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.
Almost 600 pages into the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act is a provision directing the Government Accountability Office to assess the feasibility of the federal government certifying organizations that provide financial literacy. The GAO released its report this week and concluded that “While a federal process for certifying financial literacy providers appears to be feasible, doing so would pose challenges.”
The challenges cited by the GAO are generally of the bureaucratic variety: What agency or agencies would be in charge? What criteria would be used? How would oversight be conducted? And most importantly, how much would it cost [taxpayers] to implement and operate a federal process for certifying financial literacy providers?
Fortunately, the GAO says that the majority of the representatives of private sector financial literacy organizations, federal agencies, and academic experts that it interviewed said that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages. Numerous concerns were cited, but one in particular stands out: Financial literacy certification may not be an appropriate role for the federal government.
Well, Hallelujah. I’ve read my share of GAO reports – almost all of which have dealt with activities that are not a proper role of the federal government – and I don’t recall that concern being mentioned.
Not only is individual financial literacy not an appropriate concern of the federal government, the federal government itself is a monument to financial illiteracy. It isn’t just that GAO report after GAO report continues to document financial mismanagement across the entire government complex. No, it’s the fact that Washington’s financial mismanagement has left us with a bloated government that’s mired in debt and crippled by massive “entitlement” programs that operate like Ponzi schemes.
The additional irony is the Dodd-Frank regulatory overhaul was passed in the wake of an economic meltdown perpetrated in large part by government failure. Alas, there might not be a lot of shame in Washington, but the hypocrisy is seemingly without limit.
A year-long investigation by the Washington Post into the Department of Housing & Urban Development’s HOME affordable housing program uncovered systemic waste, fraud, and abuse. The tale is yet another example of why the federal government should extricate itself from housing policy and allow the states to chart their own course.
The piece is lengthy and should be read by interested readers in its entirety, so I’ll just excerpt the Post’s findings:
- Local housing agencies have doled out millions to troubled developers, including novice builders, fledgling nonprofits and groups accused of fraud or delivering shoddy work.
- Checks were cut even when projects were still on the drawing boards, without land, financing or permits to move forward. In at least 55 cases, developers drew HUD money but left behind only barren lots.
- Overall, nearly one in seven projects shows signs of significant delay. Time and again, housing agencies failed to cancel bad deals or alert HUD when projects foundered.
- HUD has known about the problems for years but still imposes few requirements on local housing agencies and relies on a data system that makes it difficult to determine which developments are stalled.
- Even when HUD learns of a botched deal, federal law does not give the agency the authority to demand repayment. HUD can ask local authorities to voluntarily repay, but the agency was unable to say how much money has been returned.
In a Cato essay on HUD community development programs, I cite similar examples of HOME funds being wasted. And an essay on HUD scandals shows that mismanagement and corruption in federal housing programs is hardly new. Indeed, a follow-up story from the Post that focuses on related affordable housing shenanigans in the DC area explains that housing speculators who bilked HUD in the 1980s are involved in the current troubles:
All three were convicted in a scheme in the 1980s that involved getting straw buyers to purchase properties in the District at inflated prices using fraudulent appraisals. HUD backed the loans and ultimately lost millions of dollars. The Post called it the largest real estate fraud of its kind in the city’s history; about 30 people were convicted.
The response from Congress to the Post’s expose isn’t any more surprising than the findings: it’s time for a probe! This is where members of Congress point the finger at everybody else except themselves, promise to “fix” the problems, and pay lip-service to the concerns of taxpayers.
From the statement issued by Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-SD) and ranking member Richard Shelby (R-AL):
We are deeply concerned by these reports, particularly at a time when so many Americans are in need of affordable housing. Many communities across the country have successfully used HUD programs to create vital housing opportunities for their citizens. However, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, like any government agency, has a duty to safeguard taxpayer funds. The Committee takes its oversight responsibilities very seriously, and we plan to get to the bottom of this issue.
Republicans are having a difficult time naming federal programs to abolish, while Democrats would have us believe that only the federal government can take care of the “less fortunate.” For Republicans who are serious about spending cuts, HUD’s latest black eye offers an opportunity to challenge the existence of federal housing programs. For Democrats, well, perhaps one or two will start to question the sanctity of these programs.
Today, in what seems like an endless string of 3-2 votes, the SEC moved to restrict the ability of investors to short stocks, claiming that such restrictions would restore stability and protect our financial system. The truth couldn’t be more different. Short sellers have long been the first, and often only, voice raising questions about corporate fraud and mismanagement. For instance, shorts exposed the fraud at Enron, WorldCom and other companies while the SEC largely slept.
Bush’s SEC, lead by former Congressman Chris Cox banned the shorting of various financial industry stocks during the crisis. The SEC then, as now, would have us believe that Bear, Lehman, AIG, Fannie, Freddie and others were not the victims of their own mismanagement, but rather victims of bear raids by short sellers. In another instance of Obama and his appointees reading from the Bush playbook, SEC Chair Mary Shapiro finds ever creative ways to expand Cox’s misguided policies.
Short sellers only profit if they end up being correct. Sadly Washington instead believes in punishing market mechanisms that work and throwing increasingly more money at failed agencies, like the SEC. Rather than attacking short sellers we should applaud them for doing the SEC’s job. But then if we had more short selling, providing greater incentives for investors to root out fraud, we might start to question why we even have the SEC.
A computer glitch in the Federal Aviation Administration’s national air traffic control system caused delays and cancelations last Thursday. A spokesperson for the air traffic control employees union called it a “nightmare.” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) said the nation’s ATC system is “in shambles” and called for more “resources, manpower, and technology” for the FAA.
The FAA is already trying to implement a $35 billion overhaul of the nation's air traffic control system that would replace old-fashioned radar technology with modern satellite-based GPS navigation. As I blogged last month, the FAA tried to deploy the new computer system at the first of twenty regional facilities, but the system misidentified an airliner and was shut down. This failure wasn’t surprising considering the FAA’s decades of mismanagement.
This week Reason TV released an excellent video on the nation’s air traffic control system, which can be viewed here. The video effectively illustrates broader, more fundamental problems with the way the government operates. For instance, the FAA needs to upgrade is ATC systems, members of Congress spend millions of taxpayer dollars on seldom-used airports in their district.
The video also highlights the fact that our neighbors to the north have already successfully privatized their air traffic control system. As a Cato essay on privatization notes, “The Canadian system has received high marks for sound finances, solid management, and investment in new technologies.”