10 billion in assets. Only Yale’s $25.6 billion endowment—the country’s second largest after Harvard—fits the tax bill. Yale’s tax-exempt investments earned $2.6 billion last year, eight times more than the University of Connecticut’s $384 million endowment. Oh, the inequality! …Hartford is already taxing anything that moves. Last year Democrats raised the top individual tax rate to 6.99% and extended a 20% corporate surtax. The tax hikes precipitated General Electric’s decision in January to move its headquarters to Boston. Between 2010 and 2015, Connecticut lost 105,000 residents to other states. For the last five years, it has recorded zero real GDP growth.

Nobody should be double taxed on income that is saved and invested, so my mind tells me that the right approach is to give all taxpayers the treatment now reserved for places like Yale.

But my heart tells me the opposite because it’s galling that Yale is dominated by statists who presumably want higher taxes on the rest of us, so maybe it’s time they swallow some of their own bitter medicine.

But the way, it’s not just state politicians that are salivating to pillage Yale. It’s now being reported that city politicians want a slice of the action.

The mayor of New Haven is backing a push to revisit an 1834 Connecticut statute affecting taxes for Yale University, saying new guidelines are needed to assess liability for the institution… “Since taxing real estate and other property is the only form of municipal taxation allowed by state law, more modern guidelines as to what’s taxable and what’s tax exempt are essential,” New Haven Mayor Toni Harp said this week in testimony supporting the legislation. …The Ivy League university has strongly objected to proposal.

Gee, I wonder if Yale also “strongly objected” to the various big tax hikes that have savaged the state’s investors, entrepreneurs, and small businesses? Or is their battlefield conversion against tax hikes solely a selfish gesture.

Needless to say, I’m sure it’s the latter, which is why part of me is thinking it would be rough justice if the jackals in state and local government descended on Yale.

That being said, I certainly don’t like the idea of these profligate politicians getting their greedy hands on even more money. So if they do impose taxes on Yale, I hope the university will consider a very thoughtful invitation from the Governor of Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott…issued a statement calling on the Ivy League institution to pick up stakes and move on down to sunny Florida. “We would welcome a world-renowned university like Yale to our state and I can commit that we will not raise taxes on their endowment,” Governor Scott said

Hmmm…. Better weather and no state income tax. Sounds like a good deal to me.

And since Florida doesn’t double tax anybody, Yale’s leftist professors could sleep easier at night since they no longer would be hypocrites who work at a school that enjoys tax-free status on its investments while neighbors are being taxed.

P.S. I should add Yale’s anti-tax leftists to my collection of statist hypocrites.

P.P.S. I might be willing to accept a tax hike if it somehow could be designed so that it only applied to advocates of higher taxes.

P.P.P.S. While some tax distortions are destructive, some are simply bizarre.

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While I’m a big fan of federalism, this isn’t because I have a starry-eyed view of non-Washington politicians. Of course there is plenty of grotesque misbehavior by state and local governments.

And it’s most troubling when it involves law enforcement and the legal system.

David French of National Review has a very powerful and compelling article about thuggery at the local level.

…my experience with small-town government…pushed me in a libertarian direction before I even knew what a libertarian was. The public schools were dreadful. Focused on patronage more than education, the school system was a public jobs program… Our local government’s core mission was dispensing favors. If you were part of the local elite, the normal rules of life simply didn’t apply. Speeding tickets? No problem. You need a conditional use permit? You got it! …if you were poor or lacked connections, “the rules” applied to you with a vengeance. After all, someone had to pay the city’s bills. There was no escaping speeding tickets, zoning officials were ruthless, and each interaction with the unyielding authorities carried with it the threat of immediate escalation, sometimes without justification.

Some of the folks who protest police mistreatment see the issue through the prism of race, but maybe the real problem is that cops are expected to generate revenue for local politicians.

…It is entirely possible to believe (as I do) that the evidence indicates that “hands up, don’t shoot” is a fiction, even a malicious fiction, while also believing that the evidence indicates that Ferguson’s government was corrupt in exactly the way that government is typically corrupt.  We often take for granted the rule of law. If you are blessed to live in a town where the officials are relatively clean, or if you’re among the class of people that officials fear to cross, then public institutions seem benign — helpful, even. But there are millions of our fellow citizens who live a different reality, under the authority of different kinds of public officials — officials who view them as virtual ATMs, regardless of their ability to pay. And when the government imposes that mindset on police officers, forcing men and women who are trained to respond to (and anticipate) the most violent incidents to essentially become the armed tax collectors of a corrupt system, then that government is unjust.

