Topic: Government and Politics

High-Flying Bureaucrats Rip Off Taxpayers

The New York Times reports that the Government Accountability Office found pervasive abuse of premium travel by bureaucrats. Fraud was especially rampant at the Department of Agriculture, which is doubly outrageous since the Department shouldn’t even exist:

Federal employees are routinely abusing rules on business-class travel, taking trips that cost taxpayers an estimated extra $146 million annually, Congressional investigators have found. …An Agriculture Department official, for example, spent $62,000 on 10 business-class flights to Europe to attend trade negotiations. The coach fare would have been less than $9,000. …a business-class ticket costs on average five times that of a coach ticket. The investigators found very few first-class flights, which have even stricter rules. But the study found that 65 percent of the overall premium flights, $146 million worth, broke the rules or were not appropriately authorized. …The foreign affairs agency in the State Department had one of the highest shares of questionable premium-class travel, the investigators said. Cases highlighted included a family of eight that flew business class to Eastern Europe from Washington at a cost of $46,000, as part of permanent change of assignment, a trip that auditors said should have cost $12,000. The Agriculture Department at times sent large employee groups by business class, including eight officials who went to a trade conference in Geneva on flights that cost $50,000.

More on Klein (and Cusack)

Tim flays poor Naomi Klein’s impoverished reading of Milton Friedman below, but there are even more bizarre assertions in the interview (which is conducted, unfortunately, by a fawning John Cusack).

Klein claims that times of crisis, such as the aftermath of terrorist attacks, are the most fertile moments to “push through radical free-market policies” against the will of the American people. This, of course, defies all systematic study of such things, which has proved to the contrary that the State, not the private sector, is the beneficiary of such environments. For starters, go to the books by Bruce Porter or Robert Higgs. There is a wealth of literature out there on this topic, and any undergraduate with a passing interest in the subject should be familiar with it. Such knowledge would preclude making the type of nutty claim that Klein does.

But even if one limits his analysis to, say, life under the Bush administration, one would be hard-pressed to point to the “radical free-market policies” which the administration has successfully and quietly spirited into American society in the wake of 9/11. Remember, for example, the widely-debated and spectacularly unsuccessful Bush approach to trying to partially privatize Social Security. Or, for a broader look, refer to my colleague Steve Slivinksi’s conclusion two years ago that

Even after excluding spending on defense and homeland security, Bush is still the biggest-spending president in 30 years…

Total government spending grew by 33 percent during Bush’s first term. The federal budget as a share of the economy grew from 18.5 percent of GDP on Clinton’s last day in office to 20.3 percent by the end of Bush’s first term.

Those don’t sound like stealthily enacted radical free-market policies to me. To the extent that Klein gestures toward these facts in the interview, she seems to protest that she’s not against government exploitation of crises per se, but rather is disgusted that the beneficiaries of this largesse may include private sector companies. For example, Klein is aghast that “food” and “pest control” in Iraq are provided by private companies. The horror!

One might expect this type of nonsense from Klein, but it’s really disappointing to see John Cusack do the interview with his eyebrows raised about an inch and a half above his eyes, apparently floored by Klein’s analytical brilliance. A shame, really–the guy’s made some pretty good movies.

Police Create Roadblock to Collect DNA Samples for Private Research Firm

(This story was originally sent last week by Declan McCullagh to his politech e-mail group. Most of Declan’s e-mail follows.)

The Gilpin County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado, a rural area not that far west of Denver, recently set up a highway checkpoint where motorists were stopped and, at least in some cases, not allowed to leave until they gave breath, blood, and saliva samples for the benefit of a private research firm. A report by Ernie Hancock says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was involved as well.

A Denver Post article is here:
http://www.denverpost.com/headlines/ci_6922089

More:
http://cw2.trb.com/news/kwgn-invasive-checkpoint,0,2092732.story
http://worldnetdaily.com/news/article.asp?ARTICLE_ID=57733

http://freedomsphoenix.com/Discussion-Page.htm?InfoNo=024006

The Post says the private organization in question is the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, or PIRE, in Calverton, MD. Their Web site seems to be down but can be viewed here:
http://web.archive.org/web/20050826173038/www.pire.org/

The thoroughly-misnamed PIRE is a major DC government contractor (and in fact its offices are within walking distance of the Beltway). It specializes in funneling over $35 million of taxpayer money a year into its own coffers through law enforcement contracts of dubious utility, mostly dealing with drugs and alcohol, from sources including the U.S. Department of Justice. 100 percent of its budget appears to come from government contracts or grants.

Although PIRE pretends to be a “nonprofit” organization – at least that label helps to collect those fat taxpayer-funded checks from the DOJ – in reality it spends about $1.35 million a year on lobbyists. Not a bad 30-fold return on investment. And its employees are paid six-figure salaries that would be handsome even by for-profit standards.

