August 2011

August 31, 2011 3:49PM

Obama Jobs Plan to Push More K-12 Bloat?

In a recent interview, President Obama hints at the core of his much‐​anticipated jobs plan:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: what we do have, I think, is the capacity to do some things right now that would make a big difference …


OBAMA: For example, putting people to work rebuilding our roads, our bridges, our schools all across America…

We’ve got the capacity right now to help local school districts make sure that they’re not laying off more teachers. We haven’t been as aggressive as we need to, both at the state and federal level.

So we haven’t been aggressive enough with our hiring at the K-12 level, hmm? Perhaps I’m an unusually timid sort, but the trend below looks pretty darn aggressive to me: k‐​12 employment has been growing 10 times faster than enrollment for forty years.

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And the $300 billion question is: what impact has doubling the workforce had on the cost and performance of America’s public schools? According to federal government data, the answer is this:

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We’ve nearly tripled the cost of sending a child all the way through the K-12 system, while performance near the end of high school has been stagnant (reading and math) or even declining (science). Just returning to the staff‐​to‐​student ratio of 1980 would save almost $150 billion annually—and somehow students weren’t performing noticeably differently in the ‘80s than today.

And yet President Obama apparently wants more hiring and more spending. I wonder if voters will want more of President Obama if he indeed continues to flog the failed policies of the past two generations?

August 31, 2011 3:30PM

Federal Infrastructure Spending: How About This Boondoggle?

President Obama is planning to deliver a big speech on jobs and the economy. His wish list for Congress will likely include more government infrastructure spending. (Infrastructure spending is also on Rachel Maddow’s wish list).

So that citizens know what the president is talking about, they should review the success of the government’s past infrastructure projects. Here’s one to consider:

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It’s the Yuma Desalting Plant in Arizona, built by the federal Bureau of Reclamation at a taxpayer cost of $245 million. After completing the plant in 1993, Uncle Sam said: “Whoops, we don’t need it after all.” The plant has sat idle for almost two decades, and taxpayers are getting hit for $6 million a year to maintain it.

It gets worse. The purpose of the Yuma plant is to reverse some of the environmental damage done by government‐​subsidized irrigation farming. As irrigation waters reflow back into Western rivers, they boost saline levels and can make the water useless for downstream users. The Yuma plant was supposed to desalinate some of the irrigation flow into the Colorado River, but the government spent more money to build a separate 73‐​mile canal to drain water straight to the ocean.

I imagine that irrigation farming makes economic sense in many places. The problem is that the federal government has vastly subsidized dams and irrigation infrastructure in the West without regard to economics or sound environmental practices. Check out the costly environmental mess created by federal irrigation subsidies in the San Joaquin Valley of California. Or consider the environmental problems in the Florida Everglades caused by federal sugar subsidies and Corps of Engineers infrastructure, which, once again, taxpayers are helping to pay to clean up.

Billions of dollars of infrastructure spending by the Bureau of Reclamation has gone into white elephant projects. Imagining that more federal infrastructure will be a panacea for the economy is a liberal fairy tale, detached from the actual experience of most federal agencies over the last century.

August 31, 2011 2:54PM

Wartime Contracting Report Provides More Evidence to Exit Afghanistan

Over the past decade, American taxpayers have lost as much as $60 billion dollars to massive fraud and waste in the nation building campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a report released today by the Commission on Wartime Contracting. The independent panel confirms much of what we already know about rent‐​seeking in wartime; nevertheless, the panel details specific reconstruction projects and programs that display a stunning array of mismanagement:

  • A modest $60 million agricultural development program in northern Afghanistan expanded to the south and east to the tune of $360 million. The cash‐​for‐​work program was intended to distribute vouchers for wheat‐​seed and fertilizer in drought‐​stricken areas. Today, the program spends $1 million a day. The panel reports, “The pressure to quickly spend the millions of dollars created an environment in which waste was rampant. Paying villagers for what they used to do voluntarily destroyed local initiatives and diverted project goods into Pakistan for resale.”
  • During operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, waste and fraud averaged about “$12 million every day for the past 10 years.” [Emphasis in original];
  • The Department of Defense (DoD) awarded an $82 million contract for the design and construction of an Afghan Defense University. Now, DoD officials say it will cost $40 million a year to operate—beyond the indigenous government’s ability to fund and sustain;
  • The U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Government’s main distributor of development contracts, funded the Khost‐​Gardez road project. Originally valued at $86 million it has since mushroomed to $176 million;
  • The insurgents’ second‐​largest funding source is the U.S. taxpayer. Money for construction and transportation projects are diverted to the insurgency so Afghan subcontractors can pay them for protection. Of course, the insurgents use this money to buy bombs, IEDs, and other explosives to kill foreign troops and civilians.

The report goes on and on with examples that should disgust U.S. taxpayers. In addition, the report was released amid news that August 2011 was the deadliest month for U.S. service members, and 2011 shaping up to be the deadliest year for Afghan civilians. Despite the spin from warhawks, people in the region know the coalition has lost. Last year, the “Godfather of the Taliban,” Hamid Gul, the former head of Pakistan’s Inter‐​Services Intelligence agency, laid out in extensive detail why America has been defeated (for skeptics of withdrawal, it’s worth reading).

