Tax Money Down the Drain

There are many types of federal government waste. Perhaps the most glaring is spending on projects that simply do not work. The money is spent, but taxpayers receive no benefit.

From the Washington Post:

Social Security officials have acknowledged that the agency spent nearly $300 million on a computer project that doesn’t work. The agency, however, is trying to revive it. The program is supposed to help workers process and manage claims for disability benefits.

Six years ago, the agency embarked on an aggressive plan to replace outdated computer systems overwhelmed by a growing flood of disability claims. But the project has been racked by delays and mismanagement, according to an internal report the agency commissioned.

As a wild guess, let’s say that skilled computer techs cost $150,000 a year in wages and benefits. Apparently then, about 333 of them have been paid for six years, yet have made little or no progress on this mishandled Social Security project.

Here’s a much larger taxpayer black hole, also reported in the Washington Post this week:

One of the first casualties was the Crusader artillery program, which was canceled after the Pentagon spent more than $2 billion on it. Then there was the Comanche helicopter debacle, which got the ax after $8 billion. More than twice that amount had been sunk into the Army’s Future Combat System, but that program got killed, too.

In all, between 2001 and 2011 the Defense Department spent $46 billion on at least a dozen programs—including a new version of the president’s helicopter—that never became operational, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

Any organization will go down some wrong paths when it comes to advanced technologies, but $46 billion is a remarkable amount to have sunk into dead-end projects. Let’s say that engineers, machinists, managers, and other workers at defense firms earn an average of $200,000 a year. The $46 billion lost would be like having a small city of 23,000 such high-skill people beavering away for a decade on projects that all end up in the trash bin. I’m not an expert on procurement, but I do know that is a lot of human talent for the government to waste.

Putin’s Speech and the Russian–Western Impasse

Today at the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his annual address to the Federal Assembly. The speech made the news for its antagonistic tone and, in particular, for Putin’s comparison of Crimea with Jerusalem. But for all the hype surrounding the speech, it said little new, emphasizing instead the impasse that Russia and the West find themselves locked in. Putin’s message was clear: Russia’s foreign policy is not changing.

The foreign policy narratives pervading the speech were strongly familiar, reiterating the points made by Russian leaders and state-owned television throughout the last year. Yet the twisted worldview presented bears little resemblance to reality.

Putin argued that Russia is being persecuted for seeking only to peacefully engage with the world. He presented Russia as a key proponent of international law, describing the annexation of Crimea as the result of a peaceful self-determination vote. In contrast, the United States was portrayed as a meddling hegemonic menace that, he insinuated, aids Russia’s enemies, foreign and domestic. Putin even implied that European states are vassals of the United States:

Sometimes it is even unclear whom to talk to: to the governments of certain countries or directly with their American patrons and sponsors.

The speech went on to describe international sanctions on Russia as illegitimate, with Putin arguing that sanctions are largely unrelated to Crimea or to the ongoing conflict. Instead, he insinuated, sanctions are an attempt by the United States to curtail Russia’s growth and power:

I’m sure that if these events had never happened… they [the US] would have come up with some other excuse to try to contain Russia’s growing capabilities.

These points aren’t true or accurate, but they are certainly consistent with the narrative advanced by the Kremlin. This is one key reason why Putin’s approval rate is still a massive 85%, with many Russians blaming the West for Russia’s woes. Putin thus spent much of the speech deflecting blame. In particular, he focused on Russia’s faltering economy, and while he touched on key economic concerns—the collapsing ruble, the falling price of oil, stalling economic growth, rising inflation—he largely glossed over them, focusing instead on blaming the West. 

Connolly: Yes to Privacy Act Liability for Mental and Emotional Distress

A couple of years ago I wrote here about the Supreme Court case denying that a person could collect damages from the government under the Privacy Act based on mental and emotional distress. It’s a narrow point, but an important one, because the harm privacy invasions produce is often only mental and emotional distress. If such injuries aren’t recognized, the Privacy Act doesn’t offer much of a remedy.

Many privacy advocates have sought to bloat privacy regulation by lowering the “harm” bar. They argue that the creation of a privacy risk is a harm or that worrisome information practices are harmful. But I think harm rises above doing things someone might find “worrisome.” Harm can occur, as I think it may have in this case, when one’s (hidden) HIV status and thus sexual orientation is revealed. It’s shown by proving emotional distress to a judge or jury.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) has introduced the fix for the Supreme Court’s overly narrow interpretation of the Privacy Act. His Safeguarding Individual Privacy Against Government Invasion Act of 2014 would allow for non-pecuniary damages—that is, mental and emotional distress—in Privacy Act cases.

It’s a simple fix to a contained problem in federal privacy legislation. It’s passage would not only close a gap in the statute. It would help channel the privacy discussion in the right way, toward real harms, which include provable mental and emotional distress.

Reviving Federalism Is a Winning Issue

In his new book, Saving Congress from Itself, James Buckley argues that Congress should abolish the entire federal aid-to-state system to save money and improve American governance. A recent Cato study shows that there is substantial public support for reforms in that direction.

In “Public Attitudes toward Federalism,” John Samples and Emily Ekins review decades of polling data to discern views on federal policymaking vs. state/local policymaking. They find strong support for state/local primacy in many policy areas, including education, housing, transportation, welfare, and health care.

