“Haven’t Crime Victims Paid Enough?” runs the headline on a color half-page newspaper ad from the California Victim Compensation Board. A terrified woman appears to be agreeing with the headline. The ad explains that “financial resources are available,” and “We cover: mental health treatment, medical expenses, funeral and burial, income loss, relocation expenses.” No word of any difficulties along the way.
As Lawrence McQuillan noted in 2003, the motto of CalVCB could be “thousands for lawyers and therapists, not a penny left for victims of crime.” The program “is bankrupt after spending its reserve fund of $96.7 million over the last four year.” CalVCB gave money to lawyers for “minimal services,” authorized mental health treatments at the highest benefit levels, and gave money to ineligible members of victims’ families. CalVCB “has become a pork barrel for government workers, therapists and lawyers.”
According to a 2008 report by California’s state auditor, from 2002-2005 compensation payments “decreased from $123.9 million to $61.6 million—a 50 percent decline.” At the same time, “the costs to support the program have increased. These costs make up a significant portion of the Restitution Fund disbursements—ranging from 26 percent to 42 percent annually.” In some cases, CalVCB staff took longer than 180 days to process applications and longer than 90 days to pay bills. The auditor found an “absence of controls that would prevent erroneous payments” and “no benchmarks, performance measures, or formal written procedures for workload management.”
As Richard Trainor of CalWatchdog noted in 2011, the $100 million CalVCB program sometimes took three years to discharge an approved claim. In some cases, “crime victims are left to twist in the wind on their own and provide their own legal, medical and rehabilitation services, at their own cost.” CalVCB administrative costs ran from 25-40 percent and the state bureaucracy remains lethargic.
A December 23, 2016 CalVCB press release hailing a $4 million grant for victims in San Bernardino came more than a year after the terrorist attack itself. No word about how much of the $4 million would actually go to legitimate victims and now much to government employees, therapists and lawyers. In similar style, the CalVCB newspaper ad omits key realities California’s crime victims and embattled taxpayers alike might want to know.
For the U.S. national debt, the date of March 16, 2017, marks the day when the statutory debt ceiling, which limits how much money the U.S. government can borrow, will go back into effect for the first time since it was suspended back on November 2, 2015, as part of former President Obama’s last budget deal with the U.S. Congress.
Last week, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that it will immediately begin employing “extraordinary measures” to ensure that the U.S. government’s total public debt outstanding stays below whatever level it will have reached at the end of the Ides of March. Reuters’ David Lawder reports on what that means:
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday called on Congress to raise the federal debt ceiling “at the first opportunity” and announced the first of several likely cash management measures aimed at staving off a U.S. default.
The Treasury said it would suspend sales of State and Local Government Series securities, known as “slugs,” effective noon EDT on March 15. A debt ceiling suspension expires at the end of that day....
Mnuchin said additional “extraordinary measures” to avoid default would likely be taken....
Analysts at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington think tank, estimated last week that a U.S. payments default could be staved off until October or November with Treasury’s cash conservation efforts.
In the past, such extraordinary measures have meant doing things like delaying scheduled contributions to pension plans for civilian government employees and the military, and authorizing the U.S. Treasury to issue I.O.U.s to the pensions’ trust funds. These funds were then reimbursed immediately after the debt ceiling was increased to allow more new federal borrowing.
These extraordinary measures follow on the heels of other measures that the U.S. Treasury Department began using several months ago, as it began more actively managing the rate of growth of the U.S. national debt in advance of the reimposition of the debt ceiling on March 16, 2017. Barron’s Teresa Rivas reported before the holidays last December:
With 2017 just around the corner, Congress has its work cut out for it, as it must approve an increase to the US government’s debt ceiling. If it doesn’t, that could translate into volatility for Treasuries, according to Invesco’s Justin Mandeville.
In his latest note, Mandeville writes that if Congress doesn’t raise the debt ceiling, the Treasury’s cash balance—regulated by law—would have to decrease “dramatically,” which would in turn curtail Treasury bill issuance.
The Treasury has already started trying to address this possibility, drawing down its cash balance to meet the law’s mandate if necessary, and recent T bill auctions have been scaled back. With little incentive to change this in the first quarter, he says investors should expect low auction sizes that put pressure on rates.
