Waste and Abuse

So, we’ve just narrowly averted — do we avert things in any other way? — we’ve just narrowly averted yet another government shutdown. I can’t help but feel that the magic is gone, and that, whatever horror a shutdown threat once held, it’s just not there anymore. Like the filibuster, it has become yet another scripted Washington routine. Sordid, to be sure, but so is everything else.

This is unfortunate for several reasons, and the boy-who-cried-wolf scenario is high on the list. Threaten often enough, and when it’s real, no one will be prepared for it. But there’s another consideration here, one not so much making the headlines: Shutdown threats are wasteful.

When government agencies don’t operate on a regular, dependable, yearly budget, they have no other choice but to improvise. They delay purchasing orders. They shelve time-sensitive plans; these then become useless, even though possibly a lot of effort went into making them. Agencies find long-term planning difficult, even if, as happens in many of them, long-term planning is substantially all that they do. To make up for it, they binge when they get the chance, because they know it might not come again. Spending might not go down — and it isn’t — but it does get a whole lot sloppier.

Anecdotally, I can say that these things happen whether or not the government actually does shut down. The damage happens when spending cycles are irregular, when planning windows have to be cut from a year to a couple of weeks, when the next window is longer, and then shorter again, and then the money’s gone, and then it’s back.

One big reason why we have yearly budgets is to avoid these very inefficiencies — as Republican president and former businessman Warren Harding understood when he initiated the annual budgeting process in 1921. How good is it to have an annual budget, rather than not have one? It’s hard to say, but Harding was able to cut government spending in half in two years.

Ask a Republican where to cut the federal budget, and he will likely say foreign aid. Ask for something else, and he’ll say waste. Well then. Look no further.

(Disclosure: My husband works for NASA, a federal agency, although it would not have been affected by recent events, as its funding had already been passed in a separate bill.)

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32 thoughts on “Waste and Abuse

  1. Jason, don’t really have anything to add (agree with your post FWIW), but just wanted to say I hope this doesn’t impact too badly upon your husband, I trully am sorry about my assholish response the first time round. Am I wrong though in thinking this budgetry provision has been sorted?

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    • It had no impact at all on him.  NASA’s budget wasn’t in the bill that was held up, but was approved earlier.

      As to the previous discussion, I confess I’d forgotten your stance entirely.  I’m not sure if that makes me a good person, or a bad one.

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      • Well I guess that makes us both good liberals, albeit on different sides of the economic fence, as I have to admit to not having a disimilar stance to you, but rather being uncharitble towards your domestic situation as a result of crude politics.

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    • I am not denying that waste exists elsewhere.  It certainly does.  The Corporation for Public Broadcasting wastes an appalling .01% of the entire federal budget, for example, and on this I agree with you.

      I am only suggesting one other source of waste, a source that ought to concern anyone who is genuinely concerned with the problem.

       

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    • Zero out every one of those programs you listed, and tell us what percentage of the federal budget you have reduced.

      Without even Googling, I will bet it is equal to a rounding error in the Pentagon budget.

      It might, in a good year, equal one planeload of shrink wrapped bricks of C-notes we carpet bombed Iraq with.

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      • Liberty:

        Did I ever claim that getting rid of waste would fix everything, no I never did. Just b/c getting rid of some crappy programs may not save that much is not a reason to let waste continue.  The point was that waste is easy to find, despite liberals’ claims that everything the gov’t does is vital.

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        • Speaking on behalf of liberals everywhere, I will grant that there is a tremendous amount of wastefraudandabuse in the governemtn, at all levels.

          Trouble is, your “waste” is another person’s “vital important job creating program’.

          Every penny of the 3.8 Trillion dollars that we will spend this year is overseen by the vigilant hawk eyes of some lobby or trade group or another.

          On another post someone (was it you?) wrote a line about how the Republicans under GWB “spend like Democrats”- I had to laugh- when did Republicans ever spend like Republicans? When the Lindy Hop was popular?