Amen. Eric garner is dead today because New York City has cops act as deputy tax collectors.

Speaking of mistreatment and abuse, Debra Saunders has a must-read account of California’s immoral system for pillaging drivers.

California is filled with people who are one traffic ticket away from losing their means of independent transportation. They get a ticket for a busted tail light or a small-change moving violation. On paper, the fine is $100, but with surcharges, it’s more like $490. People who cannot pay often do not show up in court — which drives up the cost. According to the Judicial Council of California, about 612,000 Californians have suspended driver’s licenses because they didn’t pay fines. In 2013, more people — 510,811 — had their licenses suspended for not paying fines than the 150,366 who lost their licenses for drunken driving. “For a lot of people, the car is the only asset they own in this whole damn world,” noted Mike Herald of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. …“We’ve turned too many of the police into tax collectors and wonder why they don’t have strong relations with the community,” Norquist said.

This is disgusting, particularly because of how the system is a nightmare for poor people.

I’m about as far from an advocate of class warfare as is possible, but I can’t help but be sympathetic to the notion that traffic fines should be tied to income. Maybe if the middle class and the rich had to pay fines that confiscated huge chunks of their disposable income, there would be pressure to fix this horrid system.

And what’s really outrageous is how the government adds all sorts of fees to the cost of a ticket.

It’s deceptive advertising: a $100 fine fronts for an extra $390 in add-ons. The price tag can grow exponentially if unpaid and lead to losing one’s license. The penalty is harsh and crushing on the poor, but these fees also are undeserved for the middle class. If Sacramento wants to levy a $490 fine for moving violations, let lawmakers put honest numbers on their legislation — instead of pretending that the fine is $100. Alas, the Legislature has found that hidden fees are a handy way to finance the court system without voting to raise tax revenue. …If a private corporation advertised a $100 payment for something that really cost $500, California Attorney General Kamala Harris probably would go after the corporation for false advertising. If a credit card company boosted its fees the way the courts do, activists would call those practices usury. If the police yanked people’s driver’s licenses because they didn’t pay a $100 fine, the public would regard such a harsh penalty as excessive force. Yet Sacramento has codified a system that commits all three sins and it’s perfectly legal. Really, is there anything more brutal than government.

The good news is that the state is offering an amnesty, allowing some drivers the ability to clean up their record at a reduced cost.

But there’s a catch. You have to pay a hidden fee!

…there is a $50 amnesty program fee. That’s right — if you want to pay off unpaid traffic fines that have ballooned because of hidden fees, first you have to pay another…hidden fee.

I guess coughing up $50 is a good deal if that can reduce other fines by a greater amount, but isn’t this typical of government. Making you give them some money in order to give them more money.

Low-income communities also bear the brunt of dubious police tactics.

The Washington Post has an in-depth report on how cops are conducting raids against residences even in the absence of any evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Sallie Taylor was sitting in her apartment in Northeast Washington one evening in January 2015 watching “Bible Talk” when…D.C. police officers smashed through her door, a shotgun was pointed at her face and she was ordered to the floor. …Taylor, a soft-spoken 63-year-old grandmother who was dressed in a white nightgown and said she has never had even a speeding ticket. The heavily armed squad thought they were searching the residence of a woman arrested two miles away the previous night for carrying a half-ounce vial of PCP. …The search warrant executed at Taylor’s apartment cited no evidence of criminal activity there. Instead, in an affidavit to a judge, police argued that they should be able to search for drugs there based on their “training and experience” investigating the drug trade. They relied on an address they found in a court-records system for the woman arrested with PCP.

In other words, the government can bust into someone’s home, notwithstanding the lack of any evidence, simply because some cop has a hunch based on “training and experience’?

I suspect America’s Founding Fathers would not be pleased with this reinterpretation of the Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from “unreasonable searches,” generally requiring government agents to obtain a warrant from a judge by showing they have probable cause to think that they will find a specific item at a specific location. In recent decades, police have been given wide latitude by the courts… Attorney Alec Karakatsanis, of the nonprofit group D.C.-based Equal Justice Under Law, said warrants that rely on training and experience as justification for a search subject the black community to abusive police intrusion based on flimsy investigative work.

