As this column makes clear, governments at all levels abuse the public, trample human rights, and waste taxpayers’ money on a massive scale. Sometimes government abuses its own and the public at the same time. Witness the recent smackdown on free speech at the California capitol.
On February 21, the state Senate held a memorial for the late senator Tom Hayden the New Left radical who died back on October 23, 2016. Senate Democrats hailed him in hagiographical style as a “visionary,” a “maverick,” an “independent thinker” and a devotee of “peace, and equity.” Sen. Janet Nguyen, who came to the USA as a Vietnamese refugee, had a different take, but she held off because members of Hayden’s family were present. Two days later, Nguyen rose to offer a different perspective.
“Today I recognize in memory the millions of Vietnamese and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who died in seeking for freedom and democracy,” she said. At that point, Sen. Ricardo Lara told her to stop, then shut down the immigrant senator’s microphone. Nguyen kept speaking and refused an order to take a seat. Lara then commanded the Sergeant at Arms to remove Janet Nguyen from the senate floor. Accounts of her removal described Hayden as an “anti-war” activist, inaccurate because he was opposed only to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Hayden championed the Stalinist Vietnamese regime that drove so many to flee, including Janet Nguyen, born in Ho Chi Minh City in 1976.
Comfy politicians such as Lara and senate majority leader Bill Monning, who took a lead role against Janet Nguyen, never experienced totalitarian rule. On the other hand, they seem to share totalitarians’ distaste for free speech. When an immigrant woman dared speak the truth to power, they turned off her microphone and tossed her by force from the room. Senate bosses also cut off the feed from the California Channel, so viewers statewide would not hear an immigrant woman speak the truth to power. This is a familiar tactic to keep the people in the dark.
As we noted, before the 2012 election, Senate boss Darrell Steinberg cut off the California Channel video on a hearing covering four ballot measures on taxes and spending. “I pride myself on being open and transparent,” he explained. Steinberg is now major of Sacramento.
Stars and Stripes‘ Nikki Wentling transcribes the response by the VA’s congressional overseers regarding the “concerning” report.
“It certainly underscores that the Veterans Health Administration has not made enough progress towards providing quality care for our veterans,” Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said in a written statement. Roe is chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“As I’ve said time and time again, VA should have the resources necessary to serve veterans, but we must also take a close look at how the department is allocating the resources they’ve been entrusted,” the congressman said.
At a hearing last month, Roe said he didn’t think the VA was spending its budget wisely, and that improvements wouldn’t come solely from a budget increase.
Unlike other federal government agencies and departments, the VA has not lacked for funding as its problems have continued.
Despite that funding, Wentling reports that the actions that the VA’s management have taken have failed to seriously address the multiple failures that prompted the GAO to place it on its “high risk” watch list.
The VA made an action plan to work on the issues, but the plan was missing an analysis of the root causes of problems and the ability to clearly measure progress, the GAO said.
Fixing what ails the VA will require both a solid understanding of the root causes that led the department to become the poster child for bureaucratic mismanagement and to be able to demonstrate that its corrective actions are producing the desired results. With new and hopefully more effective leadership now in place at the top of the VA, 2017 may be the year that the VA’s bureaucratic nightmare for veterans seeking timely medical care will be turned around for the better.
The U.S. military trains medics and tasks them to attend those shot, bombed or blown up, sometimes including civilian victims. This is about the most rigorous duty any medic could experience but veterans have a hard time applying their skills in civilian life. As Foon Rhee notes in the Sacramento Bee, the California legislature took five years to open the way for military medics to get professional credit for their experience. This, says Rhee, was a “disgrace,” but returning vets are not the only ones who face obstacles from the state.
As we noted, according to the state’s Little Hoover Commission, one out of every five Californians must receive permission to work, down from one in 20 sixty years ago. For example, manicurists must complete 400 hours of classwork, then take written and practical exams offered only in the cities of Fairfield and Glendale. The licensing board assigns the dates and if candidates can’t make it that day, their candidacy is terminated, they lose their application fee and they must begin the application process all over again.