PIRE seems to specialize in devising new and intrusive ways of government meddling in personal lives. One PIRE success story helps to coerce retailers to card octogenarians who dare to try to buy a bottle of Cabernet. (“This method of enforcement gives retailers the necessary incentive to comply with the state’s law regarding the sale of alcohol, given that their next customer could be part of a compliance check. The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE) has developed a detailed document to assist in the development and implementation of compliance checks.” See:
http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/alcohol/dotpartners/chapter_5.htm

PIRE is an ardent supporter of the War On (Some Politically Unacceptable) Drugs, also known as an excellent way for Feds and contractors to fleece the public in a war that will never end, eviscerate the Fourth Amendment, and create a police state with perfectly legal no-knock raids. One PIRE researcher who focuses on “middle-school-based drug prevention programs” and has written a paper claiming anti-drug programs in schools actually work:
http://www.nida.nih.gov/Meetings/Prevention/PrevBios4.html

PIRE also supports higher taxes on alcohol and firmly opposes lowering the minimum drinking age to be akin to Europe or Canada (something that would probably do much to limit abuse). See:
http://www.higheredcenter.org/thisweek/tw010629.html
http://resources.prev.org/documents/BeerTaxesNewsRelease.pdf

Those Silly Europeans

American politicians like to concoct silly ways to waste money and misallocate resources. But European lawmakers always seem to out-do them — perhaps because the Europeans have several centuries of additional experience with government.

A good example is a European Commission-led effort to promote multilingualism. The more substantive point is that the bureaucrats in Brussels are foolishly trying to pretend that English is not the language of international business. But the most amusing part of the EU Observer story is reading that the European Commission has a commissioner for multilingualism:

Europeans should learn more foreign languages and not think that a “lingua franca” — one language used internationally — is enough, EU commissioner for multilingualism Leonard Orban said on Wednesday.

What’s next, a commissioner for watching paint dry? A commissioner for shoelace regulation?

Bush the Budget Warrior

After six and a half years of spending faster than LBJ, President Bush has decided to proclaim himself the guardian of the taxpayers, accusing Democrats of “working to bring back the failed tax-and-spend policies of the past.” The very recent past, perhaps? Today he complained that Congress has not yet completed appropriations bills for the fiscal year that begins Monday, and warned that Democrats shouldn’t send him an omnibus bill that would “make it easier for members to sneak in all kinds of special projects, put in wasteful spending or pork barrel that they are not willing to debate in the open.”

Republicans protecting the taxpayers from the tax-and-spend Democrats. It’s a golden oldie. But it doesn’t have much relevance in the past decade. As the chart below indicates, spending has risen more than twice as much in Bush’s first seven budgets as it did in Clinton’s eight years.

If President Bush is indeed going to be a fiscal conservative for the last one-sixth of his term, that’s good news. But he has already raised annual federal spending by more than one trillion dollars, and he’s not planning to reduce spending, just to slow the growth from a massively bloated base. Fiscal conservatism remains an orphan in today’s Washington.

Legal Trends in Bioethics

Starting with the fall issue of The Journal of Clinical Ethics, my “Legal Trends in Bioethics” column will be available on the Cato website at time of publication instead of only several months later. That means the information provided will be more up-to-date and relevant for anyone interested in tracking legal issues in bioethics.

For those not familiar with the column, it tracks bioethics related issue through all stages of litigation, legislation, and regulation at both the federal and state levels, as well as occasionally mentioning exceptional legal developments in other countries. The topics covered are not always exactly the same, but usually there are sections on informed consent, abortion, children’s rights, vaccines, organ procurement, HIV, mental illness, medical privacy, unconventional treatment, right-to-die, stem-cell research and other new technologies, among other topics depending on what bioethics topics are of legal concern in the U.S.

The column tries to be comprehensive as far as reporting the most relevant developments at each level of government and in each topic area. It is a very useful tool for doing exactly what its name implies – tracking the “Legal Trends in Bioethics.” The following is the introduction to the fall column which will be published in The Journal Clinical Ethics and simultaneously become available on the Cato website next month:

The most troubling development in this quarter is the extent to which legislators continue to intervene in the patient/physician relationship by trying to regulate the relationship down to the smallest specifics of what is said and done. These developments are a great threat to both physician and patient autonomy, but while there have been many attempts to pass such invasive legislation, at this point, few of such bills have actually made it into law. It will be important to watch the next two issues of Legal Trends if someone is interested in seeing how many of such bills actually do end up as laws.

The issue of medical tourism is not new to bioethics, but it is on the brink of attracting more attention in U.S. courts and legislatures. There is no separate heading in “Legal Trends” for “medical tourism,” but it is important for anyone interested in the subject to regularly check the “Legal Trends’ subheading dealing with interesting developments in other countries. In this issue, for example, some Canadians are seeking a police investigation into an assisted suicide in Switzerland. Physician assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, but illegal in Canada. At issue is whether Canadians have a legal right under Canadian law to travel to Switzerland to avail themselves of a practice that is illegal in their own country. In the United States there is a constitutional right to travel which would make it legal for the patient seeking physician assisted suicide to go to Switzerland (there is no case directly on point but the basic principle is well-established in U.S. constitutional jurisprudence), but even in the U.S., as in Canada, it may be possible to prosecute someone who assists that person in getting to Switzerland. This could be considered aiding and abetting a suicide. The Canadian suit has not even been filed yet, and no such case exists in the U.S., but it is an interesting issue to watch. It may come up as it did in Canada with respect to traveling to Switzerland where it is legal for physicians to assist foreigners in committing suicide (this is not true in the Netherlands); it is also likely to come up in connection with people suffering from kidney disease traveling to Iran, the only country where it is legal to purchase kidneys, and in other situations where the legality of the activity is not the issue but the price of medical treatment.

The “Legal Trends” from earlier this year are available on the Cato website or directly from The Journal of Clinical Ethics.