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Posts Tagged ‘Waste’

San Francisco used to be famous for cable cars.

Now it’s getting well known for its “poop patrol” and maps that warn people about the ubiquitous presence of human excrement.

Why are people defecating on city sidewalks? Because there’s a major problem with government-created homelessness thanks to rent control and zoning restrictions.

And homelessness gives us our topic for today because we have an astounding example of government waste.

More specifically, a story from the San Francisco Chronicle nicely summarizes the efficiency and competence of the public sector.

An experiment to put a homeless shelter in a San Francisco public school gym has so far been a costly failure, …costing taxpayers about $700 for each person who spends the night. …only five families have used the facility at 23rd and Valencia streets in the Mission, with an average occupancy of less than two people per night… The facility is completely empty several nights each month, Kositsky said, although shelter workers are on-site seven nights a week and through holidays, whether anyone shows up or not.

I’ve been to San Francisco many times. Hotels are not cheap.

But I’ve never had to pay anywhere close to $700 per night.

Though maybe this San Francisco program is a bargain since it costs the state $1.3 million per year to house a homeless person.

So why did the city create this boondoggle? For the same reason that many programs are created. Politicians and bureaucrats exaggerated about a problem.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen and the school’s administrators…advocated for the shelter, saying there were dozens of families facing homelessness at Buena Vista Horace Mann who needed someplace to sleep. The principal at the time, Richard Zapien, said he had identified 60 families in unstable housing.

But here’s a passage that captures the real story.

This program was created to funnel money to a non-profit group and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that officers of this group are supporters (campaign cash, get-out-the-vote, etc) of the politicians who created the program.

The city has been paying the nonprofit Dolores Street Community Services $40,000 per month to manage the shelter, and if it were to be successful, would spend up to $900,000 per year to serve up to 20 families at a time with all-night staffing, food and support services to help them find permanent housing.

In other words, we have another example of how government is a racket.

No matter how flawed and foolish a program may be, never forget that it’s putting unearned money in the pockets of some group of people. And that group of people know how to play the game, since they then recycle some of the loot back to the politicians.

Politicians don’t care if the money is wasted. They don’t care if there’s rampant fraud.

They’re simply buying votes. With our money.

P.S. There is a sure-fire way of reducing this kind of corrupt behavior, but don’t hold your breath expecting it to happen.

P.P.S. Though you may want to hold your breath if you visit the city.

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Every so often, I’ll see a story (or sometimes even just a photo, a court decision, or a phrase) that sums up the essence of government – a unseemly combination of venality and incompetence.

Today, we’re going to review three examples that make my point.

We’ll lead with a story that is a perfect case study of Washington.

It starts with Trump imposing tax increases on imports. That’s bad.

Then Trump says we have to subsidize sectors of the economy hurt by retaliatory tariffs. That’s one bad policy leading to another bad policy (hmmm…., there’s a name for that).

And that second bad policy leads to something else bad, at least according to the New York Daily News.

The Department of Agriculture cut a contract in January to purchase $22.3 million worth of pork from plants operated by JBS USA, a Colorado-based subsidiary of Brazil’s JBS SA, which ranks as the largest meatpacker in the world. …The bailout raised eyebrows from industry insiders at the time, as it was sourced from a $12 billion program meant for American farmers harmed by President Trump’s escalating trade war with China and other countries. …previously undisclosed purchase reports…reveal the administration has since issued at least two more bailouts to JBS, even as Trump’s own Justice Department began investigating the meatpacker, whose owners are Joesley and Wesley Batista — two wealthy brothers who have confessed to bribing hundreds of top officials in Brazil. Both brothers have spent time in jail over the sweeping corruption scandal. …Nonetheless, Trump’s Agriculture Department issued $14.5 million in bailout cash for pork products from JBS in February and another $25.6 million earlier this month, totaling more than $62.4 million, according to the purchase reports. …Including the JBS bailouts, the administration doled out $11 billion in relief payments to farmers hurt in the trade war last year.

Wow. I don’t know if this is better or worse than the Administration spending $13.6 million to hire two agents for the border patrol.

And I don’t know whether it’s better or worse than this next example of government foolishness.

A report published by Quartz estimates the amount of many Washington has wasted on abstinence programs.

Between 1982 and 2017, Congress spent over $2 billion on programs which teach teens that the best way to address their desire to have sex is to wait until they get married, according to a new study… Called abstinence only until marriage (AOUM), these programs accurately explain that the best way to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is to not have sex. …From 1995 to 2011–2013, the share of US adolescents who received instruction on abstinence but no instruction about birth control methods, increased from 8% to 28% of females and from 9% to 35% of males, according to the report. …Scientific evidence shows the approach doesn’t actually delay teens having sex, or engaging in risky sexual behaviors.

Just like the money spent to encourage marriage is a waste.

By the way, I’m also sure that the money spent on regular sex education and birth control education hasn’t worked, either.

Indeed, I wonder if such spending actually makes things worse (such as the Indiana driver education program that turned kids into worse drivers).

For our third example, here’s some of what the New York Times wrote about refrigerators on Air Force One.

…two of the refrigerators on the president’s plane need to be upgraded, and these specially designed “chillers” aren’t cheap. The Boeing Company was awarded a nearly $24 million contract in December to engineer the refrigerators for Air Force One, the Defense Department said. …Perhaps in anticipation of taxpayer sticker shock, the Air Force also said “the engineering required to design, manufacture, conduct environmental testing and obtain Federal Aviation Administration certification” were all included in the cost. …Air Force One must be able to feed passengers and crew for weeks without resupplying, according to the news website Defense One. …Two galleys can provide up to 100 meals at one sitting, according to the Air Force.

This story presumably involves two common features of government contracting.

First, pay too much for what is ordered (and this doesn’t even count the seemingly inevitable cost overruns).

Second, ask for something excessive in the first place. What’s the point, for instance, of storing several weeks of food when the longest-possible trips are maybe 20 hours? Yes, I watched Independence Day and I realize that Air Force One may become the mobile White House in an emergency, but wouldn’t MREs be acceptable for our pampered politicians and senior staff if there was a real crisis?

I’ll conclude by observing that these three stories reminded me of this satirical version of The Candyman.

P.S. There’s also an Obamaman version of Candyman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is outrageous on several levels.

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

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

Nobody at the CBP will get fired.

Nobody at the CBP will be demoted.

Nobody at the CBP will lose a bonus.

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

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

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

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

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

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One of the great insights of “public choice” is that politicians engage in self-serving behavior just like everyone else.

But there’s a profound difference between them and us. In the private economy, we can only make ourselves better off by providing value to others. In government, by contrast, politicians oftentimes make themselves better off by providing unearned benefits to various interest groups.

This elementary insight is a good starting point for those who want to understand how Washington (mal)functions.

And these behavioral insights don’t change when you cross national borders, which is why I periodically share examples of bizarre boondoggles as part of my series on “Great Moments in Foreign Government”. Here are some examples of prior editions.

Today, we have a special version of this series from the British Isles.

We’ll start with a story, from the U.K.-based Sunday Times, about a voluntary tax scheme in a rich part of London.

Westminster city council said it would be writing to 15,000 of its wealthiest homeowners asking them to make a voluntary donation on top of their council tax. The initiative comes amid warnings that a crisis in local government funding is likely to drive five councils into insolvency within the next 12 months, with 10 running out of money within two years. …The begging letters scheme, dubbed the “Westminster community contribution”, will see letters sent to all 15,000 band H properties, worth about £1m and above. Nickie Aiken, leader of Westminster council, said she had decided to tap the wealthy for donations because “they have asked me, ‘Why can’t we pay more council tax?’ We are giving people the option. It is an opportunity to invest in their neighbourhood.” …A total of 904 people replied.

My immediate reaction is that there are 904 nitwits in Westminster.

But, to be fair, it doesn’t say they responded by sending extra money to the local council. Maybe they scrawled obscenities on the notice and returned it, which would have been my preferred response.

But I’m guessing many of them did cough up some cash, which makes them more foolish than the taxpayers of Norway. And even more foolish than hypocritical leftists in the United States.

It’s also frustrating that there’s no data in the story on why local councils are feeling a budget pinch. I’m guessing that they’re in trouble because spending has climbed much faster than inflation (similar to what happened where I live in Fairfax County, Virginia). So why reward that overspending with additional payments?

Now let’s head across the Irish Sea.

The Irish Times has a story about how a program that supposedly was designed to help homeless people actually is lining the pockets of well-to-do property owners.

The Government’s homeless family hub solution is not only a short-term fix for a long-term crisis, it’s a shocking deal for taxpayers that benefits private operators. …doesn’t “hub” have a cosy ring to it? There will be a total of 18 family accommodation hubs in Dublin, nine of which include hotels and B&Bs already in use being “adapted”. …Let’s take the former Mater Dei site as a prime example. Dublin City Council (DCC) earmarked €4.5 million to refurbish the former college complex to house 50 families… Sources say the project is likely to substantially overrun due to “many extras”… The problem is, after ploughing millions into a magnificent revamp, the council must hand the property back to the archdiocese in less than three years. …This is mirrored in every one of the family hubs, the longest lease being just five years. It starts to look like an incredible deal for the private owners. They get back a terrifically refurbished, furnished and equipped building, paid for by taxpayers, that can be rented out for profit. Everything goes back to the owner… On top of the deal of a lifetime, DCC is paying rent on the site, a figure it described as “nominal” but not nominal enough to make public.

Cronies getting rich(er) thanks to programs that supposedly were designed to help the poor? As Inspector Renault said in Casablanca, “I’m shocked, shocked”!

Probably as shocked as he was to learn that Obamacare cost estimates were wrong and that childcare subsidies led to higher costs in the U.K.

Sadly, insiders always figure out how to line their pockets as government gets bigger. It’s a feature, not a bug.

Last but not least, let’s travel to Scotland.

In the U.K.-based Times, we learn that the government is so incompetent that it has a hard time ripping off European taxpayers for farm subsidies.

Scottish ministers have appealed to Europe for help in heading off a looming crisis in farm subsidy payments for the second year running. Discussions have taken place with the European Commission to set up “contingency plans” in case Scottish farmers once again missed out on their payouts. An extension to the end-of-the-month deadline for processing payments is vital if the Scottish government is to avoid being hit with millions of pounds in fines. …The first minister is likely to be asked what her government is doing to make sure farmers get their payments on time. Scottish ministers came in for extensive criticism last year after an IT failure delayed European agriculture subsidy payments to thousands of farmers.

What makes this story extra depressing is that the supposed Conservative opposition doesn’t question the wisdom of handouts.

…the Scottish government had asked for a deadline extension earlier this week, prompting anger from opposition politicians. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader,…added: “It’s a disgrace that so many farmers are still waiting for payments, and it looks like, for the second year running, the SNP is going to have to go cap-in-hand to Europe and ask for special treatment.”

And it goes without saying that the welfare recipients…oops, I mean farmers…are anxious to know when their handouts will arrive.

Scott Walker, the chief executive of the National Farmers’ Union in Scotland, said: “Everyone who is due a payment simply wants to know when it will arrive and that is a reasonable demand.”

Sigh.

One of the reasons I was sympathetic to Scottish independence is that the entitlement mindset in the country may have been disrupted if they lost subsidies from the central government in London. Redistribution isn’t as fun when you’re taking money from your own pockets.

However, that wouldn’t have put an end to handouts from the statists in Brussels, assuming that Scotland would have been part of the European Union. So I’ll never be without things to write about. That’s good for me, bad for Europe.

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Donald Trump’s Budget Blueprint doesn’t thrill me, largely because it’s silent on the very important issues of tax reform and entitlement reform.

All that he’s proposing is to rearrange the allocation of annually appropriated spending (the so-called discretionary outlays).

Here’s a chart from a summary prepared by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. As you can see, the federal Leviathan does not shrink in size.

It’s possible, of course, to applaud this shift from domestic discretionary to defense discretionary. Or to criticize the reallocation. But nobody can pretend the net result is smaller government.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that we should accept all the domestic reductions but not boost the defense budget (the U.S. already has a very large military budget compared to potential adversaries).

And speaking of domestic reductions, the main focus of today’s column is to highlight one of my favorite program terminations in Trump’s plan (yesterday’s example was the National Endowment for the Arts). The President has proposed to eliminate all taxpayer handouts for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is the entity that subsidizes National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

This is music to my ears. As I wrote more than six years ago,

Even if we had a giant budget surplus, federal subsidies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would be misguided and improper. In an environment where excessive federal spending is strangling growth and threatening the nation’s solvency, the argument to defund PBS and NPR is even stronger…the fact that PBS and NPR have a statist bias is another argument for getting rid of taxpayer subsidies, but that’s barely a blip on my radar screen. It wouldn’t matter if government TV and radio was genuinely fair and balanced. Taxpayers should not subsidize broadcasting of any kind, period.

This should be a slam-dunk issue for congressional Republicans. Even milquetoast GOPers like Mitt Romney have said it’s time for NPR and PBS to be self-supporting.

But the best analysis, as usual, comes from the Cato Institute. Here are some excerpts from a study written by my colleague Trevor Burrus.

Assailed from all sides with allegations of bias, charges of political influence, and threats to defund their operations, public broadcasters have responded with everything from outright denial to personnel changes, but never have they squarely faced the fundamental problem: government-funded media companies are inherently problematic and impossible to reconcile with either the First Amendment or a government of constitutionally limited powers. The Constitution does not give Congress the power to create media companies, and we should heed the Founders’ wisdom on this matter. …before the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was created, nonprofit, noncommercial media stations enjoyed a vibrant existence, remaining free to criticize current policies and exhibit whatever bias they wished. Yet today…, public broadcasting suffers the main downside of public funding—political influence and control—yet enjoys little of the upside—a significant taxpayer contribution that would relieve it of the need to seek corporate underwriting and listener donations. But the limited taxpayer funding also shows that defunding can be relatively painless. Public broadcasting not only can survive on its own, it can thrive—and be free.

And Cato’s David Boaz adds another important point, which is that government-subsidized broadcasting is another odious example (Export-Import Bank, agriculture subsidies, TARP bailout, etc) of how government coercion is used to provide goodies to upper-income people at the expense of those with more modest levels of income.