These boards contribute nothing to productivity but succeed in keeping government employees in highly paid useless jobs. In 1997, the legislature eliminated the Board of Barbering and Cosmetology but Senator Richard Polanco brought it back in 2002. This utterly worthless body now boasts 94 employees and a budget of more than $17 million.
Veterans should not be surprised if California reverses the measure helping military medics to apply their skills. The legislature also took its time offering in-state college tuition to active duty military, though they had no problem granting that break to non-citizens who had entered the country illegally and, unlike the veterans, never served the nation in any capacity. Veterans should not be surprised if California reverses itself on the tuition issue as well. After all, governor Jerry Brown once proclaimed himself a “born-again tax cutter” and now supports some of the highest taxes in the nation. Likewise, the governor once strove to eliminate redevelopment agencies but has now brought those back as well.
Despite contrary claims by law enforcement, looting did take place during the evacuation of more than 150,000 people in the wake of the spillway failure at the Oroville Dam. As the Los Angeles Times reported, in one case looters blasted the doors of a market with a shotgun and attempted to ransack the business. In another, looters stole Purple Heart medals from Vietnam veteran Mike Pomeroy, along with gold pocket watches, pearls and “countless other items,” according to the Sacramento Bee report. The massive evacuation itself imposed enormous costs and inconvenience. Government is to blame for all of it.
As we noted, engineers have known for decades that Oroville’s backup spillway was unreliable but water districts resisted calls to armor it in concrete. Government officials also failed to install gates that would raise the dam’s elevation. This was a serious matter because if the emergency spillway fails completely, that would be the same as failure of the dam itself. That spillway remained soil and rock and as Rep. John Garamendi said, it “worked fine until it had to be used.” Rep. Doris wondered why the spillway was not made of concrete. Former Department of Water Resources boss Lester Snow was not inclined to review the record. Governor Jerry Brown claimed he was unaware of warnings about the emergency spillway but said “I’m glad we found out about it.” Evacuees would be hard pressed to find clearer statements of irresponsibility.
As Mises Institute blogger Ryan McMaken recalls, Brown’s father, governor Pat Brown, “repeatedly fabricated numbers about the dam’s true cost in order to hoodwink the voters into approving the enormously expensive project through a bond issue in 1959.” And to get it passed, “he engaged in fear-mongering,” charging that without the dam southern California would run out of water. In February of 1980 the dam was spilling 70,000 cubic feet per second at forty miles an hour. The structure was 12 years old then and can hardly be stronger as it approaches 50 in 2018. The problem, says McMaken, “is that the government officials in charge of the dam have either failed to maintain the dam properly, or they’ve been wrong about the dam’s capacity all along.” Government bosses will doubtless invoke global warming but taxpayers and evacuees alike should remember “who caused the crisis in the first place.”
There is a draft memo circulating around the White House’s Office of Management and Budget that identifies the first federal government spending programs that the Trump administration is targeting for cuts on Capitol Hill as part of its first budget proposal.
The New York Times reports:
The White House budget office has drafted a hit list of programs that President Trump could eliminate to trim domestic spending, including longstanding conservative targets like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Legal Services Corporation, AmeriCorps and the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities.
Work on the first Trump administration budget has been delayed as the budget office awaited Senate confirmation of former Representative Mick Mulvaney, a spending hard-liner, as budget director. Now that he is in place, his office is ready to move ahead with a list of nine programs to eliminate, an opening salvo in the Trump administration’s effort to reorder the government and increase spending on defense and infrastructure.
Most of the programs cost under $500 million annually, a pittance for a government that is projected to spend about $4 trillion this year....
While the total amount of annual savings of roughly $2.5 billion would be comparatively small, administration officials want to highlight the agencies in their coming budget proposal as examples of misuse of taxpayer dollars. An internal memo circulated within the Office of Management and Budget on Tuesday, and obtained by The New York Times, notes that the list could change. Proposals for more extensive cuts in cabinet-level agencies are expected to follow.
In addition to the five programs listed above, the prospective list also includes the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, the Export-Import Bank, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.