The authors find that Americans have become more strongly in favor of state/local control—as opposed to federal control—since the 1970s. For example, when asked whether “major decisions” about housing policy ought to be made at the federal level or state/local level, just 18 percent favor federal today compared to 28 percent four decades ago.

The political opening here is obvious: reformers on Capitol Hill should push to reduce the federal role—by cutting spending and regulations—in those areas where the public has a clear preference for state/local primacy. From constitutional and good governance perspectives, many federal agencies and programs ought to be eliminated, but the Samples/Ekins study indicates areas that reformers should target first.

Why is reviving federalism a politically appealing reform? Because the public has a much more favorable view of state/local governments than the federal government. Samples and Ekins find that 58 percent of people have a favorable view of local government, compared to just 32 percent for the federal government. Asked which level of government provides the most value for their tax dollars, 33 percent said the federal government and 67 percent said state/local governments. Asked whether government provides “competent service,” 31 percent agreed with regard to the federal government and 48 percent agreed with regard to local governments. On average, Americans believe that the federal government wastes 60 cents out of every dollar it spends.

The Samples/Ekins results show that self-identified Republicans have a stronger belief in decentralized policymaking than do Democrats. So reviving federalism is a ripe opportunity for the incoming Republican majorities in Congress.

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George Will reviews Buckley’s book today in the Washington Post, and you can read more about federalism here.

Exposing an Error-Filled Editorial against Educational Choice

Over the weekend, Florida’s Sun-Sentinel editorialized against Florida’s scholarship tax credit law. But, as I detail at Education Next today, the editorial was rife with errors, distortions, and omissions of crucial context. Here’s just one example of many:

Rather than put the scholarship tax credit law in the context of Florida’s overall education spending, the Sun-Sentinel compares it to… Iowa.

“No state has a bigger voucher [sic] system. Last year, Florida spent $286 million on just 2.7 percent of all students. Iowa spent $13.5 million on 2.6 percent of its students.”

Setting aside the fact that the state of Florida did not “spend” even one red penny on the scholarships, this comparison is misleading. Do the editors at the Sun-Sentinel really believe that Iowa has as many students as Florida? If so, why haven’t they decried the fact that Florida spends more than $25 billion on its public schools while Iowa spends barely $5 billion? Perhaps because Florida has more than five times the number of students?

Comparing apples to apples, fewer than 10,500 students received tax-credit scholarships in Iowa last year compared to more than 69,000 in Florida. And while the tax-credit scholarships are larger in Florida than Iowa – about $4,660 on average versus about $1,090 on average – they are dwarfed by the more than $10,000 per pupil spent on average at Florida public schools.

The Sun-Sentinel owes its readers and the public a full and detailed retraction.

An Innovative Way to Title Property in Poor Countries

Over the past couple of decades, a consensus has emerged among development practitioners and over a broad ideological spectrum about the need to legally recognize and protect the property rights of the world’s poor. Yet land tenure and the holding of other forms of property of billions of poor people remains informal.

As Peter Schaefer and Clay Schaefer explain in a Cato study released yesterday, one reason there has been little progress in titling or registering the property of the poor is that powerful interests in developing countries block reform. And in countries that have particularly predatory governments, there may be little actual demand to title property. Why would you publically register your property if the result will be confiscatory taxation, political persecution, or the need to pay bribes to avoid complying with prohibitively expensive regulations?

The authors propose a novel, bottom-up approach to registering property that gets around those problems: using a simple, hand-held GPS device, individuals in poor communities can inexpensively map their property claims in an informal community registry that is publically accessible on the internet. In the vast majority of cases, there is already a consensus about what informal property belongs to whom, so disputes on boundary issues that might arise are typically not significant and are readily solved. This community mapping approach is already partly being employed in parts of Africa and India. Because such registration is voluntary, it would only take place where people actually demand it; and because it is informal, it need not rely on unreliable government bureaucracies to make it happen.

Were communities to create “live” documents of their registries on the internet, as the authors propose, they would increase tenure security by providing useful information to investors, neighbors, multinational corporations and even governments. As Peter and Clay Schaefer note, “When a community achieves a critical mass of registered users, it will be very difficult for their governments to ignore the claims that have been recorded.” That approach will also make it more politically feasible for poor people to negotiate with the authorities and gain formal title to their property.

Ashton Carter: Next in Line as SecDef

Although the rollout was messy, and the official announcement is still pending, the White House has settled on Ashton Carter to replace Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. I have a piece just up at The Daily Caller explaining Carter’s long list of challenges: 

He will be expected to manage several ongoing wars, at a time when the public wants to kill bad guys without necessarily using U.S. ground troops to do it. Carter must also oversee numerous major new and costly weapons programs (especially nuclear weapons) in an increasingly tight budgetary environment. The Pentagon’s base budget (excluding the costs of the wars) remains near historic highs in inflation-adjusted terms, and personnel expenses are likely to remain high despite some reductions in the numbers of men and women serving in uniform. The just-released draft budget implements modest cost controls, but The Military Times reports that these “are likely to irritate outside advocates who pushed against any pay and benefits cuts.” Absent significant reform, military pay and benefits will place additional downward pressure on both new weapon R&D and normal operations and maintenance.

On top of all this, the rancor surrounding Hagel’s departure has shone new light on the White House’s tendency to micromanage foreign policy from the West Wing. It is reasonable to ask “Why would anyone want this job?”