To make matters worse, the government oftentimes doesn’t bother to confirm addresses before launching these raids.

Failure to properly verify an address led police to the home of Patricia Dandridge on Jan. 27, 2015. She returned from work to find her apartment in Southeast ransacked. The door was beaten in and her bed frame was broken, she said. Clothes and personal papers were strewn across the floor. “I thought I’d been robbed, but my neighbor told me it was the police,” said Dandridge, 45. …Three officers had forced their way in to look for firearms. They left empty-handed. The warrant was based on a drug complaint at a housing complex in Southeast more than five miles from Dandridge’s apartment, according to the affidavit police used to justify the search. …Palmer lived down the hall with his parents in Apartment 103. Dandridge lives in 102. “103 does not look like 102,” Dandridge said. The apartments are on opposite ends of the building.

Last but not least, Kevin Williamson weighs in at National Review with a withering look at police misconduct and corruption.

Is it really so difficult to believe that there is widespread wrongdoing, and widespread lying about it, among U.S. law-enforcement agencies, particularly those in big, Democrat-run cities infamous for the corruption of their other municipal institutions? Why do conservatives find it so plausible — obvious, even — that the IRS and the EPA and the Atlanta public schools are corrupt and self-serving, but somehow believe that the Baltimore police department isn’t?

He has lots of examples.

There are a great many investigations of police misconduct in Baltimore, where the local police behave more like the militia of a third-world warlord than a police agency. …Today, it is the Los Angeles sheriff. Before that, it was the Los Angeles Police Department, whose anti-gang task force became a rolling crime wave of its own, with 70 officers eventually implicated in unlawful shootings, bank robbery, drug dealing, theft, planting false evidence, framing suspects, destroying evidence of their wrongdoing and the usual perjury, perjury, and perjury. Then came Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, NYPD detectives convicted in 2006 on a raft of charges — racketeering, extortion, drug-dealing, murder and conspiracy to commit murder, running an illegal gambling ring, obstruction of justice — as part of a 20-year crime spree that ranged from New York to Las Vegas. …In Fairview, Tenn., a new police detective was just fired after responding to a prostitution ad. An NYPD officer was awarded $15 million in damages for being kidnapped and beaten inside his own home by other NYPD officers with a score to settle. Honolulu announced that in 2015 it fired a record number of officers for misconduct.

Corruption, malfeasance, and misbehavior seem to be a natural part of the system.

…facts suggest that our police departments have the same problems as our other government agencies, exacerbated by the fact that police are, inevitably, in the business of violence. It isn’t a few scattered misdeeds when it’s the NYPD, the LAPD, the Baltimore PD, the Los Angeles sheriff’s department, and more. That’s not a few bad apples — that’s the orchard. And it needs pruning.

Kevin’s argument is very compelling, particularly his appeal to conservatives about being skeptical of all parts of government at all times.

This is similar to the argument I made that it’s especially important to monitor and resist government wrongdoing when “the good guys” are in power.

In other words, calling for the elimination of the Department of Education or the Department of Housing and Urban Development while Obama is in office is (or should be) the easy part.

By contrast, fighting against such wasteful programs when Bush was in the White House was much harder. Many supposed fiscal conservatives suddenly went silent, and that sin of omission helps to explain why the burden of federal spending increased so rapidly.

Yes, police protection is a legitimate function of government, so the issue isn’t whether police forces should be abolished (though Camden, New Jersey, got good results by doing exactly that). But skepticism of police budgets and police behavior is still very appropriate. Indeed, one obvious takeaway from Kevin’s article is that it’s especially important for “law and order” conservatives to be vigilant to make sure police forces operate honestly and efficiently (thus making life easier for the majority of cops who simply want to do a good job and protect their communities).

And that also means getting rid of laws that don’t make sense.

Just as defense hawks should be the ones most critical of wasteful spending by the Pentagon or misguided military commitments by politicians.

P.S. You can enjoy some police-related humor here, here, and here.

P.P.S. And don’t forget cops generally are on the right side on guns.

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Northern Virginia just got buried by more than two feet of snow.

This has two implications. First, I’m going to have a fun time shoveling my driveway.