The article quotes the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Steve Bell, who argues that the cuts represented by eliminating spending on these government-funded entities are of “little significance”:
“It’s sad in a way because those programs aren’t causing the deficit,” Mr. Bell said. “These programs don’t amount to a hill of beans.”
Here’s the problem with that kind of inside-the-Beltway thinking. All of these programs represent the kind of nickel-and-dime wasteful spending that U.S. politicians and bureaucrats have continued to promote, year after year, despite knowing their wasteful qualities. Worse, the politicians and bureaucrats argue that because the costs are so “small”, they shouldn’t bother addressing the waste they represent.
How are they wasteful? Often, the money that is channeled to these government-funded entities goes to duplicate activities that are already being done within the private sector or that are done by other government agencies or that are just plain outdated.
For example, consider the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s popular children’s show Sesame Street, whose production has been funded by the premium HBO cable television network since 2015, and whose production company generates significant revenues from the merchandising and licensing of the intellectual property that it developed as it has benefitted from taxpayer funding.
Or the National Endowment for the Arts’ funding of hologram performances by deceased comedians as a tourist draw for the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, which follows in the creative footsteps of the concert promoters in the private sector who relaunched the stage performing career of the deceased Tupac Shakur in hologram form back in 2012.
Meanwhile, what the White House Office of Drug Control Policy the Applachian Regional Commission do is essentially duplicated several times over across multiple federal agencies, where what they are doing can be considered to be both outdated and ineffective.
Taking on even more intimidating levels of excessive spending in Washington D.C. requires that such seemingly trivial little drops in the federal government’s spending bucket be plugged. Unfortunately, that requires a monumental change in the mindset of the bureaucratic culture of Capitol Hill, which is why it is necessary to take such seemingly small actions toward real fiscal discipline. If they cannot do the small and easy things, there is little chance that they’ll meaningfully take on the bigger fiscal challenges before the nation.
Over the years, MyGovCost has told many stories of bureaucrats behaving badly, but technology may have finally advanced enough to provide a real solution for bad bureaucrats: we can replace them with robots!
That possibility is now being discussed in the United Kingdom, where one think tank believes that up to a quarter million of the nation’s bureaucrats could be replaced by technology and nobody in the public would ever notice the difference. The Guardian reports:
Almost 250,000 public sector workers could lose their jobs to robots over the next 15 years, according to a new report which claims machines would be more efficient and save billions of pounds.
Reform, a right-of-centre thinktank, says websites and artificial intelligence “chat bots” could replace up to 90% of Whitehall’s administrators, as well as tens of thousands in the NHS and GPs’ surgeries, by 2030 – saving as much as £4bn a year....
Alexander Hitchcock, the report’s co-author, said: “Such a rapid advance in the use of technology may seem controversial, and any job losses must be handled sensitively. But the result would be public services that are better, safer, smarter and more affordable.”
The report, “Work in progress. Towards a leaner, smarter public-sector workforce,” introduces its proposed solution by first discussing why bureaucrats so often fail at their appointed tasks.
Public services fail when employees fail. This is the dramatic lesson from a number of high-profile errors in recent public-service delivery. In many instances, quality is compromised not because of individual incompetence, but the way the workforce is structured and organised.
The report goes on to discuss some of the intriguing potential of using advanced technologies to both improve the quality of services that citizens get from their governments while reducing the ranks of government bureaucracies. What the report doesn’t discuss, however, is the potential of the same proposed solutions to also address a significant portion of the problems of misconduct caused by the wasteful surplus of bureaucrats whose serial ethical failings and their tolerance by the senior leadership in the bureaucracy directly lead to the failure of public services.
It may be that the benefits of replacing bureaucrats with robots are still understated. At the very least, it’s an idea well worth exploring by serious reformers.