Public broadcasting subsidizes the rich. A PBS survey shows that its viewers are 44 percent more likely than the average American to make more than $150,000 a year, 57 percent more likely to own a vacation home, and 177 percent more likely to have investments worth more than $150,000. Why should middle-class taxpayers be subsidizing the news and entertainment of the rich?

By the way, these numbers are more than 10 years old, so more recent data surely would show that an ever greater share of fans are part of an economic elite that easily can afford to privately finance PBS programming.

By the way, there already has been some self-privatization, as John Stossel reports in his Reason column

New York ran a photo of Big Bird, or rather a protester dressed as Big Bird, wearing a sign saying “Keep your mitts off me!” What New York doesn’t say is that the picture is three years old, and Big Bird’s employer, “Sesame Street,” no longer gets government funds. We confronted the article writer, Eric Levitz. He said, “Big Bird has long functioned as a symbol of public broadcasting … Still, considering Sesame Street‘s switch to HBO, I concede that some could have been misled.” You bet. Big Bird doesn’t need government help. Sesame Street is so rich that it paid one of its performers more than $800,000.

Last but not least, here’s a video from Reason that looks at how government-run broadcasting is driven by the interests of the stations rather than consumers.

P.S. Big Bird apparently wasn’t a big fan of Barack Obama, at least according to this bit of satire.

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Having lived in the Washington area for more than three decades, I have many friends who work for the federal government. Most of them will privately admit that they are very lucky since federal salaries and benefits are considerably higher than what they could earn in the private sector. And they’ll also admit that there’s lots of featherbedding, inefficiency, and waste where they work.

While I like my buddies, I don’t think it’s fair that taxpayers around the nation (particularly those with modest incomes) are sending so much money to Washington to subsidize overly generous compensation packages for a bloated federal bureaucracy.

So I’m pleased that President Trump announced a hiring freeze yesterday.

President Trump on Monday ordered an across-the-board employment freeze for the federal government, halting hiring for all new and existing positions except those in national security, public safety and the military. In the two-page order, Mr. Trump said the directive was a stopgap way to control the growth of government until his budget director recommends a long-term plan to significantly reduce the federal work force through attrition.

But keep in mind this is just a tiny step in the right direction.

First, it only addresses part of the problem.

For instance, most bureaucrats are at the state and local level, often carrying out mandates, regulations, and spending of the federal government.

The Wall Street Journal put together a good summary of the situation back in 2014.

When you include state and local governments, it’s clear where the public civilian workforce has been growing in recent decades. Local governments, in particular, have boomed from 4 million employees in the 1950s to over 14 million today. In the mid-1950s, state governments employed half as many people as the federal government. Today, state governments employ nearly twice as many.

Here’s the accompanying chart.

Moreover, federal employment numbers don’t include the gigantic “shadow bureaucracy” of government contractors.

And exactly how many people are technically private employees but actually get their pay from federal taxpayers? Well, because the federal government is so big and bloated, we don’t have an exact number.

Indeed, as reported by Government Executive, there’s not even an official inexact number.

How many contractor employees does the federal government rely on, at what cost per person, and how does that compare with the cost of assigning the same task to a full-time hire? When asked by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., ranking member of the House Budget Committee, the Congressional Budget Office took a shot but left the $64,000 question unresolved. “Regrettably, CBO is unaware of any comprehensive information about the size of the federal government’s contracted workforce,” the nonpartisan analysts wrote in response. “However, using a database of federal contracts, CBO determined that federal agencies spent over $500 billion for contracted products and services in 2012.”

But we do know that it’s a very big number. An outside expert crunched the data and concluded that there are 5-1/2 contractors for every federal bureaucrat.

Second, the real issue is that the federal government has accumulated far too much power and is involved in many areas that either belong in the private sector (Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy, Department of Housing and Urban Development, etc) or should be handled by state and local governments (Department of Transportation, Department of Education, etc).

In other words, as I explain at the end of this video, the correct pay for many federal bureaucrats is zero, for the simple reason that their jobs shouldn’t exist.

This is why I explained a few days ago that the real goal for the Trump Administration should be program terminations. The new hiring freeze is good, to be sure, but it’s largely a symbolic gesture.

And that’s not going to solve our very big problem.

P.S. Though the problem is even bigger in Europe.

P.P.S. A study from the European Central Bank found that excessive pay for bureaucrats undermines entire economies by breaking the link between compensation and productivity.

P.P.P.S. If you want to some bureaucrat-themed humor to make all this bad news more palatable, these posters and this video are the place to start. And if you want more, here’s a joke about an Indian training for a government job, a slide show on how bureaucracies operate, a cartoon strip on bureaucratic incentives, a story on what would happen if Noah tried today to build an Ark, and a top-10 list of ways to tell if you work for the government. I also found a good one-liner from Craig Ferguson, along with some political cartoons from Michael Ramirez, Henry Payne, and Sean Delonas.

P.P.P.P.S. I laughed when I read about this, but it’s more gross than funny.

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President-Elect Trump has picked Ben Carson as his Secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which immediately produced two thoughts.

First, since he had the best tax plan of all the 2016 candidates, too bad he wasn’t named Secretary of Treasury.

Second, I hope his job at HUD is to shut down the department, raze the building, and get the federal government out of the housing business.

Then I realized I was thinking too narrowly. Shouldn’t all Trump appointees start with the assumption that their department, agency, or program is an unconstitutional waste of money? I’ve already written columns explaining why some cabinet-level bureaucracies should be abolished.

Now let’s expand this list by taking  a look at the Department of Energy.

And our job will be easy since William O’Keefe has a very persuasive column for E21. Let’s look at some of the highlights, starting with the observation that the bureaucracy was created based on the assumption that the world was running out of energy and that somehow politicians and bureaucrats could fix that supposed problem.

The Department of Energy (DOE) traces its roots to the energy crisis of 1973, which was made worse by misguided government policy.  …there was, at the time, a firm belief that the world was going to run out of oil by the end of the century. Not only does the world have plenty of oil, but the United States is now a net exporter of natural gas–and would be exporting more if DOE was faster with its approvals. …Prior to DOE, the federal government played a very limited role in energy policy and development.  Presumed scarcity, excessive dependence on OPEC nations, distrust in markets, and the search for energy independence became the foundation for what is now a $32.5 billion bureaucracy in search for relevance.

In other words, the ostensible problem that led to the creation of the department was preposterously misdiagnosed.

The market produced lots of energy once the shackles of government intervention (including those from the Energy Department) were sufficiently loosened.

So what, then, does the department do?

What DOE has done is squander money on the search for alternative energy sources. In the process, it enabled Bootlegger and Baptist schemes that enriched crony capitalists who are all too willing to support the flawed notion that government can pick winners and losers.  For 2017, a large chunk of DOE spending–$12.6 billion, or 39 percent—is earmarked to “support the President’s strategy to combat climate change.” This is not a justifiable use of taxpayer dollars. Over 36 years, DOE’s mission has morphed from energy security to industrial policy, disguised as advanced energy research and innovation.  There is a long and failed history of industrial policy by the federal government.

Here’s the bottom line.

DOE has become the Department of Pork. …Energy firms do not need government subsidies to innovate and develop new technologies.  Horizontal drilling and fracking came from the private sector because the incentives to develop shale oil and gas were stronger than the illusions driving alternative energy sources. …Abolishing DOE would punish only the crony capitalists who have become addicted to its support.

Amen.

By the way, Mr. O’Keefe’s argument is primarily based on the fact that DOE doesn’t produce value.

Since I’m a fiscal wonk, I’ll add another arrow to the quiver. We also should abolish the department so that we can save a lot of money.

My colleague Chris Edwards has an entire website filled with information about the uselessness of the department. You can – and should – spend hours perusing all of the information he has accumulated.

But here’s the part that jumped out to me. Over the years, the federal government has squandered hundreds of billions of dollars on a department that is most famous for wasteful Solyndra-style scams.

By the way, there are a small handful of activities at DOE that should be shifted to other departments (such as transferring nuclear weapons responsibilities to the Department of Defense).

But the vast majority of DOE activities never should have been created and produce zero value, so the sooner the bureaucracy is eliminated, the better.

P.S. We can have tons of evidence about the desirability of shutting down the Department of Energy, but it doesn’t matter if there aren’t politicians who think it is more important to protect taxpayers rather than to funnel money to cronyists and interest groups. We’ll have to wait and see whether Trump chooses wisely, though I’m not holding my breath. We certainly didn’t get any pro-taxpayer shift of policy the last time GOPers were in charge of the White House. And Trump’s commitment to the notion of smaller government doesn’t seem overly robust, though I very much hope I’m wrong.

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As a public finance economist, I normally focus on big-picture issues such as the economically debilitating effect of excessive government spending and punitive taxation.

But as a human being, what irks me most about big government is the way that insiders use the system to enrich themselves. I don’t like it when politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists, contractors, cronies, and other well-connected interest groups funnel money to themselves at the expense of ordinary people.

Especially when taxpayers pay twice. They have less take-home income because of higher tax burdens and over time their pre-tax income doesn’t grow as fast because a bloated public sector reduces growth.

In other words, a lose-lose situation for regular folks.

But it’s a win-win situation for insiders. Consider, for instance, this exposé in the Daily Caller about a bureaucrat who double-dipped by getting a big paycheck from Uncle Sam an interior designer while also getting outside contracts as – you guessed it – an interior designer.

A fashionista from Beverly Hills, Calif., collected millions in interior design contracts from federal agencies by claiming to be “disadvantaged,” while simultaneously working at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) sending work to design companies. Ronda C. Jackson was a no-show at her VA job, colleagues said. Records show she instead spent her time running a design company that got $7 million in contracts from the VA and other government agencies since 2008, reselling them marked-up goods like five-seat tables for $17,000.

Here are some of the sordid details.

Jackson worked as a full-time federal employee at the Los Angeles VA center in fiscal years 2010 and 2011, which ran from Oct. 1, 2009 to Sept. 30, 2011. Pay records show she worked as a GS-12 level interior designer and made $80,000 each year. Colleagues said they never saw Jackson in the office. …In fiscal years 2008 through 2010, the company had $222,000 in contracts with the VA, federal records show. …she was being paid as a full-time employee for almost a whole year while also working on a contract for the same agency and at the same hospital and for the same type of work. Her job as an employee was to buy furniture for the VA, and her job as a contractor included selling it.

Wow, sort of reminds me of the bureaucrat from the National Weather Service who created a contractor position for himself.

But Ms. Jackson took it to the next level, getting a paycheck and being a contractor at the same time. How did she get away with all this?

Well, her boss set a good example of how to waste money and bilk the system.

Robert Benkeser, a high-level manager in charge of facilities, was told that Jackson appeared to have a no-show employment arrangement, but did nothing. Benkeser is the same manager who was in charge of an official vehicle fleet from which 30 of 88 cars disappeared. He fired the employee who exposed the missing cars as well as the fact that government credit cards from the same unit appeared to have been used fraudulently. Benkeser received only “counseling” for the misconduct.

Gee, I wonder if he was one of the VA bureaucrats who got a big bonuses after the agency put veterans on secret waiting lists?

But what makes Ms. Jackson special is the way she doubly double-dipped.

That’s an odd way of describing something, but somehow appropriate because she got herself classified as “disadvantaged” so that she could get contracts without the usual competitive bidding process.

A 2009 contract, in which records from USASpending.gov classify the company as HUBZone while listing its Beverly Hills address, says she was paid $72,000 for outfitting the Federal Aviation Administration with “framed artwork for CMEL guest room and main building [and] conference rooms.” The company subsequently moved to Los Angeles. Jackson charged $70,000 for an unspecified “21 [inch] freestanding unit” and $17,000 for a five-person outdoor table. Ninety-eight percent of the nearly $7 million in contracting dollars awarded to Jackson’s company came without the government weighing her offer against those of other companies.

So instead of paying twice as much as something would cost in the private sector, which is typical for government, her no-bid scams probably resulted in taxpayers paying four times as much as necessary. So she was a bureaucrat, a contractor, and disadvantaged, which we can consider a form of triple-dipping.

As the old saying goes, nice “work” if you can get it.

There’s no question that Ms. Jackson has “earned” her way into the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame. Congratulations, Ronda!

By the way, the article raises a bigger issue.

Jackson’s case underscores questions about VA’s army of 167 full-time interior designers. Nearly every VA hospital in the country has one or more.

I can understand why it might be acceptable to have one interior designer (assuming the VA stays in the business of running hospitals, which obviously shouldn’t be the case), but why 167 of them?

Oh, it’s government and we need to remember what Milton Friedman said about “other people’s money.” Forget that I even asked such a silly question.

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Two months ago, I decided that the new President of the Philippines was the winner of the 2016 award for politician of the year.

It takes a remarkable amount of chutzpah, after all, to freely admit to having mistresses (yes, more than one). But the icing on the cake is that he then bragged that none of them are on the public payroll. I imagine Filipino taxpayers are very grateful that he self-finances his extracurricular activity.

This is all quite noteworthy, but I may have jumped the gun when giving President Duterte this award.

That’s because we now have another politician who has gone above and beyond the call of duty. This politician, you will see, has displayed a stunning degree of arrogance and elitism, acting as if the normal rules of decorum and prudence don’t apply.

No, I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton getting a free pass for endangering national security. Though that would be a good guess.

Instead, our new contestant for politician of the year is Monsieur Francois Hollande.

And the reason he has vaulted into contention is this amusing story (though presumably very aggravating story for French taxpayers) about the elitist and wasteful habits of France’s socialist leader.

French President François Hollande’s hairdresser earns a gross salary of €9,895 a month, according to a report in French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné, to be published Wednesday. …Over the course of the president’s mandate, which ends next year, the hairdresser will have received a gross salary of more than €590,000. The hairdresser regularly follows Hollande during his travels, according to Le Canard.

I realize I may be a bit old fashioned, and maybe my reactions are influenced by my minimalist approach to hair care (shower, comb with fingers, done), but why does a male politician need an on-staff hairdresser?!?