Second, I’m going to add to my collection of humor that pokes fun at libertarians.

And now, courtesy of a left-leaning, quasi-populist softball buddy, we have our new addition: The tyranny of government snowplows!

Now that we’ve all enjoyed a good laugh (because some of us libertarians can be very doctrinaire and dour, and thus deserve to be teased), it’s worth noting that plenty of places, such as private communities, shopping centers, etc, do rely on the private sector.

And it’s no mystery that the snow in those places is generally cleared faster and at lower cost.

That being said, most libertarian types are far more tolerant of local governments spending money on things that arguably might be public goods.

Indeed, one of our principles is that things tend to go awry (like the water scandal in Flint) when responsibility and accountability are blurred because of involvement by state government or the federal government.

So most of us will tolerate snow removal by local governments, even if we would prefer the private sector.

P.S. I also have a collection of pro-libertarian humor.

P.P.S. Just in case you want to vicariously share my snow-shoveling misery, this picture will give you an idea of the size of the problem.

Though it is nice that one of the cats is helping to point the way.

And another one of the kitties seems rather fascinated by the walls of snow.

For what it’s worth, this snow definitely beats the December 2009 storm and also is heavier than the February 2010 storm.

P.P.P.S. Since I’m not as smart as my neighbor, who parked at the end of his driveway, I have hours of work ahead of me. Too bad there aren’t any criminal, unlicensed teenagers looking for work.

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Remember the cluster-you-know-what in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina? Corrupt and incompetent politicians in both the city and at the state level acted passively, assuming that Uncle Sam somehow should be responsible for dealing with the storm.

And we’ve seen similar behavior from other state and local politicians before, during, and after other natural disasters.

The obvious lesson to be learned is that the federal government shouldn’t have any responsibility for dealing with natural disasters. All that does it create a wasteful layer of bureaucracy, while also inculcating a sense of learned helplessness on the part of state and local officials who should be responsible for dealing with storms and other local crises.

In other words, the answer is federalism. State and local governments should be solely responsible for state and local issues.

But not just because of some abstract principle. There’s a very strong practical argument that you get more sensible decisions when the public sector is limited (as Mark Steyn humorously explained) and there is clear responsibility and accountability at various levels of government.

And this is why the biggest lesson from the scandal of tainted water in Flint, Michigan, is that local politicians and bureaucrats should not be able to shift the blame either to the state or federal government. Which was my main point in this interview.

To be sure, it is outrageous that state and federal bureaucrats knew about the problem and didn’t make it public, so I surely don’t object to officials in Lansing and Washington getting fired.

But I do object to the political finger pointing, with Democrats trying to blame the Republican Governor and Republicans trying to blame the Democratic President.

Nope, the problem is an incompetent local government that failed to fulfill a core responsibility.

The Wall Street Journal has the same perspective, opining that the mess in Flint is a failure of government.

…the real Flint story is a cascade of government failure, including the Environmental Protection Agency.

More specifically (and as I noted in the interview), we have a local government that became a fiefdom for a self-serving bureaucracy that was more concerned with its privileged status than in providing core government services.

…after decades of misrule: More than 40% of residents live in poverty; the population has fallen by half since the 1960s to about 100,000. Bloated pensions and retiree health care gobble up about 33 cents of every dollar in the general fund.

And the WSJ editorial also castigated the state and federal bureaucrats that wrote memos rather than warning citizens.

MDEQ and the EPA were chatting about Flint’s system as early as February. MDEQ said it wanted to test the water more before deciding on corrosion controls, though it isn’t clear that federal law allows this. …the region’s top EPA official, political appointee Susan Hedman, responded… “When the report has been revised and fully vetted by EPA management, the findings and recommendations will be shared with the City and MDEQ and MDEQ will be responsible for following up with the City.” She also noted over email that it’s “a preliminary draft” and it’d be “premature to draw any conclusions.” The EPA did not notify the public.

The lesson is that adding state and federal bureaucracy impedes effective and competent local government.

The broader lesson is that ladling on layers of bureaucracy doesn’t result in better oversight and safety. It sometimes lets agencies shirk responsibility for the basic public services like clean water that government is responsible for providing.

Here’s the bottom line.

Federalism is about getting better government by creating clear lines of responsibility and accountability in an environment that allows state and local governments to learn from each other on best practices.

