Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Trapped in a World They Made

The one thing you can count on when politicians start talking about budgets is that they will all – regardless of party affiliation – come out against “waste”. “Waste” is, apparently, what happens when a government agency winds up paying for goods or services they never intended to pay for... or paying for nothing at all when they were supposed to be paying for (intended) goods and services. That's a good operational definition, but it isn't very useful. It's good when we're talking about outright fraud, theft, and embezzlement, but that's not where most of the “waste” happens. It happens when the government is overcharged... when it is correctly charged but the goods are faulty, or the services are found wanting... or when other scams occur, like the price of goods goes up after the contract is signed, or labor costs go up – in which case the dreaded “best effort” clause is dragged out, by which a contractor (and most of any government's budget is, in fact, spent on contracted services – at least at the federal and state levels) has only to do his best in order to stay out of jail. He doesn't have to deliver all the goods, or provide all the services, that were originally contracted for, because... well, because “stuff happens”, don'tcha know.

Plus, it's also true that one man's (or politician's) "waste" is another's "money well spent" -- especially if it serves to buy votes or some other kind of support (financial, political, etc.). No one minds when money that is "spilled on the floor" winds up making friends.

And then there's that other charming category, called “things that no one wants but that the government buys anyway” because they're the result of some sort of pork-barrel trade-off. Or because the Congressperson behind them has so damn much power that no one dares refuse him anything (can you say “Robert Byrd”, class?). Or – the goods and services are desired by someone for the wrong reason, because whatever is purchased doesn't work, or the services don't produce anything of value (think: "consulting"). Then there are the contract efforts that come a-cropper because of sheer incompetence; what seemed like a good idea was turned over to fools, and the result shows it.

Now, with all this in mind, it's a miracle that government contracts, or government funding in general, ever produce _anything_. In other words, it's amazing that it's not _all_ wasted. But in fact, once in a while, by sheer accident, and as the result of random variations in the contracting process, someone who knows what he's doing receives a government contract and actually delivers the goods and services up to specs. (And you can be sure he won't have that contract for long, once his less-competent competitors get wind of what's going on. Nothing infuriates the vast bulk of government contractors like competence and efficiency. It's just not fair!) So if this is the case, it follows that, in fact, once in a while even the government produces something worthwhile... but that's where the plot thickens.

The problem is, as Joseph Sobran once said, “Everything called a 'program' is unconstitutional” -- meaning that virtually everything the government does, save what is explicitly provided for in the Constitution, is illegal and ought not to be done – at least not by the government. In fact, if you simply eliminated all the unconstitutional agencies and programs from the federal budget, the budget would not only be balanced overnight, but would be showing a huge surplus. The problem is, things like entitlement programs didn't get this way overnight, and they are keystones to gigantic social and economic entities. They are, in other words, “too big to fail”, or to be abolished with the stroke of a pen, even though they are blatantly unconstitutional and wasteful, because of the social and economic chaos that would follow. The same argument would be used as was used to support the recent “bailouts” of private and semi-private business and industry... but actually with more validity. No one seriously expects the U.S. government to make cars, for example – but they do expect it to provide a retirement income for everyone (and now health care).

So, the problem the budget cutters at national and state levels are having is that they are reduced to swinging wildly – like someone trying to hit a pinata while blindfolded – at a virtually infinite number of “line items”, each of which has its beneficiaries, defenders, and in some cases paid lobbyists. None of that stuff got there by accident... and you will find a defender for the most outlandish thing in the budget if only you try and cut it; they will come out of the woodwork.

Another point – returning to the idea of “waste” -- is that, as I've pointed out previously, there is, in fact, no such thing as “government waste”... not really. I mean, while the description provided above is true, it's also true that every dollar... every dime... of “government waste” winds up in someone's pocket. So it's not “waste” as far as they're concerned, is it? And they find ways of defending, and fighting for, government programs that they don't even have any business benefiting from – thus another one of the many miracles of our democratic system. Even the parasites, freeloaders, and fraud artists constitute a powerful lobby and a vested interest.

Also, just because something is unconstitutional doesn't mean it should not be made, or provided... by somebody; just not the government. So the spectacle we are seeing now in Washington, and in state houses across the country, is people fighting like demons to keep things in state and federal budgets that are actually good and worthwhile – but just don't belong in those budgets. Their argument is, because this is a good thing, the government should pay for it, without question. But by that argument, the government should pay for every conceivable good thing – even those that might do better being subject to the market forces of supply and demand. And the consequence of this is that, in the long run, the government would have to have a virtually infinite budget... which means it would have to raise everyone's tax bracket to 100% (or higher, as actually happened during Sweden's golden age of socialism). But even collecting the maximum in taxes from a finite population only gives you a finite amount to work with... which is the point at which governments often try to avoid the issue by hyperinflating the currency. Everyone wants $1 million? No problem – just print up a few hundred million million-dollar bills, and hand them out. Problem solved! And then you get Zimbabwe writ large.