Especially when he doesn’t have that much hair to begin with!

By the way, it’s not 100 percent clear that taxpayer money is financing Hollande’s hairdresser, though I suspect that’s almost certainly the case. The article mentions that the hairdresser signed the contract with Hollande’s top staffer, which certainly makes it sound as if the French President isn’t spending his own money.

Though maybe the Socialist Party or some other entity is paying the bills, so I will leave open the possibility that Hollande is merely guilty of being a vain clown instead of being a vain clown who wastes taxpayer money.

What makes this story particularly interesting is that Hollande a few years ago publicly cut back on some of the lavish perks he and his cabinet were enjoying. But I guess that was all for show.

Though I’d actually consider it a bargain if politicians spent all their time preening in front of the mirror.

That would leave them less time to tax our earnings.

Or regulate our behavior.

And discourage our productivity.

Or corrupt our nation.

And they’d have less time to reward their donors at our expense!

Or to reward themselves.

Or to be disingenuous hypocrites.

But no need to belabor the point. Maybe now it’s easy to understand why I prefer “do-nothing” politicians.

Heck, I’d be willing to double their pay if they promised to stay home.

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I realize it’s presumptuous, but I periodically make grandiose claims that a single column will tell readers “everything” they need to know about a topic. I’ve used that tactic when writing about tax loopholes, entitlements, fiscal policy, bureaucracy (twice), tax evasion, France, Greece, corporate inversions, and economic policy.

Sometimes I even claim a single image, chart, or cartoon provides a reader with “everything” needed to understand an issue. Examples include the minimum wage, economic policy, the welfare state, supply-side economics, the tax code, Europe’s fiscal crisis, Social Security reform, demographics, overpaid bureaucrats, healthcare economics, inequality, fiscal policy, and the Ryan budget (twice).

Needless to say, I don’t actually think these columns give readers “everything” on a topic. But I do hope the information makes a compelling and informative point about an issue.

So it’s time to expand this tactic and present one sentence that tells readers “everything” they need to know about the failure of big government. And it’s not even the full sentence, just the bolded portion in this excerpt from a BuzzFeed story about how Belgium is trying to deal with terrorism.

One Belgian counterterrorism official told BuzzFeed News last week that due to the small size of the Belgian government and the huge numbers of open investigations…virtually every police detective and military intelligence officer in the country was focused on international jihadi investigations. …the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said. “It’s literally an impossible situation.”

When I read that sentence, my jaw dropped to the floor. Belgium has one of the biggest and most bloated governments in the world.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Go to the OECD’s collection of data and click on Table 25 and you’ll see that the public sector in Belgium consumes almost 54 percent of the nation’s economy. That’s bigger even than the size of government in Sweden and Italy.

So the notion that fighting terrorism is hampered by the “small size of the Belgian government” is utterly absurd.

The real problem is that politicians and bureaucrats have become so focused on redistributing money to various interest groups that there’s not enough attention given to fulfilling the few legitimate functions of government. Not just in Belgium, but all over the world. Here’s what I wrote on this issue back in 2012.

…today’s bloated welfare state interferes with and undermines the government’s ability to competently fulfill its legitimate responsibilities. Imagine, for instance, if we had the kind of limited federal government envisioned by the Founding Fathers and the “best and brightest” people in government – instead of being dispersed across a vast bureaucracy – were concentrated on protecting the national security of the American people. In that hypothetical world, I’m guessing something like the 9-11 attacks would be far less likely.

What I said about America back then is even more true about Belgium today. Big governments are clumsy and ineffective, and bigger governments are even more incompetent. There’s even scholarly research confirming that larger public sectors are associated with higher levels of inefficiency.

And the same point has been made by folks such as Mark Steyn and Robert Samuelson (though David Brooks inexplicably reaches the opposite conclusion).

The good news is that the American people have an instinctive understanding of the problem. When asked to describe the federal government, you’ll notice that “effective” and “efficient” are not the words people choose.

P.S. On a related note, I argued in a column from 2014 that the federal government should be much smaller so it could more effectively focus on genuine threats such as the Ebola virus.

P.S. It’s worth pointing out that Israel, which faces far greater security challenges than Belgium, manages to do a better job with a government that is not nearly as large.

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If you did a word-association test with people after describing jaw-dropping examples of government incompetence, you would probably get answers like “angry” or “wasteful.” Especially if you asked around April 15.

Though in some cases of spectacular and inexplicable ineptitude by government, you reach a stage where the answers might even be “preposterous” or “comical.”

Unfortunately, today we’re going to look at an example of bone-headed government behavior that can only be described as “deadly.”

That’s because the New York Times just revealed that there were very obvious red flags about one of the San Bernardino terrorists, yet federal bureaucrats apparently were too stupid, lazy, or incompetent to check sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband carried out the massacre in San Bernardino, Calif., passed three background checks by American immigration officials as she moved to the United States from Pakistan. None uncovered what Ms. Malik had made little effort to hide — that she talked openly on social media about her views on violent jihad. She said she supported it. And she said she wanted to be a part of it. …The discovery of the old social media posts has exposed a significant — and perhaps inevitable — shortcoming in how foreigners are screened when they enter the United States, particularly as people everywhere disclose more about themselves online. …In an era when technology has given intelligence agencies seemingly limitless ability to collect information on people, it may seem surprising that a Facebook or Twitter post could go unnoticed in a background screening.

But you’ll be happy to know that the Keystone Cops in the bureaucracy are now contemplating whether to even look at the barn door now that we know the horses keep escaping.

…a debate is underway at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that approves visas and green cards, over whether officers conducting interviews should be allowed to routinely use material gathered from social media for interviews where they assess whether foreigners are credible or pose any security risk.

What makes this story so aggravating is that national security is one of the few legitimate functions of the federal government.

Yet we get glaring examples of failure, perhaps because Washington has become so bloated that sensible management is increasingly difficult.

For another example of government incompetence in the area of national security, let’s go to the Middle East, where ABC News reported that a program to train supposedly moderate fighters in Syria achieved remarkable levels of inefficiency.

…only “four or five” of the first 54 U.S.trained moderate Syrian fighters remain in the fight against ISIS. …there are currently between 100 and 120 fighters in a program that was slated to have trained 5,400 fighters in its first 12 months. …So far, $42 million has been spent to develop the $500 million program which began training in April.

Wow. If my math is right, that’s about $10 million per fighter. I’m tempted to joke about getting fighters for a lot cheaper by placing an advertisement in Solider of Fortune.

But a more serious point is that  the fact that the program surely has been a huge success for the bureaucrats and contractors. After all, they got lots of taxpayer money, so who cares about actual results.

But the more serious point is why the US is involved in Syria in the first place? Writing for Reason, Steve Chapman argues for nonintervention and even makes the point that the U.S. should instead welcome Russia’s involvement.

Vladimir Putin…has sent Russian planes to bomb rebels in Syria. …he reaffirmed his commitment to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. …Republicans regard this as a calamity. But what’s the downside? There are two main ways this gambit could go. …The first possibility is that he will inflict significant damage on Islamic State. In that case, one of our most vicious enemies would be weakened—at little cost or risk to Americans. The only thing better than defeating Islamic State is getting someone to do it for us. …The second possibility is that Putin will fail… He could find himself in a costly, bloody war. Or he might decide the prize is not worth the effort and pull back, which would dash his dreams of regional power and discredit him at home. Either way, he’s worse off, and we’re not.

Now let’s shift to a story that goes beyond routine government incompetence and deserves a special category.

Because when you read about military bureaucrats turning a blind eye to child rape in Afghanistan, words like “evil” and “soulless” are far more appropriate.

Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population. The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene — in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records. …soldiers and Marines have been increasingly troubled that instead of weeding out pedophiles, the American military was arming them in some cases and placing them as the commanders of villages.

Unsurprisingly, as reported by the Washington Examiner, the Obama Administration is leading from behind.

The White House dodged questions…about allegations that U.S. military officials are ordering U.S. soldiers to ignore child abuse in Afghanistan committed by Afghan militia, military and police, and instead indicated that those orders reflect Defense Department policy.

Not exactly a proud moment for the United States.

To be sure, you have to make compromises with right and wrong during wartime. Heck, we were allies in World War II with one of the world’s most murderous and sinister regimes.

But surely we can disallow child rape on American military bases!

Let’s return to a more mundane example of bad policy, one that shows the U.S. government can waste money overseas just as effectively as it wastes money at home.

U.S. taxpayers footed the bill for a $43 million natural-gas filling station in Afghanistan, a boondoggle that should have cost $500,000 and has virtually no value to average Afghans… A Pentagon task force awarded a $3 million contract to build the station in Sheberghan, Afghanistan, but ended up spending $12 million in construction costs and $30 million in “overhead” between 2011 and 2014.

Wow. Reminds me of being in a meeting last decade and a representative of the Bush Administration was arguing that its nation-building exercise (I forget whether it was Iraq or Afghanistan) was going well because we had successfully built so many schools and sewer systems.

I was being a curmudgeonly libertarian and made myself unpopular by pointing out that I didn’t think it was the responsibility of the federal government to fund those projects in the United States, much less overseas.

Let’s end where we started, with an example of government incompetence that could have deadly consequences.

Hillary Clinton’s “reset” with Russia was a miserable failure and the United States increasingly is worried about Putin’s adventurism. Yet the federal government didn’t exercise sufficient oversight to make sure that citizens of a potential enemy didn’t get to work on classified computer code.

The Pentagon was tipped off in 2011 by a longtime Army contractor that Russian computer programmers were helping to write computer software for sensitive U.S. military communications systems…the software they wrote had made it possible for the Pentagon’s communications systems to be infected with viruses. …the work had been done in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia.

Doesn’t exactly leave one with a great feeling of confidence.

So there are two lessons from today.

First, politicians and bureaucrats and wasteful and incompetent, and that applies even in areas where there is a legitimate role for government.

Second, we’ll have a better chance of getting sensible and competent decisions if government is a lot smaller. After all, it will be a lot easier to have oversight when government is doing 100 things instead of 10,000 things.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2014.

There are some legitimate functions of government and I want those to be handled efficiently. But I worry that effective government is increasingly unlikely because politicians are so busy intervening in areas that should be left to families, civil society, and the private sector.

Mark Steyn made the same point in a much more amusing fashion.

Which is why these cartoons are such a good depiction of government.

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Government intervention has messed up the healthcare sector, leading to needlessly high prices and massive inefficiency.

Fixing the mess won’t be easy since it would involve addressing several contributing problems, including Medicare, Medicaid, the healthcare exclusion in the tax code, Obamacare, and the mess at the Veterans Administration.

But at least we know the right solutions. We need entitlement reform and tax reform in order to restore a genuine free market and solve the government-created third-party payer crisis.

And to bolster the case for reform, we’re going to look at three new examples of how government intervention makes the healthcare system worse rather than better.

For our first example, let’s look at a new report from the National Center for Policy Analysis, which compares what happens when the federal government decides to build a hospital with a similar project constructed by a local government with private-sector involvement.

We’ll start with a look at Veterans Administration project.

…the VA hospital in Denver, Colorado, was run-down, crowded and outdated. …the VA considered renovating the medical facilities of the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center at a cost of $30 million. Then, the University of Colorado Hospital offered to open jointly-operated facilities for $200 million. VA officials passed on both ideas due to cost concerns. Instead, officials sought and received approval for a stand-alone facility.

That decision was very costly for taxpayers.

The VA failed to produce a design that could be built for its budget of $604 million, ultimately causing a budget-busting $1 billion overrun. …Soon, the plan to build an affordable replacement morphed into the most extravagant and expensive hospital construction project in VA history.

And, as is typical of government projects, the cost to taxpayers was far higher than initial estimates used to justify the project.

Now let’s look at another project, this one in Dallas, Texas.

…the original Parkland Hospital was built in Dallas to serve the young city’s indigent population. …its aging facilities could no longer meet the demand of 1 million patients admitted each year. …The project to rebuild Parkland, split roughly 60/40 in revenue sources, was accountable to both the public and its private donors. …Project managers hired an independent auditor to monitor all project transactions. Budget progress reports were made available to both Parkland’s Board and the public.

The final outcome was far from perfect (after all, local governments are also quite capable of wasting money). But the involvement of the private sector, combined with the fact that the local government was spending its own money, created incentives for a much better outcome.

On the first day of construction, Parkland’s project team was $100 million over budget. But a flexible design, and a willingness to balance needs and wants, allowed the team to deliver a larger, more cost-effective hospital than originally conceived for a mere 6 percent increase in budget.

And here’s a chart from the NCPA report that perfectly captures the difference between the federal government and a project involving a local government and the private sector.

Can you think of a better argument for local private-public partnerships over the federal government?

Yet policy keeps moving in the wrong direction in Washington.

The Obamacare boondoggle was all about increasing the federal government’s control and intervention in the healthcare sector.

And this brings us to our second not-so-great example of government-run healthcare.

The New York Times has a story with a real-world example showing how the President’s failed legislation is hurting small businesses.

LaRonda Hunter…envisioned…a small regional collection of salons. As her sales grew, so did her business, which now encompasses four locations — but her plans for a fifth salon are frozen, perhaps permanently.

And why can’t she expand her business and create jobs?

Because Obamacare makes it impossible.

Starting in January, the Affordable Care Act requires businesses with 50 or more full-time-equivalent employees to offer workers health insurance or face penalties that can exceed $2,000 per employee. Ms. Hunter, who has 45 employees, is determined not to cross that threshold. Paying for health insurance would wipe out her company’s profit and the five-figure salary she pays herself from it, she said.

And Ms. Hunter is just the tip of the iceberg.

For some business owners on the edge of the cutoff, the mandate is forcing them to weigh very carefully the price of growing bigger. “There’s kind of a deer-in-headlights moment for those who say, ‘I have this new potential client, but if I bring them on, I have to hire five additional people,’” said Philip P. Noftsinger, the payroll unit president at CBIZ, a financial services provider for businesses. “They’re really trying to assess how much the 50th employee is going to cost. …Added to that cost are the administrative requirements. Starting this year, all companies with 50 or more full-time workers — even those not yet required to offer health benefits — must file new tax forms with the Internal Revenue Service that provide details on employee head count and any health insurance offered. Gathering the data requires meticulous record-keeping. “These are some of the most complex informational returns we’ve ever seen,” said Roger Prince, a tax lawyer.