If Congress doesn’t act, then the Treasury can use “extraordinary measures” to avoid default, but that would only give it breathing space until mid-year.
March 16, 2017, is also significant because the White House has announced that it will issue a preview of President Trump’s first official budget proposal, to be released in full in mid-April. Called the “skinny budget,” here’s how Michelle Cottle of The Atlantic described it:
Within the next couple of weeks, things are going to get vastly less breezy, when the White House officially drops its 2018 “skinny budget” on Congress. This will give lawmakers their first real peek at Trump’s economic priorities––beyond his usual unicorns-for-all pledge to slash taxes while spending willy-nilly on things like infrastructure and immigration enforcement.
At that point, stuff starts getting real.
To clarify, what the White House is handing over is not a full budget proposal. It is a “skinny budget,” which sounds like some god-awful low-calorie sludge you’d order at Starbucks, but is in fact a general overview of the president’s spending priorities for the 2018 fiscal year. As Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney stressed at a press briefing Monday, the outline will not address entitlement programs such as Social Security or Medicare; it will not tackle tax reform; it won’t get into any specifics on infrastructure; and it won’t attempt any sort of revenue projections. It will merely provide “topline” numbers on discretionary spending that the various agencies will be expected to abide by.
Americans can therefore expect a lot of phony political posturing and bureaucratic howling to begin in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 16, 2017.
The elimination of taxes on feminine hygiene products is a global movement, but California governor Jerry Brown has been a staunch opponent of the tax cut. Last September he vetoed seven bills that would have cut taxes, and in his veto message he said “tax breaks are the same as new spending – they both cost the general fund money.” This year California Democrats have revised their proposals by cutting the so-called “tampon tax” and replacing it with a new tax on hard liquor. Assembly Bill 479 would increase taxes on liquor under 100 proof by $1.20 per gallon and on liquor over 100 proof by $2.40 per gallon. Beer and wine would be untouched and distributors would bear the tax increase. The measure needs a two-thirds vote to pass. For their part, taxpayers might want to veto Brown’s notion that tax breaks are the same as new spending.
In a tax break, a consumer gets to regain more of her own money. In new spending, the state spends the money it grabs from taxpayers. By the standard of government greed, all tax cuts must be “paid for” and the state must never suffer a reduction in revenue, like a worker who loses a job or has his wages cut. By this logic, if the state eliminated a useless agency such as the California Coastal Commission or the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, it would have to start a new useless agency to compensate. Meanwhile, if the state wants to save money, there are plenty of ways to do that.
For example, stop allowing California Highway Patrol bosses to retire and then boost their already gold-plated pensions by claiming a disability. Consider, for example, former CHP assistant chief Kyle Scarber, 53, who bags a pension of $125,000 a year. Scarber also faces criminal charges for aiding his son, accused of rape, to escape to Mexico. As this plays out, Scarber is demanding that CalPERS give him a more lucrative disability pension. It’s a safe bet that Scarber will get what he wants.
Many CHP bosses have boosted their pensions with dubious disability claims known as “chief’s disease.” To eliminate this waste and fraud would not be “the same as new spending.” Like eliminating the tampon tax, it is simply the right thing to do.
George Will has an interesting column about how the number of people employed by government at all levels has grown since 1960. Here are the leading paragraphs:
In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected president, America’s population was 180 million and it had approximately 1.8 million federal bureaucrats (not counting uniformed military personnel and postal workers). Fifty-seven years later, with seven new Cabinet agencies, and myriad new sub-Cabinet agencies (e.g., the Environmental Protection Agency), and a slew of matters on the federal policy agenda that were virtually absent in 1960 (health care insurance, primary and secondary school quality, crime, drug abuse, campaign finance, gun control, occupational safety, etc.), and with a population of 324 million, there are only about 2 million federal bureaucrats.