Bridge tolls are high in the Bay Area but rapid transit bosses are worried that they are not quite high enough. As Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross note in the San Francisco Chronicle, a $3.5 billion bond approval has BART bosses panting for another $1.5 billion in toll hikes on the area’s seven state-owned toll bridges starting next year. The hikes, from $1 to $3, would boost the top cost of crossing the bay to $9. If commuters find that disturbing, BART board mouthpiece Nick Josefowitz explains that it’s all for congestion relief, “which is capacity improvement.” And according to the Bay Area Toll Authority’s Randy Rentschler, rebuilding the transportation system is like maintaining a house, therefore “it’s really never done.” So more toll hikes are doubtless on the way but taxpayers have recently gained some enlightenment on the way BART spends their money.
“Cameras catch BART janitor who made $270,000 in a year spending hours in Powell St. closet,” headlined a report by Katie Dowd of the Chronicle. BART janitor Liang Zhao Zhang bagged $271,000 in one year, with more than $162,000 in overtime. This Zhang is a veritable sweepin’ Stakhanov, putting in 17-hour days for, count’ em, 18 days in a row. During that time, surveillance video showed, Zhang vanished into a closet for hours a time, probably to catch his breath. The dynamic Zhang also failed to clock in or out 16 times in a single year. Why, there’s nothing that man can’t do, but he’s not alone. According to BART, 49 other janitors made more than $100,000 in 2015, nearly tripling their salary with overtime. How much time the 49 eager cleaners spent in closets every day was not revealed, nor how many times they failed to clock in or out. Commuters might think of that when they pony up $9 to cross a bridge. For ever-increasing BART toll hikes it’s always a clean sweep.
A massive spillway failure at Northern California’s Oroville Dam prompted an evacuation order that sent 200,000 people running for shelter anywhere they could find it. As the Sacramento Bee reported, the dam itself “has not been compromised. But experts say that if the emergency spillway collapses, it wouldn’t be much different than a total dam failure. The hillside could quickly erode and empty the lake.” So the crisis is real, but Mother Nature is not to blame. This is clearly a failure of government oversight.
“Engineers have known for decades that Oroville’s backup spillway was unreliable,” ran the headline on the Bee’s lead story on Tuesday. “But California water districts that helped pay for Oroville resisted calls to armor the backup spillway, which would have required construction outlays in the tens of millions of dollars. Environmentalists, meanwhile, opposed an earlier proposal to install gates atop the structure to raise the dam’s elevation and prevent water from topping it during a flood.” The report cited U.S. Rep. John Garamendi as saying, “The emergency spillway remained basically a dirt, soil rock facility, and it worked fine until it had to be used, in which case it didn’t work so well.” Rep. Doris Matsui told the reporters the emergency spillway “did not even have concrete lining on it. . . I would think that would be the first thing you could do.”
After floods in 1997, the Army Corps of Engineers urged the California Department of Water Resources to add gates above the spillway, allowing the reservoir to rise an extra 10 feet. However, “environmental groups opposed the gates, because they would have allowed water to back up into tributaries of Oroville that are protected by federal wild and scenic status.” So the DWR killed the proposal, although Lester Snow, DWR boss at the time, told the Bee that he “hasn’t had time” to review the record.
Governor Jerry Brown told reporters he was unaware of warnings about the emergency spillway and added, “I’m glad we found out about it.” As Brown explained, “We live in a world of risk. Stuff happens and we respond.” As we noted, when Brown was apprised of lingering safety risks on the new $6.5 billion span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, built with cheap Chinese steel, he responded, “I mean, look, shit happens.”
Yes, it does, and those 200,000 evacuees know all about it.
Back in 1999, under governor Gray Davis, the State of California boosted pensions and allowed most government employees to retire at the age of 55. This led to a surge of unfunded liabilities, and even Jerry Brown pushed for minor reforms. State employees hired after January 1, 2013, would have to work to the age of 67 to gain maximum pension benefits. As Adam Ashton and Phillip Reese of the Sacramento Bee have discovered, some government agencies mounted a surge to hire people before the deadline. A full 707 people came on board during the last week of 2012, and on December 31, 2012, 204 government workers began their state job.