Here’s another real-world example.

The expense and distraction of all that paperwork is one of the biggest frustrations for one business owner, Joseph P. Sergio. …He is reluctant to go over the 50-employee line and incur all of the new rules that come with it. That makes bidding for new jobs an arduous and risky exercise. …”If you ramp up, and it pushes you over 50, there’s all these unknown costs and complicated rules. Are we really going to be able to benefit from going after that opportunity? It freezes you at a time when you need to be moving fast.”

And don’t forget that while Obamacare discourages entrepreneurs from creating jobs, it also discourages people from seeking jobs.

That’s the kind of two-for-one special that’s only possible with big government!

Now that we’ve cited examples of bad policy from the Veterans Administration and Obamacare, let’s turn to Medicare for our third example.

Veronique de Rugy of the Mercatus Center writes about rampant Medicare fraud in her syndicated column.

Medicare is rife with fraud, and every year, billions of dollars are improperly paid out by the federal government’s giant health care bureaucracy. According to the government’s latest estimates, Medicare fee-for-service (parts A and B) made $46 billion in improper payments last year. And Medicare Advantage (Part C) and Medicare Prescription Drug Coverage (Part D) combined for another $15 billion in improper payments. Even more disturbing is the possibility that these numbers underestimate the annual losses to taxpayers from fraud and bureaucratic bungling. According to the work of Harvard University’s Malcolm Sparrow, fraud could account for as much as 20 percent of total federal health care spending, which would be considerably higher than what the government’s figures indicate.

None of this should be a surprise. Medicare has a notorious history of waste, fraud, and abuse.

But there is a glimmer of good news. There’s actually a program to identify and recover wasted funds.

The RAC program is geared toward correcting improper payments… The auditors thus pay for themselves with the money they recoup instead of simply being handed a lump-sum check. That the RAC program has an incentive to reduce wasteful spending and save taxpayers money makes it fairly unusual among government initiatives.

Unfortunately, no good deed goes unpunished in Washington.

…bureaucrats are set to greatly diminish the program’s effectiveness in 2016. Rather than empower these fraud hunters, they are drastically reducing the number of paid claims that auditors can review every 45 days (from 2 percent down to just 0.5 percent). The new limits will make it that much harder for auditors — whose cost already amounts to just a drop in the bucket — to recoup taxpayer losses.

I’ve also written about this absurd effort to curtail the RAC program, but Veronique makes a critically important observation that has widespread applicability to so much of what happens with government.

Agency failure is routinely rewarded in Washington with bigger budgets and greater authority, but here success will not be.

This, in a nutshell, is the difference between the private sector and the government.

In my speeches, I sometimes point out that people in the private economy make mistakes all the time, but I also explain that the incentive to earn profits and avoid losses creates a powerful incentive structure to quickly learn from mistakes.

That means resources quickly get reallocated in ways that are more likely to boost economic efficiency and increase growth and living standards.

In government, by contrast, this process is reversed. Bureaucrats and politicians reflexively argue that failure simply means that budgets should be expanded.

All of which explains why these cartoons are such perfect depictions of government.

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The Transportation Security Administration has become infamous over the years for things that it doesn’t allow on planes.

Consider these examples of the Keystone Cops in action.

Confiscating a plastic hammer from a mentally retarded man.

Detaining a woman for carrying breast milk.

Hassling a woman for the unexplained red flag of having sequentially numbered checks.

Demanding that a handicapped 4-year old boy walk through a metal detector without his leg braces.

Putting an 8-year old cub scout on the no-fly list.

o Stopping a teenager from flying because her purse had an image of a gun.

o Seizing raygun belt buckles and Kitty Cat keychains.

Though, to be fair, other governments are similarly brainless.

I was quite amused by this bit of news from Ireland.

When passing through security at the airport, a Minion fart gun…was seized from a young toddler and taken away. The security officers claimed it was a ‘threat’ and took the toy gun away from the child.

Just in case you think a “fart gun” is too realistic and that a potential terrorist might grab it from the child and use it to take over the plane, here’s a picture to put your mind at ease.

And let’s not forget that airport bureaucrats all over the planet are on guard against criminal toiletries. I’ve had obviously dangerous toothpaste and deodorant confiscated not only in the United States, but also at airports in seemingly sensible places such as Australia and Cayman.

But let’s be fair. The TSA gets a lot of attention for things it doesn’t allow on planes, so perhaps it is time to give the bureaucrats some attention for the things it does allow.

Unfortunately, as reported by Politico, the TSA apparently is better at blocking fake weapons rather than real weapons.

…news that the Transportation Security Administration failed to detect 67 of 70 mock weapons in a secret test shook the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees it, and led to renewed calls for the TSA to clean up its act. …Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican who used to chair the transportation committee, said the 95 percent failure rate is evidence of a sweeping conceptual failure. …“They’re spending billions of dollars on a huge screening bureaucracy,” he added. …the TSA also cannot publicly point to many significant attacks thwarted at airport gates, leading experts to insist that its protocols should be considered largely ineffective. Rafi Sela, president of international transportation security consultancy AR Challenges, said the agency’s nearly $8 billion budget is largely being misspent on a misguided model.

Great, we’re flushing $8 billion down the toilet on a system that does a bad job based on a bad methodology.

Heck, the bureaucrats can’t even stop the wrong people from getting through security.

A man with a stolen boarding pass got through airport security in Salt Lake City and checked in at a gate for a flight to California… Salata, who is on the sex offender registry in Utah, grabbed a boarding pass that a woman accidently left at a check-in kiosk and used it to get through a Transportation Security Administration checkpoint, said Craig Vargo, chief of airport police.

He was only stopped because the woman obtained another boarding pass.

Salata was detained when the woman who had left the pass checked in using a replacement ticket that had been uploaded to her phone.

The TSA tried to rationalize this goof by stating that at least he wasn’t able to smuggle any guns or bombs past security.

TSA spokeswoman Lori Dankers said an agent made a mistake in identifying Salata, but the man was properly screened to determine if he was carrying anything dangerous.

Gee, how reassuring.

Now that we’ve mocked the TSA for stopping harmless items and allowing potentially dangerous items (or people), let’s contemplate some actual solutions.

In previous columns, I’ve argued that it’s time to put the private sector in charge, citing the good work of Arnold Kling and Nick Schulz. And as Steve Chapman has explained, there were lots of benefits to the pre-TSA system.

Let’s now add to that list.

We’ll start with some passages from Jeff Jacoby’s column in the Boston Globe.

He starts by beating up on the TSA.

Fourteen years after the creation of the TSA, there is still no indication that the agency has ever caught a terrorist, or foiled a 9/11-type plot in the offing. Conversely, there are reams of reports documenting the inability of TSA screeners to spot hidden guns, knives, bomb components, and other dangerous contraband as they pass through airport checkpoints. It’s doubtful that anyone is still capable of being surprised by a fresh confirmation of the TSA’s incompetence… The Transportation Security Administration, which annually costs taxpayers more than $7 billion, should never have been created. The responsibility for airport security should never have been federalized, let alone entrusted to a bloated, inflexible workforce.

He then points out that there’s a better approach.

The airlines themselves should bear the chief responsibility for protecting planes and passengers at airports. After all, they have powerful financial incentives to ensure that flights are free of danger, while at the same time minimizing the indignities to which customers are subjected. Their bottom line would be at stake. The TSA feels no such spur. Effective defense against airline terrorism doesn’t require patting down grandmothers or confiscating eyedrops. It requires sophisticated counterterror intelligence (which is what stopped the 2006 liquid bomb plot), and it calls for passengers to be vigilant (which is what ultimately foiled the underwear and shoe bombers). The TSA supplies neither.

A column by Adam Summers in the Orange County Register reaches the same conclusion.

He starts with the indictment of the current system.

TSA’s performance has steadily declined. A 2002 USA Today report revealed that undercover agents got bombs and weapons through security about a quarter of the time. By 2007, the failure rate had increased to 75 percent. Since then, the TSA has increased the number of screeners from 30,000 to 46,000 and spent $550 million on new screening equipment and agent training, yet somehow it continues to get worse. …The TSA has also perpetuated – and even expanded – failed and unproven programs, such as the Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques program, which seeks to weed out evildoers by looking for certain behavioral cues among passengers. The GAO…recommended shuttering the program. Nonetheless, the agency has spent roughly $1 billion on SPOT since 2007 and is defiantly moving forward to “enhance” the program.

And then points to a sensible solution.

The TSA has proven to be abusive, unaccountable and totally ineffective. To restore some sense of competency and accountability, the agency should simply be abolished, and security should be made the responsibility of private airlines and airports, which have a strong incentive to prevent their customers from being killed. Competition among private providers would also lead to adoption of the most efficient and effective security measures while still respecting travelers’ rights.

Wow, what a shocking conclusion. The private sector is more competent than the government. Knock me over with a  feather!

Let’s close with some humor (though the joke is on us). The column by Adam Summers mentioned TSA’s SPOT program, which even the Government Accountability Office has recognized as a wasteful failure.

Well, the folks at Reason have a very amusing video on the characteristics that might lead SPOT bureaucrats to identify you as a potential terrorist.

P.S. Check out this amazing picto-graph if you want more information about the failures of the TSA.

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

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Yesterday, I shared several stories that exposed the festering corruption of Washington.

Today, let’s look at one issue that symbolizes the pervasive waste of Washington.

Medicare is the federal government’s one-size-fits-all health program for the elderly. Because of its poor design, it bears considerable responsibility for two massive problems.

  1. It contributes to the systemic third-party payer problem in American health care.
  2. It exacerbates America’s long-run challenge of excessive entitlement spending.

But there’s another issue. Medicare also has a very serious problem with fraud. As is so often the case with government programs, the offer of free money encourages unethical behavior.

Well, we have some good news and bad news about Medicare fraud.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the good news is that there is a small effort to catch fraudsters who bilk taxpayers.

Recovery audit contractors, as they are known, recouped $2.4 billion in improper payments in 2014, down from $3.7 billion in 2013 before the agency scaled back other audit activities and temporarily suspended the program… Those recoveries represent just a fraction of the total amount Medicare estimates it spends on incorrect payments. The Medicare program made $58 billion in improper payments to medical providers and health plans in 2014, according to PaymentAccuracy.gov, a federal website that tracks agencies’ estimates of waste.

But the bad news is this small program is being curtailed.

The federal Medicare agency is sharply cutting back the work of auditors that review hospital claims and seek to recoup improper payments for the government… Starting in January, the auditors will be able to review only 0.5% of the claims the agency pays to each hospital or provider every 45 days, according to an Oct. 28 letter to the contractors. That is a quarter of the prior threshold: 2% of claims. The contractors say the new directive, in what is known as a “technical direction letter,” will further limit their ability to pursue undue payments.

Readers are probably wondering why this effort is being hamstrung instead of expanded.

Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that the folks who benefit from waste want to keep the gravy train rolling.

The latest step is a sign of how the $600-billion-a-year Medicare program can struggle to effectively rein in improper payments, fraud and waste, sometimes under pressure from medical providers… The Medicare agency “is getting a lot of pressure from the provider community to scale back the [audit] program,” said Kristin Walter… Hospital representatives welcomed further restrictions on the auditors.

Sort of like burglars welcoming “further restrictions” on police officers.

Unfortunately, the interest groups benefiting from waste and fraud have allies in government.

The American Thinker has a nauseating story about the fraudulent actions of a hospital in Houston

The president of Riverside, his son, and five others were arrested on October 4 as part of a nationwide Medicare fraud sweep.  Earnest Gibson III, chief executive officer of Riverside General Hospital for 30 years, has been charged with bilking $158 million out of Medicare over the last seven years. …Friday’s arrests at Riverside came nine months after the arrest of Mohammad Khan, the hospital’s acting administrator, who pled guilty to his role in the Medicare fraud scheme…the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services suspended payments to Riverside.

You may be wondering why this is a nauseating story when it appears that some bad guys were nailed for screwing taxpayers.

Well, now we get to the disgusting part. A politician in Washington has been fighting to enable that bad behavior.

Sheila Jackson Lee, congresswoman for Houston’s 18th district…wrote CMS Acting Director Marilyn Tavenner requesting she reconsider the agency’s decision. …Jackson Lee…asks taxpayers who have already been bilked out of hundreds of millions of dollars to pour more money into a…hospital run by alleged crooks…while administrators and politicians rake in more dough.

Sadly, the Congresswoman’s political pressure generated results.

…a month after Jackson Lee appealed to CMS…, 70% of the hospital’s Medicare payments were restored.  CMS lifted the suspension even though federal investigators were only two months away from arresting Gibson and the others.  Jackson Lee’s intervention seems to have caused even more taxpayer monies to be directed toward a hospital brimming with corruption. …This is why Washington, D.C. is broken.  Like Jackson Lee, too many politicians think that redistributing other people’s hard-earned money into the pockets of potential felons is okay as long as they get political benefit.

By the way, it’s not just Democrats. The Daily Surge reports that some Republicans are helping providers rip off taxpayers.

…efforts to rid Medicare of waste, fraud and abuse have been stymied by the power of the hospital lobby that refuses to payback excessive payments made by Medicare and are working with friends and allies in government to ensure the improper payments are never returned to the taxpayers. …at least one GOP members, Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) has actually introduced legislation further limiting the ability of the auditors to sniff out waste. His bill would block audits of Medicare providers unless their estimated error rate exceeded 40% of total billing. More than one third of all Medicare bills would have fraudulent before an audit could be triggered. So much for good government.

Ugh, makes me want to take a shower.

So what’s the bottom line? Unfortunately, fraud is an inherent part of government. When politicians create redistribution programs, amoral and immoral people will figure out ways to maximize their share of the loot.

In the case of Medicare, it means that providers have huge incentives to over-charge, over-diagnose, over-treat, and over-test.

