Commentary

Border Security Not Borders Books

Appeared in Daily News, Los Angeles, June 24, 2002.

The Bush administration’s budget office recently revealed that the federal government makes $20 billion in erroneous payments every year. The U.S. General Accounting Office repeatedly finds that billions of dollars are misspent by the military. This article is not about such large-scale Washington waste.

Rather, it’s about “For the Birds,” a 50-page book about bird feeding published by the Department of the Interior. It joins other Interior hobby guides such as “Fishing Is Fun for Everyone.” Perhaps Interior officials don’t realize that 43 bird feeding books and more than 2,000 fishing books are already available on Amazon.com. Maybe the department didn’t notice that the federal budget is $100 billion in deficit. Alas, such publications are a microcosm of a federal bureaucracy that fashions itself as the nanny of the nation.

Do we really need the government’s help in the kitchen? Someone in Washington thinks so considering the Department of Agriculture (USDA) titles “Making Healthy Food Choices,” “Recipes and Tips for Healthy, Thrifty Meals,” and “Team Nutrition’s Food, Family and Fun: A Seasonal Guide for Healthy Eating.” Here too, the government faces competition from Amazon.com, which lists about 2,200 health-related cookbooks.

If you need help around the house this summer, the government has you covered with the USDA’s 29-page booklet “How to Prune Trees” and other titles. USDA officials should check out Home Depot. At this time of year, the store arranges dozens of books on trees, grasses, and other gardening topics right near the check-out counter.

And watch out Bob Vila. The government is horning in on your territory with guides such as the 230-page “Rehabilitation of Wood-Frame Houses” from the USDA. The Department of Energy offers “Improving the Efficiency of Your Duct System” and “Cooling Your Home Naturally,” which reveals the secrets of tree shading and window opening.

Washington seems to think that every area of our private life needs federal input, ranging from “Tips for Finding the Right Job” to “Buying Your Home.” The government even wants to tell us how to walk in “Walking for Exercise and Pleasure,” which describes “what to wear, warm-up and conditioning exercises, and how far and how fast to walk.”

On health care, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has booklets such as “Health Diary, Myself, My Baby” and the hip “You and Mental Health, What’s the Deal?” Thank goodness we don’t have to rely on those untrustworthy private references such as the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide.

The HHS doesn’t even want to leave grassroots mobilizing to the people. It publishes the activist guidebook “Healthy People in Healthy Communities.” To support the government’s goals you can lobby your neighbors on any of “467 objectives in 28 focus groups.” I am formulating my own “action plan” to get our boss to comply with objective 20-13 to “increase the proportion of worksites offering employer-sponsored fitness programs.”

Federal agencies love to publish tomes telling us what a great job they are doing. “For a Healthy Nation” from HHS trumpets federal health achievements. One USDA cookbook is dedicated to “Commemorating 50 Years of School Lunch,” which seems like a cruel joke since many kids remember rubbery Salisbury steak and paper mache mashed potatoes.

But the most audacious and self-aggrandizing booklet has to be “The Facts on U.S. Farm Policy” published by the House Agriculture Committee as soon as the ink was dry on the new farm subsidy bill. Complete with photos of George Washington and John F. Kennedy, this slick and colorful booklet heaps praise on the farm bill, denounces the bill’s “special interest” critics, and compares the farm bill’s supposed victory to Ronald Reagan facing down the Soviets in the Cold War!

Lifestyle gurus tell us not to “sweat the little things.” But these publications suggest a broader problem of the federal government trying to be all things to all people. Rather than doing a good job on the limited responsibilities originally assigned to it, the federal government today publishes NASA’s “Adventures of Echo the Bat.” Let’s start moving back toward a government focused more on border security, and less on imitating Borders Books.

Chris Edwards is director of fiscal policy at the Cato Institute.