The current system blurs responsibility and accountability, by contrast, while also imposing needless expense and bureaucracy. And we get Katrina and Flint with this dysfunctional approach.

So whether it’s Medicaid, education, transportation, welfare, or disasters, involvement from Washington makes things worse rather than better.

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Here’s a simple rule. When a politicians says a new program will cost X, hide your wallet because it actually will cost three or four times as much. Or even more.

Obamacare is a particularly painful example from recent history.

Simply stated, politicians and bureaucrats routinely under-estimate costs because they figure once a project or program is underway, voters can be tricked into throwing good money after bad.

It happens all the time in Washington. And it happens in other nations as well.

And even though I’m a fan of decentralization, that doesn’t mean I’m oblivious to the fact that state and local governments are very capable of similar behavior.

Consider, for example, the streetcar project in our Washington, DC. The main problem is that taxpayers are getting reamed. The current price tag, according to a report in the Washington Times, is about $3 billion.

And what are taxpayers getting for that “investment”?

So far, based on a story in one of the city’s other newspapers, the Washington Post, they’re getting long delays.

In the early 2000s, an ambitious band of city officials set out to cut through the bureaucratic mire and launch a vast streetcar network that would be a model for the nation, eventually running 20 to 40 miles or more. The first leg was supposed to open in 2006. But as 2015 comes to a close, officials are scrambling toward their latest goal of opening a diminished, 2.2-mile streetcar line.

But major delays are just the tip of the iceberg.

The Post‘s report highlights how one small part of the project – a maintenance facility for the streetcars – has become symbolic of grotesque cost overruns and waste.

The District is spending three or four times what other cities have to build a maintenance facility for its fledging streetcar system… The “Car Barn” project was originally designed as a simple garage and rail yard for light repairs and storage, with some offices for staff. But it has ballooned in ambition and nearly tripled in cost — to $48.8 million. It will now include a number of pricey and unusual features, including grass tracks for parking the fleet of six streetcars and a cistern for washing them with rainwater. …The District says it…is projected to open in 2017 after long delays. Tucson spent $13 million. Cincinnati’s was $11.5 million. Seattle’s came in at $11.1 million.

I’m sure local taxpayers (plus taxpayers around the nation that also subsidized this farce) will be happy to know they paid for a solar roof and other useless quirks.

Here are some of the details on why costs exploded.

…the building has…become a teaching tool for how public projects can be saddled with immense new costs. The historic designation “prompted an immediate six-month stop-work order,” DDOT said, and required, along with the green building rules, numerous upgrades. Those included using stone and brick materials; adding a saw-toothed roof with skylights; and hiding a streetcar power supply under photovoltaic cells and behind “green screen walls.” …Among the other major additions was an intricate system of turf tracks and paving stones that allow rainwater to drip into an underground vault for storage and filtering before flowing toward the city’s storm-water pipes.

Though taxpayers may think the “drip” is the sound of their money being flushed down a toilet.

In 2011, under Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), the District estimated it would spend $6.2 million on a maintenance yard and a temporary shelter — basically, a big tent. Then, with the temporary tuneup location in place, the permanent building, additional track and other work in the yard would be finished for an additional $10.7 million. …The yard-and-tent total grew to $10.4 million, DDOT said, including environmental work and hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep some Dean-Facchina workers on the job 12 hours a day, six days a week to speed things up. By last year, estimates for the second phase, including the permanent Car Barn, had risen to $24 million. In July, the city agreed to spend $38.4 million on this phase, bringing the total to $48.8 million. Among the unforeseen costs listed by DDOT are $1 million in storm drainage and $824,000 in “indirects.”

So what’s the bottom line?

Well, the late former Mayor of DC, Marion Barry, is not normally a credible source. And I’m not sure I trust any numbers that came out of his mouth.

But I suspect he ventured very close to the truth when he was quoted in a Washington Times story from 2014.

…the late former Mayor Marion Barry said D.C. taxpayers would be spending $2,000 to subsidize each ride, calling it “a streetcar to nowhere.”

In other words, it would have been cheaper to hire chauffeured limousines for the handful of people who will use the streetcar. Assuming, of course, it ever gets opened.

By the way, there must be something in the local water, because there’s a similar example of grotesque waste on the other side of the Potomac River.