After all, thanks to third-party payer, the patient doesn’t care.

That’s why I’m in favor of programs to combat fraud. And the RAC program doesn’t even cost taxpayers any money since the auditors are compensated by getting a slice of the improper payments that are recovered.

Imagine that, a policy where the incentives are to save money for taxpayers!

However, the only long-run and permanent solution is to shrink the size of government.

And that’s why it’s time to restructure Medicare. We have 50 years of evidence that the current approach doesn’t work.

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I’m not a huge fan of government bureaucrats.

But not because they’re bad people. Yes, there are repugnant hacks in the civil service like Lois Lerner, but most bureaucrats I’ve met are good people.

My objection is that they work for departments that shouldn’t exist (such as HUD, Education, Transportation, Agriculture, etc) and/or they are overcompensated relative to workers in the productive sector of the economy.

From an economic perspective, our nation would be more prosperous if this labor was freed up to generate wealth in the private sector.

But let’s not forget that we also have a giant shadow bureaucracy of people (sometimes referred to as “Beltway Bandits”) who get their income from government, but they’re not officially on the payroll because they work for consultants, contractors, grant recipients, and government-sponsored enterprises.

And this may be an even bigger problem. Iain Murray of the Competitive Enterprise Institute estimates that there are “five and a half ‘shadow’ government employees for every civil servant on the federal payroll.”

In an interview for Fox Business Network about the EPA-caused environmental disaster in Colorado, I took the opportunity to warn about the pernicious and self-serving role of these beltway bandits.

And I made similar points in this 2014 interview, which focused on how Washington is now the richest region in the country thanks to all the taxpayer money that’s being scooped up by this gilded class.

If you want a disgusting example of how taxpayers are victimized by consultants, contractors, and other beltway bandits, just recall the Obamacare websites that turned out to be complete disasters.

That led to some amusing cartoons about the failure of government-run healthcare, but it also should have resulted in outrage about the government giving fat payments for shoddy work.

And this highlights one of the chief differences between government and the private sector.

Since there’s no bottom-line pressure to be efficient in government, contractors, consultants, and other beltway bandits can stay in business in spite of poor performance. In the private sector, by contrast, both households and businesses will quickly sever relationships with people who don’t deliver good results.

Let’s cross the ocean and look at a story which nicely captures this dichotomy.

Here’s an excerpt from a column in the U.K.-based Telegraph, and it deals with an employee at a government-sponsored enterprise (GSE) who exposed fraud. In the private sector, such an employee would be rewarded. But at a GSE, which relies on subsidies and protection from competition, such an employee is treated like a leper.

An employee of France’s national rail operator SNCF has revealed being paid €5,000 (£3,550) per month to do absolutely “nothing” for 12 years, it emerged on Friday. …Charles Simon told French media that his employer, which runs France’s trains including the fast TGVs, took him off his day job in 2003 after he blew the whistle on a case of suspected fraud to the tune of €20 million. Since then he has received €5,000 per month net while staying at home with the status “available” for work.

Wow. If my math is right, that’s more than $66,000 per year for doing nothing. For 12 years!

Though at least Monsieur Simon is complaining about the situation, unlike the Indian bureaucrat who managed to get paid up until last year even though he stopped showing up for work back in 1990. Or the Italian government employee who only worked 15 days over a nine-year period.

P.S. Speaking of Beltway Bandits, that’s the name of my 55+ senior softball team and we just won the ISSA World Championship a couple of hours ago, prevailing 16-10 after falling behind 8-0.

And that was one week after we won the SSUSA Eastern National Championship.

And I also have to give a shout out to the Georgia Bulldogs of the Capital Alumni Network, which just won the championship of that 69-team league, becoming the first team in CAN history to be undefeated in the regular season and post-season tournament.

I’m disappointed I couldn’t be there for the celebration because of my other tournament. If I ever become a dictator, my first order will be that different softball tournaments can’t take place on the same weekend (and my second order will be to abolish my job and 90 percent of the rest of the government).

In any event, Go Dawgs! After winning the CAN tourney in 2012, this year’s dominating performance could signal the start of a dynasty.

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Unlike some libertarians, I have patriotic feelings for my country. I want the United States to be the best in everything.

So it’s with some chagrin that I realized that the last two honorees selected for the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame came from overseas.

This included the man from India who earned his spot by not showing up for work – ever – for nearly a quarter of a century.

We also selected the woman from France who had a government-provided car and driver but still managed to bill taxpayers for almost $150 of taxi fares per day.

Given my jingoistic feelings, I’m worried that American bureaucrats are losing ground to their foreign counterparts. It would be a national embarrassment, after all, if our pencil pushers got a reputation for being slackers about slacking off.

So I’m very proud to announce that the newest member of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame is a red-white-and-blue American.

The Washington Post reports on his truly amazing – and nauseating – scheme to bilk taxpayer to the hilt. Here’s the basic description of what happened.

A senior National Weather Service official helped write the job description and set the salary for his own post-retirement consulting post– then came back to the office doing the same job with a $43,200 raise, the agency’s watchdog found.

Hey, maybe I can do the same thing at Cato. I’ll propose a new position for a Senior Fellow in Recreational Studies. But since I’m modest, I’ll only suggest that this new slot only pay $35,000 more than what I’m now getting. And then I’ll…

Oh, never mind. I momentarily forgot that the Cato Institute isn’t the federal government. Our managers actually care about spending money wisely.

But that’s obviously not the case in Washington, as we can see from these additional excerpts.

The deputy chief financial officer also demanded that he be paid a $50,000 housing allowance near Weather Service headquarters in downtown Silver Spring in violation of government rules for contractors, one of numerous improprieties in a revolving-door deal sealed with full knowledge of senior agency leaders.

Yes, you read correctly. This scheming parasite latched onto the public teat with full knowledge and approval of his superiors.

And in less than two years, he scammed nearly half-a-million dollars from America’s taxpayers.

With his consulting job and housing allowance in place, P. Donald Jiron retired from the Weather Service in early May 2010, then returned to work as a consultant the next day, while collecting his government pension, investigators said. By the time he was fired 21 months later, the government had paid him another $471,875.34.

A taxpayer-provided pension plus a new taxpayer-provided salary. That’s double dipping without even having to get a new desk! Kudos to P. Donald.

You may be thinking – or hoping – that this is an isolated case of waste, fraud, and abuse.

But the Inspector General report reveals this is just the tip of a very sordid iceberg.

His procurement of his own post-retirement job appears to be commonplace throughout the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Weather Service’s parent agency.

This story also has a nepotism angle. I guess we can modify the old saying: The family that mooches together, stays together.

Jiron also broke other rules, investigators found. He used his position as a contractor and former senior official to pressure Weather Service staff to give his daughter a job, skirting federal hiring rules that require competition.

Amazingly, he apparently wasn’t successful in his nepotism scheme. Which almost led me to deny him membership.

But the housing allowance he scammed was enough to push him over the top.

So here’s the bottom line. We have government positions that shouldn’t exist. We then pay the people in these positions far more than they could earn in the private sector.

And we have government managers who turn a blind eye (or worse) when these bureaucrats figure out ways to double-dip, triple-dip, and otherwise pillage taxpayers.

Hey, nice work if you can get it.

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Since I’m an advocate of smaller government, you might imagine I’m perpetually depressed. After all, I work in Washington where I’m vastly outnumbered by people who specialize in looting and mooching. At times, I feel like a missionary in a house of ill repute.

But I always look for the silver lining when there’s a dark cloud overhead. So while it’s true that government squanders our money and violates our rights, at least we sometimes get some semi-amusing stories about sheer incompetence and staggering stupidity.

Like Detroit spending $32 to issue $30 parking tickets.

The State Department buying friends.

Or Georgia’s drug warriors raiding a house because of okra plants.

FEMA house guidelines that make houses less safe in hurricanes.

Federal rules that prevent school bake sales.

Bureaucrats defecating in hallways.

Yes, I realize I also should be outraged about these examples. But I can’t help being amused as well.

So let’s add to our collection of bizarre, foolish, and wasteful behavior by government.

Here are some passages from a Washington Post exposé on mismanagement and waste at the federal department that is infamous for secret waiting lists that resulted in denied health care (and in some cases needless deaths) for America’s veterans.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been spending at least $6 billion a year in violation of federal contracting rules to pay for medical care and supplies, wasting taxpayer money and putting veterans at risk, according to an internal memo written by the agency’s senior official for procurement. In a 35-page document addressed to VA Secretary Robert McDonald, the official accuses other agency leaders of “gross mismanagement” and making a “mockery” of federal acquisition laws that require competitive bidding and proper contracts. Jan R. Frye, deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, describes a culture of “lawlessness and chaos” at the Veterans Health Administration.

I confess that it’s hard to find anything amusing about this story, but I’m worried that I might go crazy if I simply focus on how a bureaucracy gets more and more money every year, yet also manages to waste money with no negative consequences.

Or maybe I just enjoy the fact that I have a new reason to mock a wasteful government department (sorry to be redundant).

Here’s an example of spending that is so silly that it’s okay for all of us to laugh. Enjoy this blurb on how tax dollars are being wasted by the foreign aid bureaucracy.

American taxpayers might come down with a case of the blues when they hear about how the State Department is spending their tax dollars. According to ForeignAssistance.gov, India has requested $88,439,000 in U.S. foreign aid for the year 2015, but the State Department plans to spend additional funds on diplomacy: music diplomacy. The U.S. Mission to India is offering a $100,000 grant opportunity titled “Strengthening US-India Relations Through Jazz.” Eligible applicants include public and private universities as well as non-profit organizations. …Another grant available to universities and non-profit groups is for a “Visual Exhibit on Indian Faith and Traditions in America.” For $75,000, U.S. taxpayers will fund a “photographic exhibit that showcases both the ways that Indian-Americans practice their faith traditions in the United States, and the ways that Indian faith traditions have been adopted by American communities.” According to the offering, “The images will capture the diversity of the Indian-American community, so that a broad range of religious traditions are depicted.

These numbers are small compared to, say, the malfeasance and waste at the Department of Veterans Affairs. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get upset in addition to being amused.

Think about it from this perspective. The amounts being wasted in this example are equal to the entire federal tax burden for several American families.

Do any of us think it’s okay to confiscate so much of their income and then have it squandered so pointlessly and irresponsibly?

Besides, the foreign aid bureaucracy is also capable of wasting huge amounts of money.

But remember that the federal government doesn’t have a monopoly on foolish and stupid behavior.

Here’s another example of inane government behavior. And you won’t be surprised that it took place in California because, as Reason reports, it involved a raid against an establishment serving probiotic tea.

Last Friday, an undercover officer from the state’s Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) “infiltrated the temple,” Vice reports, “clearing the way for a 9 PM incursion by five officers.” What manner of crazy bootlegged hooch were the agents there to confiscate? Kombucha. Blueberry kombucha. For the uninitiated, kombucha is a type of carbonated, probiotic tea, popular among hipsters and health foodies. It’s made by mixing regular tea, sugar, and a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” known as the “mother” and letting the whole business ferment for a few days. The end result is a somewhat vinegar-like beverage that’s packed with good bacteria (à la yogurt) and ever-so-slightly alcoholic….But because the tea contains slightly above 0.5 percent alcohol, it requires a special license to sell say ABC agents, who cited a Full Circle rep for misdemeanor selling alcohol without a license.

Reminds me of the story about the federal milk police at the FDA. Or the federal bagpipe police at our borders.

Don’t these bureaucrats have anything better to do with their time (and our money)?!?

P.S. How could I forget all the examples of insane anti-gun political correctness in government schools?

P.P.S. Or the examples of unconstrained stupidity at the TSA?

P.P.P.S. And the odd collection of “human rights” that governments have created.

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There’s a Terror Wing in the Moocher Hall of Fame, so I guess it stands to reason that I should create a French Wing of the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

After all, few nations can compete with France in the contest to over-tax and over-spend.

And a lot of that spending goes to subsidize a bloated bureaucracy.

Moreover, I suspect many members of that bureaucracy work in jobs that shouldn’t exist and get wildly over-compensated.

Just last month, for instance, I honored one of those bureaucrats with membership in the Hall of Fame because she managed to squander an average of $145 of other people’s money on taxis each and every day (including weekends) even though she also had a taxpayer-provided car and chauffeur!

Wow. And she wasted that much money while working in a position (archivist for the country’s government-run media operation) that never should have been created.

Speaking of which, here are some amusing (only amusing because I’m not a French taxpayer) snippets from a story in the U.K.-based Times about some other ultra-spoiled French bureaucrats.

The 40 members of the Académie Française have…lavish perks… Their remuneration arrangements…include free flats in some of Paris’s most sought-after districts… The report, by the Court of Accounts, is likely to add to widespread resentment of a Parisian elite seen as clinging to its privileges.

The pay levels for these über-bureaucrats are absurd, but the perks are downright astounding.

Many [flats] were made available without justification to the intellectuals who belonged to the academies and their staff, the report said.Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, the historian who is its “permanent secretary”, received €104,768 a year and a free flat in Paris, the report said. The academy justifies her remuneration on the ground that her work is so great that she has to “renounce all literary work”. However, Mrs Carrère d’Encausse has produced nine books, largely on Russia, her specialist subject, since being given the post in 1999. …There is also criticism of Hugues Galls, the opera director who sits on the Academy of Fine Arts and runs one of its properties — the house and gardens where Claude Monet lived. The report said he received a BMW 125i, bought by the academy for €40,461. His garage fees of €1,700 a month are paid by the institution.

Hey, nice “work” if you can get it.

No wonder the OECD is based in Paris. The culture is perfect for elitist leeches.

And it shows that my First Theorem of Government applies in France as well as the United States.

The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that the French elite is slowly waking up to the reality that the government is running out of victims to finance such special-interest perks.

P.S. I rarely get to celebrate good news, so let’s enjoy this moment because the government thugs who stole $107,000 from Lyndon McLellan are being forced to return the money.

Reason has the wonderful details.

