Big-ticket items drive most discussions of politics and government, but let's not forget to lament the small advances that help make big government what it is.
At the outbreak of hostilities in southern Lebanon, my well-traveled colleague Tom Palmer expressed dismay that Americans overseas should expect a lift home courtesy of the U.S. government when they've gotten in harm's way. Alas, by the end of July, Congress passed the Returned Americans Protection Act of 2006, which raised by $5 million the fiscal year 2006 limit on emergency assistance funds provided to U.S. citizens returning from foreign countries. Score one for bigger government — and for less responsible people.
But the bill actually results in reduced spending, saving about three cents (net present value) per U.S. family. How could this be?
A little legislative artifice did the trick. You see, the bill also allowed state food stamp agencies access to the National Directory of New Hires. They can use this database to verify employment and wage information for food stamp recipients using information on every newly hired American worker's employment, wages, and receipt of unemployment insurance. With access to these data, state food stamp agencies will be able to better verify the income of their beneficiaries and reduce overpayments.
Created "for the children" — a tool for tracking down deadbeat dads — the National Directory of New Hires is slowly but surely being put to new uses, including now more careful administration of food stamps. For tens or hundreds of reasons that are largely good, systems like the NDNH database will expand until the point is reached where we are all under comprehensive surveillance.
Lost privacy is a cost of large government. In this case, the government has monetized worker data to economize on food stamp programs, masking the cost of scooping up American travelers caught overextended abroad.
A little more spending here, a little more surveillance there. Every day in every way . . .