But let’s not just pick on profligate local governments.

Never forget that the federal government is the real expert at waste.

National Review has a very depressing list of ways that Uncle Sam has been squandering our tax dollars.

Federal spending gets more ridiculous every year, and a new congressional report details 100 of the most egregious examples. Following in the footsteps of chronic-waste chronicler Tom Coburn, Oklahoma senator James Lankford published “Federal Fumbles” late on Monday afternoon. …Here are NR’s top-ten favorite — which is to say, most scoff-worthy and absurd — examples of how the government wastes your time, energy, and hard-earned cash.

Here are some of the highlights, though lowlights might be a better term.

…the Department of Defense…approved a $283,500 grant to monitor the day-to-day life of baby gnatchatchers. …the U.S. National Institutes of Health…announced it would grant some hapless grad student $48,500 to pen the definitive history of smoking in Russia over the past 130 years. …the National Science Foundation…gave Massachusetts Institute of Technology more than $400k to ponder the burning question: “Does media choice cause polarization, or does polarization cause media choice?” …five federal agencies alone spent $3.1 billion on workers placed on administrative leave in a two-year timespan. A lot of that cash — $775 million, to be exact — went to public employees banned from their desks for more than a month. …The National Park Service forked over $5,000 to Mars Hill University so it could make a documentary film about a local musician. …$65,473 to figure out what bugs do near a lightbulb…$35,000 for solar-powered beer.

To be sure, these items are just a drop in the bucket compared to entitlement spending.

And these examples of pork-barrel waste also are minor compared to all the supposedly non-controversial outlays that are part of the discretionary budget that funds various agencies and departments.

That being said, keep the above list in mind the next time some politicians says that we need more taxes to finance ever-bigger government.

And never forget that the real waste is when governments spend money on things that should in the private sector or civil society.

In other words, the real waste is about 80 percent-90 percent of what happens in Washington.

P.S. If you have a strong stomach, you can watch some short videos on government waste here, here, here, and here.

P.P.S. And some egregious additional example of waste can be perused here, here, and here.

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Let’s revisit the issue of urban unrest, with special attention to the challenges for both entrepreneurs and ordinary citizens.

While potential police misconduct may serve as a trigger for riots, the powder keg is already in place because of decades of bad government policy.

Jay Steinmetz, who runs a supply-chain management company in Baltimore, provides a real-world perspective on what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in a city run by kleptocrats. Here are some excerpts from his Wall Street Journal column.

When the building alarm goes off, the police charge us a fee. If the graffiti isn’t removed in a certain amount of time, we are fined. This penalize-first approach is of a piece with Baltimore’s legendary tax and regulatory burden.  …Maryland still lags most states in its appeal to companies, according to well-documented business-climate comparisons put out by think tanks, financial-services firms, site-selection consultants and financial media. Baltimore fares even worse than other Maryland jurisdictions, having the highest individual income and property taxes at 3.2% and $2.25 for every $100 of assessed property value, respectively.

Here’s what it means, in terms of lost revenue, to Mr. Steinmetz’s company.

The bottom line is that our modest 14,000-square-foot building is hit with $50,000 in annual property taxes. And when we refinanced our building loan in 2006, Maryland and Baltimore real-estate taxes drove up the cost of this routine financial transaction by $36,000. State and city regulations overlap in a number of areas, most notably employment and hiring practices, where litigious employees can game the system and easily find an attorney to represent them in court. Building-permit requirements, sales-tax collection procedures for our multistate clients, workers’ compensation and unemployment trust-fund hearings add to the expensive distractions that impede hiring.

So it’s no surprise to learn that the geese with the golden eggs (as well as the silver and bronze eggs) are flying away.

Our employees reduce their tax burden and receive better public services in the suburbs.  …The financial problem Baltimore does face is a declining tax base, the most pronounced in the state. According to the Internal Revenue Service, $125 million in taxable annual income in Baltimore vanished between 2009 and 2010.

I’m not sure why Mr. Steinmetz hasn’t left as well. I guess it’s both admirable and foolish for him to persevere is such a hostile environment.

Thomas Sowell, in an article published by National Review, demolishes the argument that criminal behavior can be blamed on racism or poverty.

He starts by drawing attention to the 1960s as a key turning point.