…the federal prosecutor assigned to the case was peeved. “Your client needs to resolve this or litigate it,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve West wrote in an email message. “But publicity about it doesn’t help. It just ratchets up feelings in the agency. My offer is to return 50% of the money. The offer is good until March 30th COB.” That deadline came and went, but Lyndon McLellan, the convenience store owner who lost $107,000 to the IRS because it considered his bank deposits suspiciously small, refused to fold. That turned out to be a smart move, because West was bluffing. Yesterday the government agreed to drop the case and return all of McLellan’s money.

This is great news, but notice what happened. The Assistant U.S. Attorney initially tried to threaten this innocent man.

But as the case got more publicity, the hack bureaucrat was forced to relent, in much the same way cockroaches scurry into crevices when the kitchen light is turned on.

By the way, if anyone knows Steve West, make sure to let him know that he’s a despicable human being. I bet he’s friends with Robert Murphy and Michael Wolfensohn.

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As shown by this graphic, why are so many people in Maine taking advantage of the food stamp program? As shown by this map, why does Oregon have such a high level of food stamp dependency?

These are just rhetorical questions since I don’t have the answers. But if we can come up with good answers, that could lead to better public policy.

After all, if we want a self-reliant citizenry, it would be better if people were more like those in Nevada and less like the folks in Vermont, at least based on the infamous Moocher Index.

But one thing we can say with certainty is that the food stamp program has morphed into a very expensive form of dependency.

Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal opines on the importance of reforming this costly entitlement.

Officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the food-stamp program has become the country’s fastest-growing means-tested social-welfare program. …Between 2000 and 2013, SNAP caseloads grew to 47.6 million from 17.2 million, and spending grew to $80 billion from $20.6 billion… SNAP participation fell slightly last year, to 46.5 million individuals, as the economy improved, but that still leaves a population the size of Spain’s living in the U.S. on food stamps. …The unprecedented jump in food-stamp use over the past six years has mostly been driven by manufactured demand. The Obama administration has attempted to turn SNAP into a middle-class entitlement by easing eligibility rules and recruiting new food-stamp recipients. …Democrats tend to consider greater government dependence an achievement and use handouts to increase voter support. The president considers European-style welfare states a model for America.

Making America more like Greece, however, is not good news for taxpayers.

But the program also has negative effects on recipients. Contrary to the left’s narrative, we don’t have millions of starving people in America.

…it now operates more like an open-ended income-supplement program that discourages work. Some 56% of SNAP users are in the program for longer than five years, which suggests that the assistance is being used by most recipients as a permanent source of income, not as a temporary safety net. …“Today, instead of hunger, the central nutritional problem facing the poor, indeed all Americans, is not too little food but rather too much—or at least too many calories,” Douglas Besharov, who teaches courses on poverty alleviation at the University of Maryland, told the House Agriculture Committee last month. “Despite this massive increase in overweight and obesity among the poor, federal feeding programs still operate under their nearly half-century-old objective of increasing food consumption.

So why don’t we try to help both taxpayers and low-income Americans by reforming the program, specifically by “block-granting” it to the states?

Uncle Sam picks up almost all of the bill. That means states have little incentive to control costs. Republicans argue that shifting to block grants would not only save money but also encourage states to increase the labor-participation rate of low-income populations. A state that has only so much money to work with is more likely to promote self-sufficiency in the form of employment, job-search and job-training requirements for able-bodied adults on the dole.

Decentralization, Riley explains, worked very well in the 1990s with welfare reform.

…1996 reforms…imposed more stringent time limits and work requirements on welfare recipients enrolled in programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF. Welfare rolls subsequently plunged. By 2004, caseloads had fallen by 60% overall and by at least 30% in nearly every state. Child poverty, black child poverty and child hunger also decreased, while employment among single mothers rose. This was a welcome outcome for taxpayers, poor people and everyone else—except those politicians with a vested interest in putting government dependence ahead of self-sufficiency to get elected and re-elected.

So kudos to Republicans on Capitol Hill for proposing to put the states in charge of food stamps.

Just like they also deserve applause for working to block-grant the Medicaid program.

This is something that should happen to all mean-tested programs. Once they’re all back at the state level, we’ll get innovation, experimentation, and diversity, all of which will help teach policy makers which approaches are genuinely in the best interests of both taxpayers and poor people (at least the ones seeking to escape dependency).

Though I can’t resist adding one caveat. The ultimate goal should be to phase out the block grants so that states are responsible for both raising and spending the money.

Let’s close with a few real-world horror stories of what we’re getting in exchange for the tens of billions of dollars that are being spent each year for food stamps.

With stories like this, I’m surprised my head didn’t explode during this debate I did on Larry Kudlow’s show.

P.S. Shifting to another example of government waste, let’s look at the latest example of overspending and mismanagement by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Nothing, of course, can compare with the horrible outrage of bureaucrats awarding themselves bonuses after putting veterans on secret waiting lists and denying them care.

But having taxpayers pay nearly $300,000 just so a bureaucrat can move from one highly paid job in DC to another highly paid job in Philadelphia should get every American upset. Here are some of the sordid details from a local news report.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has also raised questions about the salary and “relocation payments” to the new director of the Philadelphia office, Diana Rubens. Rubens, who was a senior executive in the D.C. office when she was tapped in June to take over the troubled Philadelphia branch, received more than $288,000 in relocation expenses. “The government shouldn’t be in the business of doling out hundreds of thousands in cash to extremely well-compensated executives just to move less than three hours down the road,” Miller said. …Under federal regulations, an agency can pay a variety of costs associated with reassigning an employee, including moving, closing costs, and a per-diem allowance for meals and temporary lodging for the employee’s household.

I’m baffled at how somebody could run up such a big bill. Did she use the space shuttle as a moving van?

Did she have to stay six months at a 5-star resort while waiting for her new house to be ready?

Does a per-diem allowance allow three meals a day at the most expensive restaurant in town?

This is either a case of fraud, which is outrageous, or it’s legal, which means it’s an outrageous example of government run amok.

Regardless, it underscores what I wrote back in 2011.

I will never relent in my opposition to tax increases so long as the crowd in Washington is spending money on things that are not appropriate functions of the federal government. …I will also be dogmatic in my fight against higher taxes so long as there is massive waste, fraud, and abuse in federal programs.

Not to mention that we should never allow tax hikes when it’s so simple to balance the budget with modest spending restraint.

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I’ve periodically cited the great 19th-century French economist, Frederic Bastiat, for his very wise words about the importance of looking at both the seen and the unseen when analyzing public policy.

Those that fail to consider secondary or indirect effects of government, such as Paul Krugman, are guilty of the “broken window” fallacy.

There are several examples we can cite.

A sloppy person, for instance, will think a higher minimum wage is good because workers will have more income. But a thoughtful analyst will think of the unintended consequence of lost jobs for low-skilled workers.

An unthinking person will conclude that government spending is good for growth because the recipients of redistribution have money to spend. But a wiser analyst will understand that such outlays divert money from the economy’s productive sector.

A careless person will applaud when government “creates” jobs. Sober-minded analysts, though, will wonder about the private jobs destroyed by such policies.

It’s time, though, to give some attention to another important contribution from Bastiat.

He also deserves credit for the pithy and accurate observation about government basically being a racket or a scam.

And what’s really amazing is that he reached that conclusion in the mid-1800s when the burden of government spending – even in France – was only about 10 percent of economic output. So Bastiat was largely limited to examples of corrupt regulatory arrangements and protectionist trade policy.

One can only imagine what he would think if he could see today’s bloated welfare states and the various ingenious ways politicians and interest groups have concocted to line their pockets with other people’s money!

Which brings us to today’s topic. We’re going to look at venal, corrupt, wasteful, incompetent, and bullying government at the federal, state, and local level in America.

We’ll start with the clowns in Washington, DC.

Remember when the unveiling of the Obamacare turned into a cluster-you-know-what of historic proportions?

Well, the Daily Caller reports that the IRS has just signed an Obamacare-related contract with an insider company that recently became famous for completely botching its previous Obamacare-related contract.

Seven months after federal officials fired CGI Federal for its botched work on Obamacare website Healthcare.gov, the IRS awarded the same company a $4.5 million IT contract for its new Obamacare tax program. …IRS officials signed a new contract with CGI to provide “critical functions” and “management support” for its Obamacare tax program, according to the Federal Procurement Data System, a federal government procurement database. The IRS contract is worth $4.46 million, according to the FPDS data.

Just one more piece of evidence that Washington is a town where failure gets rewarded.

And CGI is an expert on failure.

A joint Senate Finance and Judiciary Committee staff report in June 2014 found that Turning Point Global Solutions, hired by HHS to review CGI’s performance on Healthcare.gov, reported they found 21,000 lines of defective software code inserted by CGI. Scott Amey, the general counsel for the non-profit Project on Government Oversight, which reviews government contracting, examined the IRS contract with CGI. “CGI was the poster child for government failure,” he told The Daily Caller. “I am shocked that the IRS has turned around and is using them for Obamacare IT work.” Washington was not the only city that has been fed up with CGI on healthcare. Last year, CGI was fired by the liberal states of Vermont and Massachusetts for failing to deliver on their Obamacare websites. The Obamacare health website in Massachusetts never worked, despite the state paying $170 million to CGI.

For a company like this to stay in business, you have to wonder how many bribes, pay-offs, and campaign contributions are involved.

Now let’s look at an example of state government in action.

Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal has a column about a blatantly corrupt deal between slip-and-fall lawyers and the second most powerful Democrat in the Empire State.

New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver was last week arrested and accused by the feds of an elaborate kickback scheme. …Mr. Silver is alleged to have pocketed more than $5 million in a set-up in which he directed state funds to the clinic of an asbestos doctor, who in turn provided him with patients who could be turned into jackpot plaintiffs. Weitz & Luxenberg, a class-action titan, paid Mr. Silver huge referral fees for these names, off which the firm stands to make many millions. …when the Silver headlines broke, Weitz & Luxenberg founder Perry Weitz said he was “shocked”… The firm quickly put the Albany politician on “leave.”

A logical person might ask “on leave” from what? After all, he didn’t do anything.

But he did do something, even if it was corrupt and sleazy.

…here’s the revealing bit. Queried by prosecutors as to what exactly the firm did hire Mr. Silver to do—since he performed no legal work—Weitz & Luxenberg admitted that he was brought on “because of his official position and stature.” In other words, this was transactional. Weitz & Luxenberg gave Mr. Silver a plum job, and Mr. Silver looked out for the firm—namely by blocking any Albany bills that might interfere with its business model.

So workers, consumers, and businesses get screwed by a malfunctioning tort system, while insider lawyers and politicians get rich. Isn’t government wonderful!

Just one example among many of how state governments are a scam. Perhaps now folks will understand why I’m not very sympathetic to the notion of letting them take more of our money.

Last but not least, let’s look at a great moment in local government.

As we see from a report in USA Today, a village in New Jersey is dealing with the scourge of…gasp…unlicensed snow removal!

Matt Molinari and Eric Schnepf, both 18, also learned a valuable lesson about one of the costs of doing business: government regulations. The two friends were canvasing a neighborhood near this borough’s border with Bridgewater early Monday evening, handing out fliers promoting their service, when they were pulled over by police and told to stop. …Bound Brook, like many municipalities in the state and country, has a law against unlicensed solicitors and peddlers. … anyone selling goods and services door to door must apply for a license that can cost as much as $450 for permission that is valid for only 180 days. …Similar bans around the country have put the kibosh on other capitalist rites of passage, such as lemonade stands and selling Girl Scouts cookies.

Though, to be fair, it doesn’t seem like the cops were being complete jerks.

Despite the rule, however, Police Chief Michael Jannone said the two young businessmen were not arrested or issued a ticket, and that the police’s concern was about them being outside during dangerous conditions, not that they were unlicensed. “We don’t make the laws but we have to uphold them,” he said Tuesday after reading some of the online comments about the incident. “This was a state of emergency. Nobody was supposed to be out on the road.”

But the bottom line is that it says something bad about our society that we have rules that hinder teenagers from hustling for some money after a snowstorm.

Just like these other examples of local government in action also don’t reflect well on our nation.

Let’s close with my attempt to re-state Bastiat’s wise words. Here’s my “First Theorem of Government.”

And if you think what I wrote, or what Bastiat wrote, is too cynical, then I invite you to check out how politicians are bureaucrats are squandering money on Medicare, the Veterans Administration, the Agriculture Department, Medicaid, the Patent and Trademark Office, the so-called Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the National Institutes of Health, Food Stamps, , the Government Services Administration, unemployment insurance, the Pentagon

Well, you get the idea.

Which is why this poster is a painfully accurate summary of government.

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I’m impressed, in a dark and gloomy way.

I thought the Italian healthcare official who showed up for work only 15 days in a nine-year period set the record for bureaucratic loafing.

Based on longevity of laxity, he definitely out-did the San Francisco paper pusher who didn’t work at all in 2012 yet still got paid $333,000.

And while it’s remarkable that a New Jersey bureaucrat simultaneously got paid for six different jobs, he presumably actually went to work every day.

But all these bureaucrats will probably be ashamed to learn that one of their counterparts in India makes the rest of them seem like workaholics.

Here are some excerpts from a report in England’s Daily Telegraph.

Even in India, where government jobs are considered to be for life, A.K. Verma was pushing it. Verma, an executive engineer at the Central Public Works Department, was fired after last appearing for work in December 1990. …Even after an inquiry found him guilty of “wilful absence from duty” in 1992, it took another 22 years and the intervention of a cabinet minister to remove him, the government said. India’s labour laws, which the World Bank says are the most restrictive anywhere, make it hard to sack staff for any reason other than criminal misconduct.

Needless to say, Mr. Verma deserves election to our Bureaucrat Hall of Fame.

And I suppose there are two broader public policy lessons to this story.

1. If you’ve ever wondered why Indians in America are so successful in America while Indians in India are relatively impoverished, bad policy is to blame, with restrictive labor laws being just one example. Yes, India has implemented some reforms, but if you check the data from Economic Freedom of the World, you can see there’s still a long way to go.