So, since 1960, federal spending, adjusted for inflation, has quintupled and federal undertakings have multiplied like dandelions, but the federal civilian workforce has expanded only negligibly, to approximately what it was when Dwight Eisenhower was elected in 1952. Does this mean that “big government” is not really big? And that by doing much more with not many more employees it has accomplished prodigies of per-worker productivity? John J. DiIlulio Jr., of the University of Pennsylvania and the Brookings Institution, says: Hardly.
In his 2014 book “Bring Back the Bureaucrats,” he argued that because the public is, at least philosophically, against “big government,” government has prudently become stealthy about how it becomes ever bigger. In a Brookings paper, he demonstrates that government expands by indirection, using “administrative proxies”—state and local government, for-profit businesses, and nonprofit organizations. Since 1960, the number of state and local government employees has tripled to more than 18 million, a growth driven by federal money: Between the early 1960s and early 2010s, the inflation-adjusted value of federal grants for the states increased more than tenfold. For example, the EPA has fewer than 20,000 employees, but 90 percent of its programs are completely administered by thousands of state government employees, largely funded by Washington.
Although not directly employed by federal government entities, because these jobs are directly supported by funding provided by the U.S. government for the purpose of obtaining its objectives, they represent an effective extension of the federal payroll. As such, they are essentially “off-the-books” federal bureaucrats, which are funded through a combination of grants or contracts to non-profit organizations, as well as state and local governments.
Or as John DiIlulio describes them, they are “de facto Feds”, of which he estimates that there are 12 million people employed by state and local governments and nonprofit organizations for the purpose of administering federal government policies and programs, which are in addition to the 2.6 million civilian employees of the federal government and approximately 1.5 million uniformed military personnel.
- With one-third of its revenues flowing from government, if only one-fifth of the 11 million nonprofit sector employees owe their jobs to federal or intergovernmental grant, contract, or fee funding, that’s 2.2 million workers.
- As noted, the best for-profit contractor estimate is 7.5 million.
- And the conservative sub-national government employee estimate is three million.
- That’s 12.2 million in all, but let’s scale down to call it 12 million.
- 12 million plus our good-old two million actual federal bureaucrats equals 14 million.
- And how many were there back in 1960? The feds had some administrative proxies even then, maybe as many as two million, plus two million actual federal bureaucrats.
- So, let’s call it 14 million in all today versus four million back when Ike was saying farewell.
So, the real federal bureaucracy, defined as the total number of people (federal civilian workers, de facto feds in state or local government agencies, for-profit contractor employees, and nonprofit workers) paid to administer federal policies and programs, probably increased at least 3.5-fold during the same five-and-a-half decades that real federal spending increased five-fold and the number of pages in the Federal Register increased six-fold.
Big government is a lot bigger than most people think!
Residents and visitors alike know that getting around the Bay Area is not exactly a walk in the park. A $2.4 billion Transbay Transit Center is slated to open in December, but as San Francisco Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross note, this highly touted “Grand Central Station of the West,” will wind up as “little more than the world’s most expensive bus station.” Worse, “it’s going to cost an estimated $20 million a year to run the place, and no one knows where all the money will come from.”
According to San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who chairs the local Transportation Authority, the “operating subsidy” could be $20 million a year but “without a source of revenue.” So as the columnists explain, “taxpayers and bridge commuters will probably be on the hook to pick up millions of dollars in costs, although the exact amount still isn’t known.”
As we noted, a $3.5 billion bond approval has Bay Area Rapid Transit bosses panting for another $1.5 billion in toll hikes that would boost bridge fares as high as $9. On the other hand, BART has no trouble paying janitor Liang Zhao Zhang $271,000 in one year. That includes $162,000 in overtime, even though this sweeping Stakhanov seems to spend much of his overtime inside a closet.
Meanwhile, Supervisor Aaron Peskin has been appointed to the California Coastal Commission, an unelected body of regulatory zealots who override scores of duly elected governments on coastal land-use issues. Peskin was appointed by state Senate boss Kevin de Leon, whose chief of staff Dan Reeves forbade Senator Janet Nguyen, a refugee from Vietnam, from saying anything critical of the late Tom Hayden, a former state senator and Uncle Tom of Vietnam’s Stalinist regime. When Senator Nguyen, a southern California Republican, dared to speak out, Senate Democrats turned off her microphone and tossed the Asian woman from the Senate floor.
