Tag: Government waste

Walking to School? Yeah, There’s a Federal Program for That

The Associated Press reports:

For a growing number of children in Rhode Island, Iowa and other states, the school day starts and ends in the same way — they walk with their classmates and an adult volunteer to and from school. Walking school buses are catching on in school districts nationwide because they are seen as a way to fight childhood obesity, improve attendance rates and ensure that kids get to school safely….

Many programs across the country are funded by the federal Safe Routes to School program, which pays for infrastructure improvements and initiatives to enable children to walk and bike to school.

 

Lobbying the Taxpayers — with Taxpayers’ Money

Some people say innovation is dead in America, but NASA is always looking for innovative ways to extract more money from the taxpayers. The Wall Street Journal reports on some of their innovations in using our tax dollars to persuade us to give them even more of those tax dollars:

In William Forstchen’s new science fiction novel, “Pillar to the Sky,” there are no evil cyborgs, alien invasions or time travel calamities. The threat to humanity is far more pedestrian: tightfisted bureaucrats who have slashed NASA’s budget.

The novel is the first in a new series of “NASA-Inspired Works of Fiction,” which grew out of a collaboration between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and science fiction publisher Tor. The partnership pairs up novelists with NASA scientists and engineers, who help writers develop scientifically plausible story lines and spot-check manuscripts for technical errors.

The plot of Mr. Forstchen’s novel hinges on a multibillion-dollar effort to build a 23,000-mile-high space elevator—a quest threatened by budget cuts and stingy congressmen….

It isn’t the first time NASA has ventured into pop culture. NASA has commissioned art work celebrating its accomplishments from luminaries like Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. …

Some see NASA’s involvement in movies, music and books as an attempt to subtly shape public opinion about its programs.

“Getting a message across embedded in a narrative rather than as an overt ad or press release is a subtle way of trying to influence people’s minds,” says Charles Seife, author of “Decoding the Universe,” who has written about NASA’s efforts to rebrand itself. “It makes me worry about propaganda.”

Lobbying with taxpayers’ money isn’t new. But as Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical.” To compel him to furnish contributions of money to petition his elected officials to demand more contributions from him just adds insult to injury.

Why We Shouldn’t Expand Government

Fareed Zakaria’s new column is titled (at least on the Washington Post website) “Why Americans Hate Their Government” or (in the paper) “Why We Hate our Government.” But some of the points he makes might better be seen as reasons not to keep on expanding a government that has grown beyond its competence.

Washington is having one of its odd debates as to whether the Obama administration’s rollout of HealthCare.gov was worse than the Bush administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina. But whatever the answer, if there is one, the real story is that both are examples of a major, and depressing, trend: the declining competence of the federal government. Paul Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, has been saying for years that most Americans believe their government can no longer act effectively and that this erosion of competence, and hence confidence, is a profound problem.

“The federal service is suffering its greatest crisis since it was founded in the first moments of the republic,” scholar Paul Light writes in his book “A Government Ill Executed.”

Over the past decade, the federal government has had several major challenges: Iraq, Afghanistan, a new homeland security system, Katrina and Obamacare. In almost every case, its performance has been plagued with mismanagement, massive cost overruns and long delays.

Zakaria argues that this was not always the case: “In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, federal agencies were often lean, well managed and surprisingly effective.” Maybe so, depending on your metric. But of course in those decades the federal government had not yet undertaken cradle-to-grave responsibilities. Maybe the lesson is that if you want competent government, you should limit it to manageable tasks.

On the other hand,

If you want the federal government to tax (and borrow) and transfer $3.6 trillion a year, if you want it to build housing for the poor and give special benefits to Alaska Natives, if you want it to supply Americans with health care and school lunches and retirement security and local bike paths, then you have to accept that such programs come with incentive problems, politicization, corruption, and waste.

In that case, this is the business you have chosen.

Concentrated Benefits and Diffuse Costs, Local Airports Edition

Rep. Tom McClintock tells David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post what economists mean by “concentrated benefits and diffuse costs”:

This Congress has also indulged in the habit of letting “temporary” giveaways become effectively permanent. A prime example is the Essential Air Service, a $240 million program that subsidizes flights to 161 small airports.

It was supposed to die in 1988. It didn’t.

Congress has renewed the program, again and again. Now it subsidizes flights to places such as tiny Glendive, Mont., where the government pays for a 19-seat aircraft to visit twice a day.

On average, two people get on each day. The subsidy works out to $836 for each of their tickets.

“If we can’t cut this, we can’t cut anything,” said Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), who sponsored an attempt to kill the program last summer.

They can’t cut this.

