Tag: projects

Stimulus and Boondoggles

The New York Times has a story on some of the more controversial ways in which state and local government are using so-called federal “stimulus” dollars.  If anything, it provides some interesting background on the history of the word boondoggle (not surprisingly, it entered the American lexicon during the New Deal).  The gist of the piece is that one person’s boondoggle is another person’s…turtle crossing…skateboard park…or airport for an island in Alaska with 170 people on it.  One New Dealer found this out decades ago:

Robert D. Leighninger Jr., a sociologist who wrote “Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal” (South Carolina University Press, 2007), recounted the story of a Works Progress Administration official in Arizona who went off in search of boondoggles, and discovered that the towns he visited seemed to like their own projects but questioned those of their neighbors.  “I’ve been hunting all over the state for one, but everywhere I go I’m told it’s in the next county,” the official was quoted as saying in a 1936 newspaper article. “So far I haven’t been able to catch up with a real, live one.”

Naturally, that attitude is alive and well today.  I know more than a few folks in central Pennsylvania who thought Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” was a waste of their federal taxpayer dollars but the “Road to Nowhere” in their own backyard was other people’s money well spent.  Of course the folks in central Pennsylvania don’t like being taxed by the federal government to pay for a bridge in Alaska – they don’t benefit, but bear a portion of the cost.  And that’s a fundamental problem with federal subsidization of activities that are – at most – the proper domain of state and local government.

Set aside the fact that the Constitution never intended for the federal government to make such expenditures.  While any of these controversial parochial projects will technically have benefits, sound economic decision-making would seek to optimize those benefits versus the costs.  In the politicized world of the congressional sausage factory, costs scarcely factor into the equation given that the burden is borne by million of taxpayers spread out across the country.  Therefore, I think the few in Congress who crusade against these perceived boondoggles should spend more time trying to educate their colleagues (don’t laugh) and the public on the need to limit the federal government’s ability to spend the money in the first place.

For more on the problems with the federal subsidization of state and local government, please see this Cato Policy Analysis from my colleague Chris Edwards.

Even as America’s Troops Leave Iraq, the Waste Goes On

The U.S. government has been providing so-called foreign aid for decades, but the waste never stops.  So it is in Iraq.

Reports Stars & Stripes:

Provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq are scrambling to submit a large number of multimillion-dollar aid project proposals by July 15, something critics suggest will result in a rash of big construction projects they were never intended to run.

Further, they say, big-budget projects are being put forward too quickly, are too ambitious given the scheduled 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and are crowding out simpler schemes.

“Our goal is not necessarily to help [Iraqis] with building projects,” said Rick Gohde, an engineer with the Diwaniyah provincial reconstruction team, known as PRT. “We are supposed to be beyond that. We are supposed to be training them to sustain themselves as we are getting ready to leave.”

Capt. Doug Weaver, 28, a civil affairs soldier who acts as a liaison between the military and the Diwaniyah PRT, said Monday that close to $600 million of military aid funding was made available to the PRTs last month countrywide through the Commanders Emergency Relief Program, or CERP. The funds, made available by Congress, are only available through September 30 and the deadline for project proposals exceeding $1 million is next Wednesday, officials said.

Weaver, who studied industrial engineering before he deployed, identified numerous big projects in Diwaniyah vying for CERP funds, including new electrical substations ($1 million to $1.5 million), city sewers ($750,000 to $1.25 million), an agricultural school dormitory ($1.2 million), women’s centers to provide job training for divorcees and widows ($2 million), vocational schools ($500,000 each) and upgrades to Iraqi government communications networks.

Iraqi contractors will bid for the construction work, which is expected to employ more than 1,000 local laborers in Diwaniyah alone.

But Gohde said the PRTs are not supposed to be involved in the sort of “bricks and mortar” construction that most of the big budget projects involve.

In southern Afghanistan, construction projects supported by foreign aid, such as schools and medical clinics, stand as empty shells because Taliban militants have frightened students and patients away.

“There’s been some of that in this country,” Gohde said. “I’ve heard of schools being built with no furniture or teachers. There are projects that are constructed with the best of intentions that are not utilized in the original intent or utilized at all,” he said.

Oh, well.  It’s only money, as they say.   And with Uncle Sam running a roughly $2 trillion deficit this year, what’s a few wasted millions (or even hundreds of millions) among friends?  I’m sure next time the government will get it right!

Sen. Coburn’s List of 100 Questionable “Stimulus” Projects

My old boss, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), has a report out this morning that identifies 100 “questionable” projects funded by the federal “stimulus” package.  I’m not going to mention particular examples here.  I’ll simply say that I hope the theme that readers of the Coburn report come away with is that the federal government should not fund state and local activities.  The numerous examples in the Coburn report provide concrete evidence of this truth, and I wish the report would have spent more time in the introduction fleshing it out.  Fortunately, my colleague Chris Edwards wrote an excellent policy analysis on the problems with federal subsidies to state and local government.  Thus, I would encourage those interested to read the Coburn and Edwards reports together.