In his first go-round as California governor, Jerry Brown opposed the influx of Vietnamese refugees and even tried to block refugee flights into Travis Air Force Base. With Brown governor again, little wonder why the Senate would give Janet Nguyen a rough ride. On the other hand, the state’s ruling class always does the same for California’s embattled taxpayers.
The day before his inauguration, The Hill reported on a trial balloon that members of President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration were floating about potential spending cuts in the federal government’s budget, in which the amount of the federal government’s spending upon the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) were targeted for reduction.
At the time, Alexander Bolton of the Washington Post took great exception to a very small portion of the potential spending cuts that had been floated, where the proposals involved realizing the complete privatization the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and zeroing out the federal contributions for both the NEA and NEH.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting received $445 million in 2016. (It gets additional funding from donors like you.) NEA got $148 million. NEH requested the same. The Congressional Budget Office figures that about $3.9 trillion was spent by the government during the fiscal year.
Bolton continued to narrow his focus on the relative cost to American taxpayers of the National Endowment of the Arts with respect to the size of the U.S. government’s annual spending.
If you were at Thanksgiving and demanded a slice of pecan pie proportionate to 2016 NEA spending relative to the federal budget, you’d end up with a piece of pie that would need to be sliced off with a finely-tuned laser.
What Bolton didn’t consider is the relative size of the benefits that American taxpayers receive from the things the NEA does in spending $148 million each year (actually $131 million, after subtracting the nearly $17 million in salaries paid to some 173 NEA bureaucrats), which has to be compared against the value that the nation’s arts and cultural industrial complex adds to the U.S. economy each year.
According the National Endowment for the Arts itself, just four years ago, the arts and cultural production of Americans contributed $704.2 billion, or $4.2% of GDP, to the U.S. economy.
To be clear, what the NEA is referring to when it cites “arts and cultural production” are activities that include things like the performing arts, museums, motion pictures, sound recording, publishing (including software, such as for video games), sports, et cetera. Many of which are, in fact, multi-billion dollar industries that continuously dedicate enormous resources to developing new products and services, which other businesses subsidize through advertising or other marketing promotions to provide these things at the lowest possible cost to the entire audience of American consumers.
If 100% of the NEA’s entire annual budget made a meaningful contribution to the value added to the U.S. economy by the nation’s arts and cultural production sector, it would account for right around 0.02% of all the other real value that they produce.
Unfortunately, since the NEA’s annual budget represents such a small fraction of the things that the arts and cultural production sector does, much of what it contributes can be considered to be trivial extensions of things that the private sector is already doing without any meaningful assistance from the U.S. government.
For example, private sector concert promoters made a big splash in the news several years ago when they introduced holographic performances by deceased artists like Tupac Shakur at live outdoor concert events. The NEA’s contribution to that technological development involved deciding to retread that same artistic territory by providing $1.7 million to assist the National Comedy Center‘s staging of a hologram performance of a classic scene from the “I Love Lucy” 1950’s television show featuring deceased comedic actress Lucille Ball at the New York state-funded tourist attraction, which is located about 70 miles south of Buffalo.
Thanks to a 2007 study in the National Tax Journal on how the arts industry addressed federal spending cuts enacted in the 1990s, we have a good idea of what would happen to the arts in the United States if the NEA’s budget was entirely eliminated. The private sector would respond to increased fund raising efforts on the part of the affected institutions by taking up a very large share of the slack resulting from any budget cuts, with estimates of the amount of replaced funding that they would be able to obtain ranging between 80 and 100% of their “lost” federal funding on average.
To put the amount of federal funding that we’re talking about into more personal terms, the Washington Post also provides the following estimate of the personal relative cost of the U.S. government’s combined spending on its national endowments for the arts, for the humanities, and for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with respect to the federal budget.
If you make $50,000 a year, spending the equivalent of what the government spends on these three programs would be like spending less than $10.