What I'm trying to say here is that the conservative argument that there are plenty of potential budget cuts that won't hurt anyone because if only we can cut the “waste” part... is misguided. And as someone astutely pointed out a few years back, government “waste” is not like the fat on a chicken; you can't just peel it off in one layer. It's “larded through, like in steak”. Very true! Hardly any government programs are 100% “waste” even by the strictest standards, and I'm certain that none is “0% waste”. So when a zealous waste-cutter sallies forth, sword in hand, he immediately comes up against this fact, and is likely to turn around and return home, crestfallen and in despair. He can't just start cutting waste, or "fat" -- he invariably strikes bone no matter where he aims. The waste is more intimately bound up with the worthwhile stuff than the proverbial tares were with the wheat. So rather than tackling “waste” per se – except maybe for some of the horror stories from William Proxmire's old “golden fleece” list (and even those will each have their advocates, never fear) – the more realistic approach is what we used to call (in my government days) “salami slicing”, which means that every program gets the same cut – the same percentage. Across the board, no matter who, or what, gets hurt. Grandmothers, babes in arms, fluffy kittens -- it matters not. They get the same cut as anti-personnel land mines. Which means that the entire population of people dependent on government largess starts screaming all at once – but at least no one can justify screaming any louder than anyone else.

So the message that has to be delivered to the protesters in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, and elsewhere is simply this: Just because it looks, feels, and smells like a good thing doesn't mean that the government is obligated to fund it. Alternatives have to be found – preferably on the free market. Either that, or some things simply have to be done without; that's not an impossibility either.

But in all of this, anyone serious about avoiding economic catastrophe is going to come up against that familiar symptom of good, old-fashioned American self-reliance and independence – namely, the entitlement mentality. Americans – some of them, at least – have been accused, of late, of being “entitlement junkies” -- and the expression is quite appropriate. It's not so much that it's in their DNA (we hope) as that it's an acquired habit – acquired over many years, with certain “gateway drugs” (like college loans that are never paid back)... and it gets to the point where a substantial portion of the population doesn't know... can't conceive of... any other way to live except on the government dole. (And I use the term “government dole” broadly to include any beneficiary of an unconstitutional government program – which means that the total runs into the tens of millions... many of whom are unionized, note, and who wield tremendous political power.)

And perhaps the most amazing thing about all of this is that the protesters in Madison and elsewhere seem to expect the state governments to literally create money out of thin air (the way the federal government can, and does, do). Or – they expect it to keep borrowing until it is hopelessly in debt (as many already are)... with no thought of what happens then. In other words, they are not only entitlement junkies, but have absolutely no care for the future... not only their children's but their own, not that far down the line. If the states capitulate to their demands, the eventual, and inevitable, catastrophe will only be worse, and everyone will suffer, including themselves. But again – and this is a classic symptom of the addict – they don't care, and they don't want to be told. A few more years of riding high, and then the deluge – but they would rather have someone else pay if at all possible. And obviously if the federal government opts to bail the states out – which it has already done to some extent – then the catastrophe will be nation-wide, and the misery equally distributed among all the states and all the citizenry – which, I guess, would strike some people as fair, at least.

I guess it's true that, under stress, people are likely to become hysterical, delusional, and self-centered in the extreme. We certainly see this in times of war, strife, and famine... but we're also seeing it in what one would assume were far less stressful times – simply the back end of a major recession, with no insurrections, no revolutions, no plagues, no mass arrests – just a few simple budget-cutting proposals. And yet you would think the Hun was at the gates – which, I guess, shows you how far the American entitlement mentality has progressed since its inception in the New Deal, and how truly decadent we have become as a people. And really, when you think about it, 80 years is plenty of time in which to create a sea change in attitudes – even of an entire nation. If the government “saved” us in the New Deal, well... then it's the job of government to keep on doing so, even unto shielding us from the most minor and trivial discomforts and inconveniences. You say the rate of increase in teachers' salaries is declining by a percentage or two? Take to the streets! What's the government going to do – fire all of us and close the schools? And much the same argument could be made by any category of government employee. They are all vital links – vital cogs – in the vast apparatus. Or at least they think they are. The notion of taking their skills and knowledge and peddling them on the open market is... well, it fills them with horror. A guaranteed job, with a guaranteed income and guaranteed benefits, is simply a “right” these days... and no right-wing, reactionary, conservative “nut” is going to deprive us of it. The problem is, those “nuts” didn't invent the laws of economics. Those laws, while not as iron-clad as those of physics, perhaps (and don't start on me with uncertainty principles and bubble universes, please), nonetheless seem to carry through a wide variety of historical events, political movements, and forms of government. “Supply and demand” may not be quite up to the level of the Periodic Table, but it's a hard thing to defy... as much as collectivist governments might try. Let's just say that governments that try to repeal the laws of economics eventually get repealed themselves. So really, these protesters are not just objecting to a contrary political opinion; they're basically objecting to economic reality. And they can object all they want, but that reality is going to win out in the end – as it already has in some limited and local cases. And at that point, delusions shattered, those who refused to face up to reality will be wandering around in a daze, muttering incoherently like a loyal Nazi in late 1945 – wondering what on earth happened to their perfect world.

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