          I began political life as an enthusiastic Reagan Republican, but by the end of GHWB’s term I was disillusioned by the massive increase in spending, and by the Clinton years I realized the conservatives- not Republicans- but the conservative movement, root, branch, and flower  is utterly insincere about “fiscal conservatism”.

          It is the business community, the GOP funders and shot-callers, not the welfare mothers, who demand massive government spending.

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  2. THIS!!!!!

    Even in the past when congress actually passed real budgets (which it hasn’t for going on 3 years), it has never in my government service passed them before the start of the fiscal year.  Many agencies have 6-7 months to try and squeeze through any meaningful purchases.  Which can be problematic given the burdensome acquisition rules within the government (which exist for good reasons – but they cause a huge double bind because of the time issue).  Classic Double Bind.

    There are many reasons for the ridiculous amount of administrative staff at most gov agencies, but I think you nailed a huge one.  Playing money games is the only way agencies can survive, so it makes sense for them to have many bright folks in DC to lobby for funds in the ambiguous CR world — even at the expense of people carrying out the agencies’ missions.  (Of course, less people doing the mission means the mission suffers which is a good excuse to get more funding … wash and repeat).

     

     

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  3. Ask a Republican where to cut the federal budget, and he will likely say foreign aid.

    Then, show him a nice, easy to understand graph of how spending actually breaks down and ask him again, and he will likely say _______?

     

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  4. “Shutdown threats are wasteful.”

    Wasteful or not, shutdown scenarios are inevitable, and to my mind you can throw in the similar types of brinksmanship negotiations like the debt limit drama and the sovereign debt bailouts in Europe.

    One thing I have tried to emphasize is that the divide between Team Red and Team Blue isn’t just about what whatever is being contested today. It’s also about who created the lay of the land that we’re all standing on.

    Or to be a little bit reductive, there are ideological endpoints: they believe in fairness and equity, we believe in excellence and justice. Most people have internalized that already. But it’s becoming clear that a lot of today’s ideological battle isn’t necessarily about that, it’s about process. In addition to ideological endpoints, there’s also ideological process: they believe in entanglement, we believe in engagement. They won. Shtt is entangled.

    As a variety of pressures are put on various elements of an entangled system, there is going to be brinksmanship, escalation, and chicken-games.

    Therefore if you are supporting or enabling Team Blue, you are not just supporting high taxes on the rich or protection for endangered species or whatever your ideological commitments happen to be. You are also supporting debt limit showdowns, Euro sovereign debt crises, and the rest of it.

    That’s something left-leaning libertarians ought to know better about, but at least to a first glance they don’t.

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  5. Ask your husband to explain how SpaceX can build a rocket for half as much as NASA.  Then get back to me on how “waste” is a meaningless term for a nonexistent problem that’s just Republican rhetoric.

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    • Knowing actually quite a lot about both SpaceX and NASA (the founder of the X-Prize used to work for an Idealab operating company, and many of his first employees are friends of mine… and on the flip side, I know more than a few people that work at JPL) I’m inclined to…

      Hey, I have a better idea.  I’ll write a full-length post on this.  More later.

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    • You could try asking him yourself.  He reads and also blogs here, you know.

      How bout this — you ask him directly, right after you admit that I didn’t say that government waste is “a meaningless term for a nonexistent problem.”

      I’ll give you this, though, in the hands of Republicans, it’s most certainly just rhetoric.

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      • So…waste is important, but not when Republicans talk about it, because they’re big fat lying liars who lie about everything.  So it’s wrong for a Republican to say that waste is important, because they mean something other than waste, and are wrong about that something and are therefore wrong about waste, even though waste is important when it isn’t Republicans talking about it.

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        • So…waste is important, but not when Republicans talk about it, because…

          …because inevitably, when Republicans talk about waste, they are talking about tiny, merely symbolic things (like foreign aid, or NASA) that will have no real impact on the budget deficit.

          So it’s wrong for a Republican to say that waste is important, because…

          …because the things they identify in this category are always, always, always tiny.  Wasteful, perhaps, but not worth the effort when there are so much bigger fish to fry.

           

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