So here’s a novel idea. If you enjoy consuming the experiences of the products and services found in performing arts, museums, motion pictures, sound recording, publishing, video games, sporting events, et cetera, and you make $50,000, invest $10 or more during the course of a year above and beyond what you do today on the kind of arts and cultural production that you would like to have more of in your life. Not only can you help completely take over and replace the role of these government agencies in the economy, you can get the greater benefit of knowing that your dollars are going to the kind of arts and cultural production that you value most, and not what some federal government bureaucrat or politician values more than you.
February 28 marked 20 years since bank robbers Larry Phillips and Emil Matasareanu engaged in a full-blown firefight with police outside the Bank of America on Laurel Canyon Boulevard in North Hollywood. Both deployed fully automatic rifles illegal to possess at the time. They sprayed anything that moved, firing even at television news helicopters. Viewers across the country saw the shootout unfold and as the twentieth anniversary approached, news accounts recalled the battle. Few, if any, noted how officers had gained the upper hand.
In the early going, the officers’ 9mm pistols were no match for the robo-robbers’ firepower. So the outgunned cops headed to nearby B&B Sales, a private gun store. The owner recognized some of the officers as previous customers and, overlooking the 15-day waiting period a typical civilian would face before being able to legally obtain firearms, quickly supplied them with four 5.56mm Bushmaster XM-15 semi-automatic rifles with high-capacity magazines and two Remington shotguns with rifled slugs. Once the officers were on a more equal footing, they plunged back into the fray, taking down the bad guys with no loss of innocent life.
The shootout prompted calls for stricter gun control but the robo-robbers’ weapons were already illegal and violent criminals do not follow gun laws. As we noted, the six gun-control bills governor Jerry Brown signed last year impose background checks to purchase ammunition, ban magazines holding more than 10 rounds and even restrict the loaning of guns to close family members. Brown’s budget package also slid $5 million to the California Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis, which will probe who owns guns, why they own them and how they use firearms. As Stephen P. Halbrook noted in Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and “Enemies of the State” Germany’s National Socialist regime also wanted to know “who owns guns” and they ruthlessly suppressed firearm ownership by disfavored groups.
Californians can be forgiven for thinking that new gun laws burden law-abiding citizens more than they restrict the violent criminals who flout the law.
In all the excitement over the election last fall, a surging government intrusion failed to get the attention it deserved. In late September, the White House Office of Management and Budget, of all places, proposed a new racial classification: MENA, standing for Middle East and North Africa. It covers the area from Morocco to Iran, a region, as the Washington Post observed, that “comprises a jumble of ethnic and racial categories.” The United States also comprises a jumble of ethnic and racial categories.
People with ancestry in Iceland, Scotland and Denmark are tagged “Caucasians,” which would be accurate only for people from the Caucuses region, such as the Boston Marathon bombers, or Stalin. According to this geographical pattern, people with ancestry in Spain should be classified as “Iberians” but they are not. They are “Latinos,” but in the current system people such as Antonin Scalia, Madonna, and Frank Sinatra, all with ancestry in Italy, home to the plain of Latium, are not “Latinos.” They too are “Caucasians” or “whites.” Many “Latinos” or “Hispanics,” a linguistic term, are whiter than the late Senator Robert Byrd, a former Ku Klucker. Even so, in the USA they can become “people of color.” None of this makes any sense but those who advance it have purposes in mind.
The classification system is the basis for handing out benefits on the basis of race and ethnicity, not something any free society should do. The classification divides society into creditor and debtor classes, oppressor and oppressed, if you will. As the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn noted, the most meaningful division goes right down the middle of every human heart. The classification system is also a form of identity theft, assigning identity in relation to the group, not the individual, and promoting group rights over individual rights.
The MENA designation will supposedly land in Congress for approval in 2018, in time for the 2020 census. Congress should not approve MENA and would do well to dump the entire classification system. The Census should simply count the number of people in the country. A government that can’t balance a budget, and runs up a debt of $20 trillion, should not be in the ethnic classification business.
On March 15, 2017, the U.S. government’s statutory debt ceiling for its total public debt outstanding will go back into effect at whatever level of accumulated national debt is on the books as of that date. CNBC has marked the date on their calendar.
After a 15-month hiatus, Congress is once again warming up for another round of self-inflicted budget “crises” that have become all but standard operating procedure when the Treasury needs to raise the limit of its borrowing authority.