2. There’s nothing wrong with unions if they’re operating in a non-coercive setting. But when the governments tilt the playing field with pro-union legislation, bad results are almost inevitable. And the greatest problem isn’t necessarily above-market wages, but rather inefficient work practices such as an inability to fire bad performers.

P.S. If you like bureaucracy humor, here’s a message from the California public works department.

This Michael Ramirez cartoon shows how taxpayers get squeezed when politicians and bureaucrats negotiate.

We also have this flowchart on bureaucratic operations which was probably developed at DHS or HUD.

And this anecdote shows how congressional budgeting and bureaucracy intersect.

Here’s the famous satirical video on overpaid firefighters in California.

Last but not least, here are two very good posters that capture bureaucrats in action, as well as link to other amusing bureaucrat humor.

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It’s unfortunate that Senator Tom Coburn is retiring. He hasn’t been perfect, but nobody can question is commitment to limited government. He’s been a rare voice in Washington against wasteful spending.

And he’s going out with a bang, having just released the 2014 edition of the Wastebook.

It’s a grisly collection of boondoggles and pork-barrel spending, highlights (though lowlights might be a better term) of which can be seen in this video.

The good news is that the American people increasingly recognize that Washington is a cesspool of waste, fraud, and abuse.

A Gallup Poll from last month, for instance, finds that folks are quite aware that a huge chunk of the federal budget is squandered.

There are two interesting takeaways from this polling data.

First, it’s good to see that there’s been a steady increase in the perception of waste in Washington. That shows people are paying more attention over time. In other words, more and more Americans recognize that the public sector is a sleazy racket for the benefit of bureaucrats, lobbyists, contractors, politicians, cronies, interest groups, and other insiders.

Second, it’s also worth noting that there’s less waste at the state level and even less waste at the local level. These are just perceptions, to be sure, but I suspect people are right. Money is less likely to be squandered when people have a greater opportunity to see how it’s being spent. Which is why federalism is good policy and good politics.

Now let me add my two cents. Government waste doesn’t just occur when money goes to silly projects. From an economic perspective, money is wasted whenever there is a misallocation of potentially productive resources.

And that’s a pretty accurate description of most of the federal budget. Not just discretionary programs, but also entitlement programs.

Here’s my video providing the theoretical arguments against excessive government spending.

And here’s the companion video that reviews the evidence showing that big government undermines prosperity.

And if you want another video, but one that shows horrific government waste presented in an amusing manner, click here.

And if you instead want to get heartburn by reading about disgusting examples of waste, click here, here, or here.

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When government suppresses the free market and takes over the healthcare sector, you get some really odd results.

Consider these stories from Sweden:

 A man sewing up his own leg after getting frustrated with a long wait.

The government denying a wheelchair to a double amputee because the bureaucrats decided his impairment might not be permanent.

Speaking of amputations, an unfortunate man was put on such a long waiting list that his only treatment, when he was finally seen, was to have his penis removed.

Today, we’re going to augment that list. But not with another story from Sweden, which is actually a much better country in terms of public policy than most folks realize.

Instead, we’re going to look at some great moments in government-run healthcare in both the United States and the United Kingdom.

Our first story is from the Chicago Tribune and it deals with Medicaid and Medicare spending.

But we’re not going to look at the aggregate data. Those numbers are very sobering, to be sure, and you can click here and here to learn more about that problem.

Instead, we’re going to drill down into the details and get some up-close evidence of why the programs are so costly. Simply stated, providers learn how to bilk the government.

A few years ago, Illinois’ Medicaid program for the poor noticed some odd trends in its billings for group psychotherapy sessions. Nursing home residents were being taken several times a week to off-site locations, and Medicaid was picking up the tab for both the services and the transportation.  And then there was this: The sessions were often being performed by obstetricians and gynecologists, oncologists and urologists — “people who didn’t have any training really in psychiatry,” Medicaid director Theresa Eagleson recalled. So Medicaid began cracking down, and spending plummeted after new rules were implemented.Illinois doctors are still billing the federal Medicare program for large numbers of the same services, a ProPublica analysis of federal data shows. Medicare paid Illinois providers for more than 290,000 group psychotherapy sessions in 2012 — more than twice as many sessions as were reimbursed to providers in New York, the state with the second-highest total. Among the highest billers for group psychotherapy in Illinois were three OB-GYNs and a thoracic surgeon. The four combined for 37,864 sessions that year, more than the total for all providers in the state of California. They were reimbursed more than $730,000 by Medicare in 2012 just for psychotherapy sessions, according to an analysis of a separate Medicare data set released in April.

Some of the specific examples are beyond belief. Keep in mind as you read the next passage that there are only 365 days in a year, and only about 261 workdays.

Of the Illinois OB-GYNs billing for group psychotherapy, Dr. Josephine Kamper had the highest number of sessions. She was paid for 10,399 sessions in 2012, at a cost to Medicare of $207,980. …Another OB-GYN, Lofton Kennedy Jr., billed for 9,154 group psychotherapy services. He declined to comment. The third-highest-billing OB-GYN, Philip Okwuje, charged Medicare for 8,584 group therapy sessions.  

Illinois isn’t the only place where taxpayers are getting ripped off.

A Queens, N.Y., primary care doctor, Mark Burke, was paid for more sessions than anyone else in the country — 20,841. He accounted for nearly one in every six sessions delivered in the entire state of New York in Medicare, separate data show. He did not return messages left at his office. Another large biller was Makeba Gordon, a social worker in Detroit. She was reimbursed for nearly 5,000 group therapy sessions for her 26 Medicare patients, an average of 190 each. She also billed for 2,820 individual psychotherapy visits for the same 26 patients, who allegedly would have received an average of 298 therapy sessions apiece in 2012. Gordon could not be reached for comment.

And I’m sure you won’t be surprised to learn that the bureaucracy in Washington doesn’t seem overly worried about this preposterous waste of money.

Aaron Albright, a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said in an email that Medicare has no policy regarding which physicians may perform group psychotherapy. During such sessions, “personal and group dynamics are discussed and explored in a therapeutic setting allowing emotional catharsis, instruction, insight, and support,” according to rules set out by one of Medicare’s contractors.

The second story comes from the United Kingdom.

Regular readers know that the government-run healthcare system in the United Kingdom is an ongoing horror story of denied care, sub-standard care, and patient brutality (click here to see some sickening examples).

You would think the U.K.’s political class would respond by trying to use money more effectively.

You would be wrong. The bureaucrats somehow have decided that tax monies should be used to finance a sperm bank, even though private sperm banks already exist.

Here are some excerpts from a report in the Daily Mail.

Britain is to get its first NHS-funded national sperm bank to make it easier for lesbian couples and single women to have children.For as little as £300 – less than half the cost of the service at a private clinic –  they will be able to search an online database and choose an anonymous donor on the basis of his ethnicity, height, profession and even hobbies. …The National Sperm Bank will be based at Birmingham Women’s NHS Foundation Trust, which currently runs an existing NHS fertility clinic and recruits sperm donors from the local population. Funded by a £77,000 Government grant, the bank will be run by the National Gamete Donation Trust (NGDT) which this year received  an additional £120,000 of public money to organise egg and sperm donation.

Some have criticized the initiative because it will purposefully increase the number of fatherless children.

…the move – funded by the Department of Health – is largely designed to meet the increasing demand from thousands of women who want to start a family without having a relationship with a man. Critics last night called it a ‘dangerous social experiment’ that could result in hundreds of fatherless ‘designer families’. …Ms Witjens rejected suggestions that children suffer adverse consequences from lacking a father figure. …Ms Witjens pointed to the removal of the reference to a ‘need for a father’ in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, when taking account of a child’s welfare when providing fertility treatment.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that children do best in conventional households with fathers, but my main reaction to this story is that government shouldn’t try to either penalize or subsidize unconventional households.

And a government-sponsored sperm bank definitely falls into the latter category.

But I’m not surprised. Governments love to squanders other people’s money, and the U.K. government has considerable expertise (if you can call it that) in this regard.

Heck, the U.K. healthcare system is even financing boob jobs. But we’re not talking about reconstructive surgery for women who had mastectomies. They pay for breast augmentation for women who claim “emotional distress.”

Though maybe the U.K. government deserves a special prize. It developed a giveaway program that was so convoluted that nobody signed up to take the money.

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It’s difficult being a libertarian.

In addition to all the other challenges (such as trying to convince people stealing doesn’t become okay simply because the government is the middleman), I get conflicted about government waste.

You’re probably thinking I’m wandering off the libertarian reservation. After all, aren’t libertarians big opponents of boondoggles, government waste, and pork-barrel spending?

All true, but here’s my challenge: I also don’t want “efficient government.”

In other words, our goal should be to shrink government, not to make it “work better.” To understand the point I’m making, ponder these questions:

Do we want government to efficiently lure people into dependency?

Do we want government to efficiently socialize health care?

Do we want government to efficiently cartelize the agriculture sector?

I hope the answer to all these questions is “NO,” which is why I generally focus my work on structural changes to shrink the size and scope of government.

But every so often, notwithstanding everything I just wrote, I can’t resist pointing out really absurd examples of wasteful spending. And today we have two jaw-dropping examples.

We know that government bureaucracies like palatial buildings and that cost overruns are the rule rather than the exception. Well, one of the new bureaucracies created by the Dodd-Frank bailout bill is setting records for extravagance with its new headquarters.

The newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is renovating the Washington, D.C., headquarters it rents—at a cost per square foot that is more expensive than Trump World Tower in New York City. The CFPB project is estimated to cost taxpayers more than $215 million… Cost projections have increased $65 million in six months and $120 million since last year’s estimate. Some of the building’s extravagant features include a four-story glass staircase, two-story waterfall and a sunken garden.

But what’s really amazing is that all this money is being spent on a rented building and that the cost of renovating is far greater than what was spent on building (yes, building, not just renovating) some of the world’s most famous landmark structures.

Now for our second example.

We’ve all heard about how big chunks of education spending get wasted on bureaucracy and don’t get used for classroom instruction.

And we read about how welfare bureaucrats consume a lot of money that supposedly is targeted to help poor people.

This principle also applies to other forms of government spending.

CNN reports that the federal government’s program for emergency food aid around the world is such a cluster-you-know-what that barely a bit more than one-third of money is actually spent on food for crisis-stricken regions.

International typhoons, hurricanes, and earthquakes leave behind devastating scenes of poverty and need. If you had about a $1.5 billion every year to send food to such desperate areas, how would you do it? …The way the U.S. provides international food aid is an antiquated and bureaucratic tangle. Food largely has to be purchased here in the U.S., and then shipped on boats by U.S. cargo carriers to the trouble spots. The Government Accountability Office says that 65% of the money for this aid program is spent on shipping and business costs – not on food. … it’s a system that has helped shipping companies and unions win billions in government contracts, companies like Maersk. …There’s also the transport workers unions. …The two leading maritime unions gave more than “three quarters of a million dollars to members of the current House of Representatives in the 2012 election cycle,” according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Geesh, what a typical example of insider corruption.

This is yet another piece of evidence for my view that disaster relief is not a function of the federal government.

P.S. Regarding the theme of today’s column, Fred Smith, the founder and former President of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, told me on more than one occasion that we should “be thankful we don’t get all the government we pay for.”

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Since I’ve already created a Moocher Hall of Fame to acknowledge the strangest and most reprehensible examples of government dependency, it’s occurred to me that there also should be a Bureaucrat Hall of Fame to highlight the government employees that have figured out how to most successfully rip off taxpayers (and here are some good candidates for charter membership).

But what if an entire bureaucracy was eligible?

The paper pushers at the Veterans Administration sure have figured out how to milk the system. Check out these excerpts from Associated Press report.

Nearly 80 percent of senior executives at the Department of Veterans Affairs got performance bonuses last year despite widespread treatment delays and preventable deaths at VA hospitals and clinics, a top official said Friday. …Workers at the Phoenix VA Health Care System — where officials have confirmed dozens of patients died while awaiting treatment — received about $3.9 million in bonuses last year, newly released records show. The merit-based bonuses were doled out to about 650 employees, including doctors, nurses, administrators, secretaries and cleaning staff.

This is such an outrageous waste of money that even the politicians who created it feel it should be criticized.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said the VA’s bonus system “is failing veterans.” Instead of being given for outstanding work, the cash awards are “seen as an entitlement and have become irrelevant to quality work product,” Miller said. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said awarding bonuses to 80 percent of executives means that the VA was setting the bar for performance so low that “anybody could step over it. If your metrics are low enough that almost everybody exceeds them, then your metrics are not very high.” Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-N.H., said the VA suffered from “grade inflation, or what (humorist) Garrison Keillor would refer to as ‘all of the children are above average.'” Kuster and other lawmakers said they found it hard to believe that 80 percent of senior employees could be viewed as exceeding expectations, given the growing uproar over patients dying while awaiting VA treatment and mounting evidence that workers falsified or omitted appointment schedules to mask frequent, long delays. …Miller, the panel’s chairman, noted that in the past four years, none of the VA’s 470 senior executives have received ratings of minimally satisfactory or unsatisfactory, the two lowest ratings on the VA’s five-tier evaluation system.

But the real lesson is that government simply doesn’t work very well

Or let me rephrase that. Government works very well…but only if you’re a politician, lobbyist, contractor, bureaucrat, or some other insider who has figured out that “the public sector” is a great way to obtain unearned wealth.

If you’re a taxpayer, by contrast, you get the short end of the stick (I was thinking of another analogy, but decided to keep things clean).

And if you’re someone – like a veteran – who is relying on government, then you’re in a very unfortunate position (sort of like the person in the other analogy that crossed my mind).

The main thing to understand is bureaucrats respond to incentives. And when you have government programs with no bottom-line reason to  deliver efficiency and good service, we shouldn’t be surprised that we get bloated payrolls and absurd compensation packages.

This video explains that it’s a government-wide phenomenon.

And to close out today’s column, here’s a Steve Kelley cartoon about Forrest Gump and the VA.

P.S. Don’t let politicians and interest groups get away with claiming that “inadequate funding” caused the VA scandal.

P.P.S. And grit your teeth because the government-run veterans health system is a good predictor of what we’ll all experience if the government-run Obamacare system is fully implemented.