The “legacy of slavery” argument is not just an excuse for inexcusable behavior in the ghettos. …Anyone who is serious about evidence need only compare black communities as they evolved in the first 100 years after slavery with black communities as they evolved in the first 50 years after the explosive growth of the welfare state, beginning in the 1960s.

Prof. Sowell then makes the obvious point that blacks faced much harsher conditions before the 1960s, yet crime was much lower.

And the black family was much more stable before the so-called war on poverty in the 1960s.

We are told that such riots are a result of black poverty and white racism. But in fact — for those who still have some respect for facts — black poverty was far worse, and white racism was far worse, prior to 1960. But violent crime within black ghettos was far less. Murder rates among black males were going down — repeat, down — during the much-lamented 1950s, while it went up after the much celebrated 1960s, reaching levels more than double what they had been before. Most black children were raised in two-parent families prior to the 1960s. But today the great majority of black children are raised in one-parent families.

Sowell’s point is that the welfare state created incentives for dysfunctional behavior.

And he stresses that this isn’t a racial issue.

Such trends are not unique to blacks, nor even to the United States. The welfare state has led to remarkably similar trends among the white underclass in England over the same period. …You cannot take any people, of any color, and exempt them from the requirements of civilization — including work, behavioral standards, personal responsibility, and all the other basic things that the clever intelligentsia disdain — without ruinous consequences to them and to society at large. Non-judgmental subsidies of counterproductive lifestyles are treating people as if they were livestock.

I particularly appreciate his point about the importance of social capital, what he calls the requirements of civilization.

But this doesn’t mean black citizens don’t have some legitimate grievances. Radley Balko of the Washington Post explains that African-Americans are getting abused by greedy governments, just like Mr. Steinmetz.

He starts his article by sharing some good news on falling crime rates and big reductions in police deaths. But for our purposes today, the most powerful and relevant part of his story deals with one citizen’s interaction with government.

Antonio Morgan [is] a 29-year-old resident of Hazelwood, Missouri. He owns his own small business, a car repair and body shop he’d been saving up to buy since he was a teenager. He has also been arrested more than 20 times. All but two of those arrests were for misdemeanors. Morgan saved up for his business by fixing cars in his mother’s driveway. That required him to occasionally park cars on the street. That earned him parking tickets. He paid them when he could, but he occasionally missed deadlines. And that would lead to an arrest warrant. All of this also put Morgan on the radar of local police.

As you continue reading, keep in mind he was “on the radar” even though he did nothing to infringe on the life, liberty, and property of other citizens.

His unpaid parking tickets led not just to arrest warrants, but to the occasional suspension of his license. That led to more citations, although like many in the area, Morgan was sometimes pulled over and issued only a ticket for driving on a suspended license, or driving a car that wasn’t registered to him. (Morgan sometimes drove his clients’ cars to test them.) But there was no underlying traffic violation — which raises the question of why the officer pulled Morgan over in the first place, if it wasn’t to profile him. Those citations then led to more arrests.

It certainly seems as if St. Louis County in Missouri has been treating Mr. Morgan as a revenue-generating milk cow, much as Baltimore has been squeezing Mr. Steinmetz.

Different approach, but same result.

Cops would show up at his garage and cite his employees for operating without a business license. Morgan has a license; his employees didn’t need one. But to get the citations dismissed, Morgan and his employees would have to go to court, which was held once a month, at night. If they missed their court date, they too would be hit with an arrest warrant. Wealthy people can hire an attorney to go in their stead, and to negotiate their way out of a citation. But neither Morgan nor his employees were wealthy.

Some of you may be wondering about the two ostensibly more serious arrests on his record.

Radley’s column discusses both, and it certainly looks like Mr. Morgan has been mistreated by the justice system.

Here’s the first arrest. And remember it only occurred because he had to be in court to deal with ridiculous fines and petty harassment.

As Morgan walked toward the courthouse a police officer asked him the kids in the truck were his. He replied that they were. The officer asked him why he had left them alone. Morgan replied that he hadn’t, and that the woman parked next to him had agreed to watch them. ..Morgan pleaded with the police officer to flag down his friends, who he said would vouch for him. He says the officer then threatened to Taser him. Morgan put up his hands. The officer then arrested him for child endangerment. …The incident still upsets Morgan — not even the arrest so much as that his children had to see it. “I’m a good father,” he says. “I own my own business. I provide for my kids. Do you know what it’s like for your own children to see you get arrested? For a cop to say, right in front of them, that he’s arresting you because you’re a bad parent?”