At the State Board of Equalization, 17 employees started work on New Year’s Eve, 2012, but it is not out of the question that they started later and that the BOE simply rigged the records. A BOE mouthpiece told the reporters that New Year’s Eve hires were “unusual” and that he was looking into it. For its part, CalPERS hired 20 employees the final week of 2012, “including two well-paid investment fund managers who started work on New Year’s Eve.” They earn some $200,000 a year and after 20 years could retire at age 55 with a pension of about $80,000 a year. A day later and they would have to work to the age of 62 to earn the same pension.
State agencies thus place the interests of government employees above the interests of taxpayers, and this should come as no surprise at the state Board of Equalization. As we previously noted, the board members use public funds to promote themselves, managers dish out raises without performance reviews, and those dismissed get hired back with no trouble.
As Dan Walters of the Sacramento Bee recently observed, after embarrassing audits the BOE “inevitably returns to its bad old ways.” Real reform would be to “abolish the board entirely” and fold it and the Franchise Tax Board into one professional revenue department. The legislature is unlikely to take such a step, however, “because it would mean abolishing offices that legislators themselves yearn to fill.” As with the New Year’s Eve hires, the bi-partisan ruling class looks after itself first and foremost.
During the 2016 election campaign, President Donald Trump called for the construction of a wall along the 1,954 mile border with Mexico for the purpose of minimizing “the illegal flow of drugs, cash, guns, and people across our border.”
During his first week in office, one of President Trump’s first executive actions was to order the Department of Homeland Security to start immediate construction of a U.S.-Mexico border wall. Weeks later, we now have some idea of how much that government infrastructure project will cost. USA Today reports:
PHOENIX—Building a wall or other barrier along the entire U.S.-Mexico border would cost about $21.6 billion and take up to 3½ years to complete, according to an internal Department of Homeland Secretary document.
The estimate is almost double the cost cited by President Trump—who made a border wall built at Mexico’s expense his signature issue throughout the presidential race—as well as new DHS Secretary John Kelly, who commissioned the report.
The document containing the estimate, first reported by Reuters, lays out a three-phase plan about where construction could begin along the 1,250 miles of border without physical barriers and it details challenges to constructing a wall.
It’s not surprising that the estimated cost of the proposed border wall has more than doubled over what candidate Trump suggested. That’s par for the course for any politician’s promises for spending, although it will be interesting to see if he can successfully negotiate the cost down. What is surprising is that even at that cost, it’s comparatively inexpensive and would be built much more quickly than several of the federal government’s other recent and ongoing infrastructure boondoggles.
That’s no joke! The classic modern example of billions of federal dollars being needlessly flushed away with little, if anything, to show for it is California’s bullet-train project, whose cost to U.S. taxpayers for its first 119 miles of track now exceeds $64 billion. John Merline of Investor’s Business Daily describes how ludicrous that federal project has become:
In the late 1800s, it took railroad companies six years to lay 1,907 miles of track for what was to become the Transcontinental Railroad (or as Barack Obama calls it, the Intercontinental Railroad).
Building that railroad line required tunneling through mountains—at one foot a day—building bridges—including one that spanned 700 feet—and doing all the work almost entirely by hand.
As best, it will now take seven years for California to lay 119 miles of track—on relatively flat ground in the middle of nowhere.
That news came from a contract revision that the Obama administration approved late last week. Instead of finishing the first leg of what is supposed to be a High-Speed Rail service from San Francisco to San Diego by 2018, the new deadline is 2022, which will be seven years after the January 2015 groundbreaking.
Even when completed, the first leg will only run from Madera (population 63,105) down to Shafter, a small town north of Bakersfield. Not exactly a heavy transportation corridor.
How much would you bet that, in four years, we’ll have more miles of new border wall built than bullet-train tracks laid in California, despite the latter having had a multi-year head start and billions more in funds?
Ideally, the U.S. government would not be spending money on either initiative, since both have multi-billion dollar price tags while also having questionable benefits. Even in an imperfect world, where we might choose which boondoggle to build, there’s no question as to which infrastructure project’s spigot of federal funds should be shut off first—the much more costly one.
If only the U.S. Congress would make those choices.
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