The United States has largely disrupted, dismantled, and defeated al Qaeda. America should not go beyond that objective by combating a regional insurgency or drifting into an open‐​ended occupation. We have endured enough with tens of thousands of people killed, injured, and traumatized, and billions of dollars wasted.

August 31, 2011 2:00PM

Mill, Constant & Macaulay 1; Lind 0

Jason Kuznicki is generous indeed to describe Michael Lind’s latest screed against libertarians and classical liberals as merely “uninformed.” Of the many absurdities in Lind’s piece, the one that caught my eye was his description of the Nineteenth Century trio of John Stuart Mill, Benjamin Constant and Thomas Babington Macaulay as advocates of “autocracy,” the only evidence he proffers for this view being that none of the three thinkers embraced current thinking about universal suffrage. That the fight against “autocracy” might historically have been a multifaceted affair fought on many fronts besides the extension of the franchise — involving issues of civil liberty, the rule of law, freedom of conscience, separation of powers, federalism, and curbs on arbitrary governance on which these thinkers wrote works still highly relevant today — does not restrain Lind from sloughing them all into a rhetorical pit better suited to de Maistre or Schmitt. Mill and Constant never get another mention, but Lind lingers to insult Macaulay as supposedly wishing “to limit voting rights to those who drink champagne and ride in carriages.”

Readers might never guess from this that perhaps the best known episode of Macaulay’s career as an orator in the British Parliament — the one that “made his name,” per Wikipedia — came with his speeches in favor of expanding the franchise in the historic Reform Act of 1832. (Not long before, his famous maiden speech had deployed every resource of eloquence on behalf of the cause of removing the civil disabilities of the Jews.) Lind’s “champagne and carriages” slur would be less than accurate even as applied to many of the hidebound Tories of the time. But to apply it to the best‐​remembered Whig advocate of a measure extending the franchise to ten‐​pound (middle‐​class) householders is — well, “uninformed” seems a bit mild.

It would be hazardous indeed for one’s sense of history to be shaped by perusing the writings of Michael Lind.

August 31, 2011 1:56PM

Ed DeMarco: A Rare Public Servant

I spend a lot of time pointing out government gone wrong. Sadly it doesn’t take that much effort. But occasionally you come across someone actually doing their job and trying to protect the taxpayer. As illustrated in today’s Wall Street Journal, Edward DeMarco, the acting director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA), which regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mae, is such a person.

Mr. DeMarco has continued to push back against repeated plans by the Obama Administration to use Fannie and Freddie as off‐​budget slush‐​funds (they seem to have forgotten such was one of the reasons we are in our current economic mess).

As I explained yesterday, by pushing back DeMarco is simply carrying out the law as it was both written and intended. It is particularly sad to see a former Obama Administration official, who now “teaches” law, complain about DeMarco missing the big picture. As if somehow the “big picture” empowers DeMarco to ignore the law. DeMarco showed his integrity by saying, ““If we’re not authorized to do it, that’s a dangerous place to be.” He’s absolutely correct. Although he should have just stopped at “not authorized to do it.” 

After the lawlessness practiced by various financial regulators in 2008, it is commendable to see a true public servant reminding us that legislative decisions are the province of legislators, not regulators. If more regulators behaved this way, we would have avoided some of the mess we are now in.

August 31, 2011 12:24PM

Removing Melson Will Not Fix the ATF

The controversy over the ATF’s ill‐​conceived scheme to “walk” guns across the border with Mexico finally resulted in the removal of one high‐​ranking official: Acting Director Kenneth Melson. The U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, Todd Jones, will fill the position for now.

A quick review: ATF supervisors ordered agents to facilitate firearm sales to known or suspected “straw buyers” that intended to move the guns across the border and give them to drug cartels. Gun dealers in the U.S. reported the suspicious transactions to the ATF, expecting to cooperate in apprehending the gunrunners. As it turns out, the suspect buyers had disqualifying conditions that should have shown up in federally mandated instant background checks…but didn’t. The firearms trafficked across the border predictably showed up at crime scenes, including those involved with the murder of a Border Patrol agent, an ICE agent, a Mexican military helicopter shoot‐​down, and other murders on both sides of the border.

If you’re a private citizen, this sort of thing gets you 30 years in prison. If you’re a whistleblower within ATF, you get terminated. If you’re a supervisor responsible for such a scheme, you get promoted reassigned to ATF headquarters.

This ATF scheme broke numerous firearm laws, possibly the Arms Export Control Act, and facilitated multiple murders. The end result this litany of crimes and persistent ATF and DOJ stonewalling congressional investigations cannot simply be Melson’s removal and replacement with a DOJ official who may also have been complicit in the gun‐​running scheme.

Meanwhile, the multiple long‐​gun sale reporting mandate that I wrote about last year, which imposes conditions on gun dealers in border states in violation of federal law, has been implemented by the ATF. This was almost certainly one of the goals of the “gun control for the sake of Mexico” push we’ve seen for over two years, even though the numbers of private arms in cartel hands are far lower than we’ve been told, ATF efforts notwithstanding. ATF headquarters is throwing a party to celebrate the latest round of illegal action.

Melson’s departure is certainly warranted, but we’re a few indictments and many terminations short of justice, in my mind.