P.P.P.S. Don’t forget that bonuses for poor performance are standard operating procedure in Washington. The bureaucrats at the IRS have been rewarded with extra cash notwithstanding all the scandals.

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The politicians, bureaucrats, lobbyists and interest groups in Washington are hyperventilating that the federal gravy train may get sidetracked for a day or two by a shutdown fight between Republicans and Democrats.

I’m not sure why they’re so agitated. After all, the shutdown is really just a slowdown since only non-essential bureaucrats are sent home. And everyone winds up getting paid for those unplanned vacations, which is why the bureaucrats I know are crossing their fingers for a lengthy confrontation.

But that describes what may happen when the new fiscal year begins tomorrow. What’s been happening in recent days, culminating today, is a feeding frenzy of end-of-the-fiscal-year wasteful spending.

Here are some details from a Washington Post expose.

This past week, the Department of Veterans Affairs bought $562,000 worth of artwork. In a single day, the Agriculture Department spent $144,000 on toner cartridges. And, in a single purchase, the Coast Guard spent $178,000 on “Cubicle Furniture Rehab.” …All week, while Congress fought over next year’s budget, federal workers were immersed in a separate frantic drama. They were trying to spend the rest of this year’s budget before it is too late. …If they don’t, the money becomes worthless to them on Oct. 1. And — even worse — if they fail to spend the money now, Congress could dock their funding in future years. The incentive, as always, is to spend. So they spent.

If you’re a taxpayer, you’ll be especially delighted to know that the “use it or lose it” spending orgy is so intense that federal contractors have to cater lunches for their sales staff. Can’t have them away from their desks, after all!

It was the return of one of Washington’s oldest bad habits: a blitz of expensive decisions, made by agencies with little incentive to save. Private contractors — worried that sequestration would result in a smaller spending rush this year — brought in food to keep salespeople at their desks. Federal workers quizzed harried colleagues in the hallways, asking if they had spent it all yet. …“Use it or lose it” season is not marked on any official government calendars. But in Washington, it is as real as Christmas. And as lucrative. …In 2012, for instance, the government spent $45 billion on contracts in the last week of September, according to calculations by the fiscal-conservative group Public Notice. That was more than any other week — 9 percent of the year’s contract spending money, spent in 2 percent of the year.

The IRS may win the prize for the most egregious example of last-minute waste.

In 2010, for instance, the Internal Revenue Service had millions left over in an account to hire new personnel. The money would expire at year’s end. Its solution was not a smart one. The IRS spent the money on a lavish conference. Which included a “Star Trek” parody video starring IRS managers. Which was filmed on a “Star Trek” set that the IRS paid to build. (Sample dialogue: “We’ve received a distress call from the planet NoTax.”)

But it’s not just tax collectors who flush our money down the toilet in creative ways.

One recent study, for instance, found that information technology contracts signed at year’s end often produced noticeably worse results than those signed in calmer times. …they listed dumb things they had seen bought: three years’ worth of staples. Portable generators that never got used. One said the National Guard bought so much ammunition that firing it all became a chore. “When you get BORED from shooting MACHINE GUNS, there is a problem,” an anonymous employee wrote.

Impressive examples of waste, though I confess I’m curious about the part about ammo and the National Guard. Does this mean bullets are like milk and have to be fired before an expiration date?

Beats me, but at least someone in the government acknowledged that (at least up to a point) it’s cool to fire a machine gun. Maybe that person should hook up with the Texas cop who likes tanks.

Oh, and you’ll be happy to know that spendaholic bureaucrats and crafty interest groups keep track of time zones so they can squander money until the very last second.

On Monday, Richer’s people will sell until midnight. Then they will keep selling. “Money rolls across the continent,” the feds say. Cash not spent in Washington might be spent by federal offices in California in the three hours before it is midnight there. When it is midnight in California — 3 a.m. in Washington — they will keep on. There are federal offices in Hawaii, after all. And it will still be three hours until midnight there.

Makes me think that we may need a slogan for the bureaucracy. Perhaps this modification of the Postal Service’s unofficial motto: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night – nor even different time zones – stays these bureaucrats from spending every possible penny of other people’s money.”

But let’s close on an upbeat note. Whether you give credit to the Tea Party, to Republicans, to gridlock, or to Obama, the good news is that the federal government in the past two years has been wasting money at a slower rate.

So taxpayers can smile…or at least not frown as much. The bureaucracy and contractors may be throwing a party today, but not with the same reckless abandon they displayed between 2001 and 2010.

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What do you do if you’re part of a government bureaucracy that has been caught red-handed engaged in sleazy, corrupt, and (almost surely) illegal targeting of Americans for their political beliefs?

But before you answer, keep in mind that your bureaucracy also has been exposed for wasting huge amounts of money at lavish conferences. What’s the ideal way of dealing with the fallout from that scandal as well?

The answer is simple. Even though you and your pals already are paid more than the peasants in the private sector, give yourself and your cronies giant bonuses!

I’m not joking. Here are some excerpts from an AP report.

The Internal Revenue Service is about to pay $70 million in employee bonuses despite an Obama administration directive to cancel discretionary bonuses because of automatic spending cuts enacted this year, according to a GOP senator. …“The IRS always claims to be short on resources,” Grassley said. “But it appears to have $70 million for union bonuses…” Three congressional committees and the Justice Department are investigating the targeting of conservative groups. And key Republicans in Congress are promising more scrutiny of the agency’s budget, especially as it ramps up to play a major role in implementing the new health care law.

Sort of makes this cartoon self evident.

IRS Trust Cartoon

Indeed, this motivates me to announce “Mitchell’s First Theorem of Government.”

I’ve explicitly expressed this sentiment in the past, and hinted at it here, here, and here.

Now it’s time to make it official.

Mitchell's First Theorem of Government

I hope you’ll agree this is a nice addition to Mitchell’s Golden Rule, Mitchell’s Bleeding Heart Guide, and Mitchell’s Law.

And maybe one of these will catch on and I can be famous like Art Laffer.

P.S. Enjoy some cartoons about the IRS scandals here, here, and here.

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Taxpayers all across America send lots of money to Washington, DC, in part because we’re supposed to believe that redistribution is a legitimate and desirable function of the federal government.

But this is a very perverse form of redistribution. All that money going to Washington helps subsidize a network of overpaid bureaucrats, fat-cat lobbyists, corrupt politicians, and well-heeled interest groups.

Indeed, as shown in this map, 10 of the 15 richest counties in the country are in the Washington metropolitan area.

One of those wealthy areas is Arlington County, VA, just across the river from Washington. Home to thousands of federal bureaucrats and other DC insiders, Arlington is similar to Washington in that there is a lot of wasteful spending. Sort of makes you wonder if local bureaucrats and federal bureaucrats ever meet at bars after work and brag about who wasted the most money that day?

Anyhow, here are some sordid details from a Washington Post story.

A wall made of etched glass opens the rear vista to newly planted landscaping. Embedded in the floor are heating elements intended to ward off the cold weather and keep winter-weary feet cozy. …And the price tag: $1 million. “Is this made of gold?” asked commuter Yohannes Kaleab, examining the concrete-and-stainless-steel bench that is part of the new, seven-figure bus shelter. “What?” asked Robin Stewart as he learned of the cost of the structure while waiting for a bus there last week. “That’s ridiculous. From a citizen, from a voter, whoever put that budget through needs to get their butt canned. It’s an outrage.” The “super stop,” which opened March 11, is the first of 24 new bus stops that will also accommodate Arlington’s long-planned streetcars. …It will shelter 15 people at a time.

Boondoggle Bus Stop

$1 million for this bit of glass, metal, and concrete?!?

That sounds kind of expensive, but we can be comforted by the fact that thoughtful public servants predict future savings.

“When you do a prototype, you end up heavily front-loading on the costs,” said Dennis Leach, Arlington’s transportation director.

So how much will taxpayers save on the remaining 23 stops? Well, the good news is that they won’t cost $1 million each. The bad news is that the government doesn’t exactly save a lot of money when doing bulk purchases.

“Our goal if at all possible is to do it for less,” Leach said. The county has budgeted $20.8 million for the remaining 23 stops, or about $904,000 for each one.

Gee, knock me over with a feather. The additional bus stops will “only” be $904,000!

That’s not counting cost overruns, which are an inevitable reality with government budgeting, so I think it’s safe to assume that the final cost will be far higher.

So why do governments waste money like this?

Part of the answer, of course, is that politicians are inherently wasteful. But there’s another factor at play. Politicians are especially wasteful when they can spend money that isn’t collected from their own taxpayers.

And readers from other parts of America doubtlessly will be overjoyed to learn that their paying for a big chunk of this boondoggle.

Federal and state transportation money paid 80 percent of the costs.

With taxpayers outside of Arlington paying such a high share of the cost, we should think of ourselves as lucky that the bus stop didn’t cost $10 million!

But here’s the most amazing part of the story.

What’s the most important part of a bus stop? In theory, a bus stop can be nothing more than a sign indicating the spot where you should wait for a bus.

But if you’re going to build a structure, the most valuable feature – at least from the perspective of riders – is that you will be protected from the weather. So what sort of protection are riders getting as a result of this $1 million boondoggle? Meh, not so much.

…the bus shelter is “pretty, but I was struck by the fact that if it’s pouring rain, I’m going to get wet, and if it’s cold, the wind is going to be blowing on me. It doesn’t seem to be a shelter. It doesn’t really shelter you very much . . . you can get pretty soaked in two minutes.” Her opinion was shared by some on Columbia Pike trying it out.

Gee, isn’t this wonderful. Some contractors doubtlessly lined their pockets building this white elephant. Some consultants doubtlessly fattened their bank accounts with all the nonsense that is now part of the “planning” process.

But taxpayers, as usual, got the short end of the stick. They got taken for a ride, figuratively. And if they actually use the bus stop, they can get taken for a ride, literally, so long as they don’t mind getting wet.

P.S. And let’s not forget that Obama wants some more class-warfare tax hikes to finance more of this “investment.”

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I’ve been against the auto bailout from the very beginning because it was a corrupt payoff to lazy corporate fat-cats and an ossified union.

And when folks on the left say the bailout is a success, I explain that any industry can be propped up with a sufficiently large injection of other people’s money.

Now we have new data on how much “other people’s money” has been diverted. It’s a big number, and it seems to get bigger each time there’s a new estimate. Here’s part of a Reuters report.

The U.S. Treasury Department has said the auto industry bailout will cost taxpayers $3.4 billion more than previously thought. Treasury now estimates the 2009 bailout will eventually cost the government $25.1 billion, according to a report sent to Congress on Friday. That is up from the last quarterly estimate of $21.7 billion.

Sort of reminds me of the old joke about the lousy businessman who says he loses money on every sale, but he makes up for it with high volume.

Well, that incompetent businessman has a kindred spirit in the White House. Here’s some of what Politico reported.

President Obama, while villifying Mitt Romney for opposing the auto industry bailout, bragged about the success of his decision to provide government assistance… he said. “Now I want to do the same thing with manufacturing jobs, not just in the auto industry, but in every industry…”

Well, we can’t say we haven’t been warned. He wants to do the same thing in “every industry.” Well, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, there are 60 industries in America. At $25 billion each, that means $1.5 trillion.

Stimulus in action

By the way, Mickey Kaus explains that the government’s numbers are incomplete and that the actual damage is significantly higher. And this Reason TV video exposes some of the government’s chicanery.

P.S. If you’re in the mood for some satire, here’s a bailout form showing how you can become a deadbeat and mooch off the government.

P.P.S. Just in case you’re new to this blog and don’t know my history, rest assured that I’m also against Wall Street bailouts.

P.P.P.S. Ethical people should boycott GM and Chrysler, particularly since these companies are now handmaidens of big government.

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It gets my blood boiling that the crowd in Washington is talking about raising our taxes when the budget is so riddled with excess spending. Here are two stories that illustrate the waste, fraud, and abuse that is pervasive in the federal budget.

Our first example is about unemployment benefits fraud. I’ve noted on several occasions (including this very amusing cartoon) that the main problem with unemployment benefits is that they lure people into long-term joblessness and dependency. That gets me angry in my role as an economist. As a taxpayer, though, I get upset that 10 percent of the funds (that’s just what the government admits, so the real figure surely is higher) are squandered because of fraud. Here’s some info from an AP report.

A nationwide crackdown is coming for people fraudulently drawing unemployment payments — those who were never eligible and workers who keep getting checks after they return to work — a $17 billion benefits swindle last year alone, say federal officials. …As much as 30 percent of the wrong payments in 2010 went to people who had returned to the workforce but continued to claim benefits, according to Dale Ziegler, deputy administrator for the Office of Unemployment Insurance at the U.S. Department of Labor.

Our second example comes from a news report in West Virginia, and it deals with the weatherization program (one of the flagship components of Obama’s failed stimulus scheme). You won’t be surprised to learn the program has been a farce.

Federal audits are turning up misspent taxpayer dollars in a $5 billion stimulus program aimed at lowering the utility bills of disabled, poor and older Americans by making their homes more energy-efficient. In West Virginia, which received $38 million in weatherization funds, some of the money went for lobbying, to consultants who did little work and to recipients with connections to state officials who are doling out the funds, the Energy Department’s inspector general found. In one case, West Virginia paid $25,000 to a lawyer for writing two sentences stating that weatherization contracts had been reviewed, reportedly after four hours’ work at a state office, according to a report analyzing how the federal stimulus money was used. A $20,000 consulting fee was paid to the former director of the state’s weatherization program after he left the job in May 2009 even though there were no specific work requirements set for the consulting contract. …more than half of weatherized homes that were re-inspected needed to be redone because of faulty work, the report said. Meanwhile, $2,500 was spent on lobbying in Washington – even though such use is expressly forbidden – to “get the word out” that there wasn’t enough funding to administer stimulus programs, it said.

These stories aren’t even the tip of the iceberg. They are a few tiny crystals in one snowflake sitting on the top of the tip of the iceberg. The politicians want more revenue so they can maintain this corrupt scam.

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