McClintock’s amendment lost by 74 votes. Then he tried again this summer. And lost. Many members explained their “no” votes by saying they were unwilling to sacrifice the subsidies to airports in their districts. “It’s that old problem of concentrated benefits with diffuse costs. The benefits are lavished on a few select communities, and the costs are diffused across the entire tax base,” McClintock said afterward. The beneficiaries, he said, are the only ones who care enough to fight.

Please, Just Build Him a Statue

David Fahrentold reports in the Washington Post:

[P]ork, the habit of using taxpayer money for a legislator’s pet cause…. appears to be stronger even than death.

That’s clear from the story of the Robert C. Byrd Highway, a decades-old road project in West Virginia that had received earmarked funds for years from Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the longest-serving senator in history, who died in 2010.

The highway has been maligned as a wasteful road to nowhere. But, now, it has outlived earmarks. It has even outlived Byrd.

This year, with continued support from Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) the highway got $40 million in federal money. It will need about that much every year, state officials say, until it’s finished in 2035.

The Federal Government’s “Rural” Industrial Complex

David Fahrenthold has another excellent article on waste in government in Sunday’s Washington Post. This time he finds a truly comic example of waste, duplication, and confusion:

[T]he U.S. government has at least 15 official definitions of the word “rural,” two of which apply only to Puerto Rico and parts of Hawaii.

All of these definitions matter; they’re used by various agencies to parcel out $37 billion-plus in federal money for “rural development.” And each one is different….

There are 11 definitions of “rural” in use within the U.S. Department of Agriculture alone.

It’s laughable. But the real question is, Why does the federal government even need to define “rural”? Well, of course the answer comes back to the real purpose of our modern tax-and-transfer state: The definitions define who gets the subsidies.

Every year, there are billions available to fund projects in rural communities. Money for housing. Community centers. Sewer plants. Broadband connections.

In a sidebar to the story, we get some details. The Census Bureau has one definition of “rural” so it can tell us how many Americans live in rural areas. Here are the purposes of the other 14 definitions:

Used for a variety of loan and grant programs, all meant to foster rural development…for loans and grants for “community facilities” in rural areas… for aid for water and waste-disposal systems… for aid for improvements in telecommunications systems…by farm-credit associations making housing loans… for certain lending programs for rural community development…to determine areas served by Office of Rural Health…by the National Rural Development Partnership…for grants to rural institutions of higher education…to determine what areas of Hawaii are eligible for rural-aid programs…to determine what areas of Puerto Rico are eligible for rural-aid programs…by various rural development loan and grant programs.

So let’s see. People in rural areas pay federal taxes. People in urban areas pay federal taxes. All that money goes to Washington – where a great deal of it stays – and then some of it is used to provide programs and services in rural and urban areas. Maybe both rural and urban Americans would be better off keeping their money at home and paying for whatever services they think are actually worth the cost. And then the federal government wouldn’t have to pay handsome salaries to well-educated people to form task forces to determine 15 different definitions of “rural.” And states, cities, and rural areas wouldn’t have to hire expensive lobbyists to get a piece of that federal pie.

Great Moments in Government Waste: University Edition

Last year, officials at the Univerity of New Hampshire complained bitterly about legislative budget cuts. UNH President Mark Huddleson, who earns more than three times the salary of New Hamphire’s governor at over $330,000 a year, called the cuts “a devastating and historic loss of $31 million,” which is just under six percent of UNH’s $583.5 operating budget. The wailing and gnashing of teeth made the recent revelation that UNH was paying a New York City marketing firm between $91,400 and $108,200 to redesign the school’s logo particularly surprising.

UNH's current logo

University officials felt that the school’s current logo, which features a clock tower from a building on campus, was not competitive enough in the 21st century so they paid the NYC firm to produce three proposed logos. Apparently this is what $100,000 gets you:

Proposed UNH logos

Unsurprisingly, a number of students and alumni are not happy with any of the proposed designs and some created a Facebook page to organize the opposition:

The Facebook page — UNH Students Against the Change of the Thompson Hall Logo — was created May 13 and had 572 likes as of Tuesday evening. Not all posts are supportive of Thompson Hall, but most are critical of the three finalists proposed by the design team.

“I think that a bunch of first graders could have come up with better designs! These are awful!” wrote Julie Glover, a 1983 UNH graduate.

Scotty Arsenault said the university should hire a local artist. “You’re paying a ridiculous amount for insultingly mediocre designs. Don’t limit yourselves to this shield/crest concept,” he wrote.

Grant Bosse, the editor of New Hampshire Watchdog (and my former colleague at the Josiah Bartlett Center), responded by creating a public Facebook page to crowdsource a new logo. Within 24 hours, there are already several submissions that at least as good as the $100,000 logos, including these:

Crowdsourced UNH logo designs

Not only is crowdsourcing free, it’s likely to create a better logo from an involved community that is clearly more invested in the product.