That’s right: The “debt ceiling” is back.
The budgetary bottleneck arrives again next month, when the latest suspension of the limit expires on March 15. Back in October 2015, Congress decided to punt on the issue by suspending the debt ceiling—with a hard end date.
While the official date is now less than two weeks away, the U.S. Treasury Department has been actively working to keep the nation’s total public debt outstanding from rising any faster than possible since late November 2016. Their efforts so far have been successful in holding the national debt lower than it might otherwise have grown, which if not for their intervention, would have been surpassed $20 trillion back in mid-December 2016.
What the U.S. Congress will most likely do, sometime during the next month, is act to increase the national debt to accommodate the spending already planned to occur through the rest of the government’s 2017 fiscal year, which ends on September 30, 2017.
But there is an interesting dynamic developing in the U.S. Congress where a number of budget-conscious representatives may look to use the debt ceiling to rein in some of the Trump administration’s more ambitious spending plans. Politico‘s Rachel Bade and Josh Dawsey report:
GOP lawmakers are fretting that Trump’s spending requests, due out in a month or so, will blow a gaping hole in the federal budget—ballooning the debt and undermining the party’s doctrine of fiscal discipline.
Trump has signaled he’s serious about a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, as he promised on the campaign trail. He also wants Republicans to approve extra spending this spring to build a wall along the U.S. southern border and beef up the military—the combined price tag of which could reach $50 billion, insiders say. And that’s to say nothing of tax cuts, which the president’s team has suggested need not necessarily be paid for....
“I don’t think you can do infrastructure, raise defense spending, do a tax cut, keep Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security just as they are, and balance the budget. It’s just not possible,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a senior member of the House Budget Committee. “Sooner or later, they’re going to come to grips with it because the numbers force you to.”
Indeed they will, but that hasn’t stopped any previous presidential administration from running up the national debt from the time it took office until it left. At last, not since Andrew Jackson fully paid off the U.S. national debt in 1835.
Last week, on February 22, 2017, President Trump spoke to the press for the first time about the budget and the national debt while attending an informal federal budget meeting at the White House. Here are some quick quotes that stood out during his introductory remarks, first off, covering his impression of the overall state of the nation’s finances.
“Unfortunately the budget we’re inheriting, essentially inheriting, is a mess. The finances of our country are a mess, but we’re going to clean them up.”
On the national debt:
“We have enormous work to do as the national debt doubled over the last eight years. Our debt has doubled, over a short period of time.”
And how he intends to address federal spending:
“We’re going to be spending the money in a very, very careful manner. Our moral duty to the taxpayer requires us to make our government leaner and more accountable, we must do a lot more with less, and we must stop the improper payments and the abuses, negotiate better prices and look for every last dollar of savings.”
Toward the end of his remarks, he made the following observation about the federal budget:
“It is absolutely out of control”.
If you want to see his full introductory remarks, the following just-over-four-minutes long YouTube video captures them.
If Donald Trump has a strength from all his years in business, it lies in his experience in having to address every aspect of controlling his businesses’ expenditures to make sure that waste was minimized while generating the real growth needed to make his businesses profitable. He’s had failures and he’s had successes over his long career in the private sector, where the federal budget presents a challenge for him to apply what he’s learned from both kinds of experiences.
How much success he’ll have as President will in no small part be determined by how well that previous experience can be translated and applied to a federal government that seeks to defy restraint where the spending desired by professional politicians and bureaucrats is concerned.
Over the next four years, President Trump will no doubt have both failures and successes in dealing with that challenge, so the real question is how will the U.S. government’s finances net out? The U.S. government is, after all, already on a trajectory where the status quo means it will return to running trillion-dollar-plus annual deficits within just a few years.
We will all start to find out more about President Trump’s plans for the U.S. government’s budget sometime in the next month. So far, the Trump administration has signaled that both Social Security and Medicare won’t be affected by cuts in their upcoming budget proposal for the U.S. government’s 2018 fiscal year, clearing the field for the fiscally troubled Medicaid program to be the focus of serious budgetary reform efforts in the immediate future.
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