Commentary

Just Say Snow

For the first time in memory, the federal government has closed for three straight days. “Snowmaggedon” has shut down Washington, D.C. and its suburbs. With the third storm within a week hitting the region, causing white-out conditions, even Uncle Sam can’t function.

In theory the government closure is costing all of us. Some 230,000 D.C. area employees stayed home, costing an estimated $300 million “in lost productivity per day,” according to federal officials. But is the shutdown really hurting the public?

Using the term “productivity” in the same sentence as “federal government” is a dubious exercise. No doubt, in the sense of performing a task efficiently, the Feds can be productive. Just watch how quickly and completely the IRS attempts to clean out the average taxpayer. That explains the joke about Washington’s preferred tax form of just two lines: “How much do you earn? Send it in.”

About two million people, excluding the postal service and armed forces, work for the federal government.”

But government efficiency doesn’t mean productivity in a larger sense. That is, does government activity yield a better life for Americans? On net, the answer is no. The only problem with Snowmaggedon is that it has not affected the 85 percent of federal employees who work outside of the D.C. area.

About two million people, excluding the postal service and armed forces, work for the federal government. Most are engaged in counterproductive activity.

Start with the 652,000 work for the Defense Department. Overall, their mission is vital, one of the few necessary tasks of government. But much of what they actually do has nothing to do with protecting America.

Many U.S. troops — and the civilian employees who back up the armed forces — are tasked with defending America’s prosperous and populous allies throughout Asia and Europe. Why? The European Union has ten times the GDP of Russia; South Korea has 40 times the GDP of the North. Military personnel also engage in nation-building and other forms of what Michael Mandelbaum called foreign policy as social work. Idling employees supporting these tasks would reduce subsidies for the international welfare queens now leeching off of U.S. taxpayers and military personnel.

The Department of Veterans Affairs employs 280,000 people. Give this department its due: it may not be the most efficient bureaucracy available, but Uncle Sam has an obligation to care for America’s veterans. The number of employees could be pared by integrating the treatment of veterans into the private health system, but the special needs of vets will always require special services.

Homeland Security comes next with 171,000 personnel. It’s an important function, but does anyone believe the department, a bizarre mix of everything from customs to immigration to disaster relief, actually is keeping us safe? Are we better off because of the geniuses who decided that terrorists would surrender by forbidding people from going to the bathroom and using blankets? Who benefits when personnel dole out “emergency” aid hither and yon even to the improvident and foolish? It’s hard to know how many of this department’s employees actually do useful work.

Another 108,000 people work for the Justice Department. The agency is theoretically essential. But the bureaucracy of justice — laws, police, prosecutors, courts — should rest primarily at the state and local level. One of most significant and most dangerous expansions of national power in recent years has been the increasing federalization of the criminal law. Now you can go to federal prison if you dump fill dirt on dry land that has been defined as a “wetland.”

The department also is filled with social engineers, dedicated to using the law to reorder American society along more collectivist and multi-cultural lines. An entire division promotes the federal government’s racial spoils system and its extension to the rest of society. Then there are all of the department attorneys who spend taxpayer money defending the worst depredations of government, often in contravention of the Constitution.

Some 88,000 people work at the Treasury Department. A few folks are necessary to mind the Treasury, but most of the agency’s employees are busy supporting the outrageously lavish $3.7 trillion budget approved by Congress this year. Cut back the spending and the $2.2 trillion in taxes to be collected, and the department would shrink substantially. Reduce the Treasury bureaucracy’s other threats to liberty — foreign economic sanctions, domestic financial spying — and the workforce would shrink still further.

The Agriculture Department comes in at 82,000 employees. There may be one or two people there who perform a useful and constitutional function, but it’s hard to believe there are many more. This agency’s job is to pay off special interests and manipulate food markets. This Department should be permanently snowed in.

Next is the Interior Department with 67,000 employees. There’s no reason for Uncle Sam to own hundreds of millions of acres of land. Sell off the grazing range and timberland (technically the latter resides with the Agriculture Department, but the same principle applies). Open up nonessential park areas to energy exploration and development. Keep at most a few sensitive parklands of enormous symbolic significance — such as Yellowstone and Yosemite — in federal hands or, better yet, turn them over to environmental groups. The number of people needed in their current roles at the department is very few.

Health and Human Services is a spending behemoth, but employs “only” 64,000 people. Social services, like justice, should primarily be dispensed at the state and local level. Anyway, whatever the legitimate role of the federal government, HHS should not survive in current form. The agency incorporates a multitude of ineffective, duplicative, and overlapping programs. In general, Congress never shuts down a bad program; legislators simply add new ones. Shift back functions and revenue sources to the states, as Ronald Reagan proposed, and there’d be no need for this department.

Some 55,000 people work for the Transportation Department. There are some interstate transportation issues, but the federal government shouldn’t be funding roads and bridges in communities across America. Indeed, the agency has become one of the worst sources of political pork at the national level. If local folks want a new left hand turn lane or park bike trail, let them pay for it. Most of this department’s employees are anything but essential.

The Commerce Department employs 39,000. Another 16,000 people work at the Labor Department. Both of these agencies are special interest bureaucracies, dedicated to subsidizing businesses and labor unions. Neither should exist. There are a few legitimate functions buried within the two bureaucracies — keeping economic statistics and conducting a census for the purpose of congressional apportionment, for instance. But most of these 55,000 employees should be working at useful jobs in the private sector.

Equally useless is the Energy Department and its 15,000 workers. The department is largely a forum for dispensing subsidies to favored energy interests. It also regulates the energy industry, usually to the detriment to consumers. Politicians love to dispense favors and micromanage the economy. The Energy Department is a vehicle for doing both.

The State Department also employs 15,000 people. The agency is legitimate, but many of its functions are not. There’s no cause for foreign aid: the U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on “foreign aid” programs which have turned out to be mostly “foreign hindrance” to the recipients. State should eliminate financial transfers other than limited, emergency disaster relief. Moreover, the department should cut back oversize embassies around the world. Washington should not be attempting to sell U.S. products or micro-manage other societies. There’s no reason for full-service embassies in many nations; small consulates would do just fine.

The Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Education have 9,000 and 4,000 employees, respectively. Neither of these agencies has a legitimate federal role. Housing and education should be state and local responsibilities to the extent that government is involved at all. There certainly is no reason for the federal government to create vast systems of wealth transfer from federal taxpayers to builders, local governments, developers, universities, federal bureaucrats, home buyers, students, renters, and everyone else involved in the housing and education industries. Indeed, the financial crisis, which started from an overheated housing market, demonstrates that federal involvement can be not just wasteful, but disastrously counterproductive.

A potpourri of independent agencies employs 180,000 people. The largest single bureaucracy is the Social Security Administration, which shouldn’t exist. People should be allowed to keep their own money to invest for their own retirement. Impoverished seniors should be helped because of their need, not their age. Most of the other agencies could be similarly eliminated or streamlined.

Finally, shrink government, and cut back the 33,000 people who work for the judicial branch and 30,000 who work for Congress. These two overgrown bureaucracies demonstrate how government has grown far too large. Indeed, their expansion has helped fuel government’s overall growth. More legislators, judges, aides, and clerks all want to do more. Which means an ever bigger government.

If you believe the official estimates, the three day federal shut-down cost Americans nearly a billion dollars. But don’t worry. Although Snowmaggedon has been awful for those of us who live in the region, it likely has saved the American people billions of dollars by slowing down the waste of tax dollars and limiting the harm of regulations.

Now if we could only shut down Washington permanently.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Reagan, he is the author of Beyond Good Intentions: A Biblical View of Politics (Crossway).