I’m not someone who sees racism under every bed and behind every tree, but you can’t help but wonder whether this incident would have even happened if he was a white guy in a business suit.

The second arrest is equally dubious.

…the officer confronted Morgan because he was “trespassing” on a neighbor’s lawn. Morgan responded that he wasn’t trespassing, because the neighbors didn’t mind. Morgan says the cop moved to arrest him, and he lost his cool. He claims he never struck the police officer, but he does admit that he screamed at him. Once he did, he was hit with a Taser and arrested for assaulting a police officer. That charge was later dropped. (The neighbors back Morgan’s account of the entire incident, including his assertion that he never touched the cop.)

It’s always a smart idea to act servile and obsequious when dealing with cops, so Mr. Morgan obviously didn’t play his cards right.

But imagine if you had been endlessly harassed. Wouldn’t you be angry? Radley sure would have been.

I was stunned. But not because Morgan lost his cool with the cop. I was stunned that it had taken him so long to do so. And that even then, he’d manage to restrain himself from physical violence. I’m not sure I’d have been able to say the same.

Here’s the bottom line. Or, to be more accurate, two bottom lines.

First, we should sympathize with Mr. Morgan just as we should sympathize with Mr. Steinmetz. Actually, we should sympathize more with Morgan.

Morgan is no one’s definition of a “thug.” He’s a guy who breaks his back to keep up the business that supports his family, despite obstacles that, frankly, most white business owners don’t have to endure. For all he’s been through, he is remarkably composed. He deals with the daily harassment in a remarkably manner-of-fact way. …Morgan isn’t a drug pusher. He isn’t an absentee father. He isn’t in a gang. He’s a guy trying to do right by his family.

Second, we should recognize that one “root cause” of the problem is greedy government.

The primary source of revenue for the local towns is sales tax. But the poorer (which means blacker) towns don’t generate enough income from sales taxes. So they turn to municipal fines to keep themselves from going under. The poorer the town and its residents, the more likely the town relies on fines for a greater percentage of its annual revenue. Which means that the blacker the town, the more likely its residents are getting treated like ATMs for the local government.

None of this justifies rioting. And I have to imagine that Mr. Morgan would be one of the good guys during any unrest (much like Stretch and his friends in Ferguson).

But stories like this should make all of us appreciate how some communities may have a very sour impression of the police.

Let’s close with some economic analysis of riots (hey, I’m a policy wonk, so bear with me).

Here’s some of what Professor Edward Glaeser of Harvard wrote a few years ago for Bloomberg.

…public disturbances are a classic example of tipping-point phenomena, which occur when there is some positive feedback mechanism that makes an activity more attractive, or less costly, as more people do it. …There is a tipping point in rioting because the cost of participating — the risk of going to jail — gets lower as the number of people involved increases. …riots occur when the shear mass of rioters overwhelms law enforcement.

He then looks at the more challenging issue.

But how do these mass events get started? In some cases, …such as the 1965 Watts Riot, a peaceful crowd provides cover for initial lawlessness. Sporting events, such as Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Vancouver this year, can easily produce the crowds that allow a riot to start. Most strangely, riots can follow an event that creates a combination of anger and the shared perception that others will be rioting. The acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King case seems to have created these conditions in Los Angeles in 1992.

The left-wing excuse for rioting doesn’t seem to have much merit.

…across U.S. cities, there has never been much of a link between unrest and either inequality or poverty. In fact, the riots of the 1960s were actually slightly more common in cities that had more government spending.

But economic analysis gives us good clues, both about how to deter riots and who is most victimized when they occur.

Light penalties widely applied and serious penalties applied to a few can both deter unlawful behavior. This is a central conclusion of Gary Becker’s path-breaking economic analysis of crime and punishment. …Even when they are connected to understandable grievances, they do great harm, particularly to the poorest residents.

The moral of the story is that we should be tough on crime, but that doesn’t mean mistreating people like Antonio Morgan.

Instead, the legal system should focus on trying to deter bad behavior, which is when genuinely bad people infringe on the life, liberty, and property of others.

But how do we get politicians and bureaucrats to properly focus?

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