One can build a very good predictive model of government agency behavior if one assumes the main purpose of the agency is to maximize its budget and staff count. Yes, many in the organization are there because they support the agency’s public mission (e.g. protecting the environment at the EPA), but I can tell you from long experience that preservation of their staff and budget will almost always come ahead of their public mission if push comes to shove.
The way, then, to punish an agency is to take away some staff and budget. Nothing else will get their attention. Unfortunately, in most scandals where an agency proves itself to be incompetent or corrupt or both (e.g. IRS, the VA, more recently with OPM and their data breaches) the tendency is to believe the “fix” involves sending the agency more resources. Certainly the agency and its supporters will scream “lack of resources” as an excuse for any problem.
And that is how nearly every failing government agency is rewarded for their failure, rather than punished. Which is why our agencies fail so much.
Warren Meyer, “Congress Almost Always Rewards Failed Government Agencies. Here is Why”, Coyote Blog, 2015-06-17.
February 23, 2017
February 5, 2017
Some of my favorites include environmental building requirements tied to government contract approval. The LEED certification is such a joke. There are a ton of “real” categories, like motion detecting lights, solar / thermal filtering windows, CO2 neutral engineering. But if you can’t get enough of that, you can also squeeze in with points for “environmental education”. For instance, a display in the lobby discussing the three solar panels on the roof, or with a pretty diagram of the building’s heat pump system. You can end up getting a platinum LEED certification and still have the highest energy consumption density in the city of Chicago, as it turns out.
The proprietor of the Finem Respice blog, quoted by Warren Meyer, “Diesel Emissions Cheating, Regulation, and the Crony State”, Coyote Blog, 2017-01-14.
February 3, 2017
January 26, 2017
We saw in an earlier story that the government is trying to tighten regulations on private company cyber security practices at the same time its own network security practices have been shown to be a joke. In finance, it can never balance a budget and uses accounting techniques that would get most companies thrown in jail. It almost never fully funds its pensions. Anything it does is generally done more expensively than would be the same task undertaken privately. Its various sites are among the worst superfund environmental messes. Almost all the current threats to water quality in rivers and oceans comes from municipal sewage plants. The government’s Philadelphia naval yard single-handedly accounts for a huge number of the worst asbestos exposure cases to date.
By what alchemy does such a failing organization suddenly become such a good regulator?
January 24, 2017
I was researching energy shorts and had a ton of discussions with former regulatory types in the U.S. I was stunned to discover that there was widespread acknowledgement on the regulatory side that many regulations were impossible to comply with and so “compliance trump cards” were built into the system.
For instance, in Illinois you get favorable treatment as a potential government contractor if you “comply” with all sorts of insane progressive policy strictures. “Woman or minority owned business” or “small business owner”, as an example. Even a small advantage in the contracting process for (for example) the State of Illinois puts you over the edge. Competitors without (for instance) the Woman or Minority Owned Business certification would have to underbid a certified applicant by 10-15% (it’s all a complex points system) to just break even. It got so bad so quickly that the regs were revised to permit a de minimis ownership (1%). Of course, several regulatory lawyers quickly made a business out of offering minority or women equity “owners” who would take 1% for a fee (just absorb how backwards it is to be paying a fee to have a 1% equity partner) with very restrictive shareholder agreements. Then it became obvious that you’d get points for the “women” and “minority” categories BOTH if you had a black woman as a proxy 1% “owner.” There was one woman who was a 1% owner of 320 firms.
The proprietor of the Finem Respice blog, quoted by Warren Meyer, “Diesel Emissions Cheating, Regulation, and the Crony State”, Coyote Blog, 2017-01-14.
January 23, 2017
Scott Alexander finds, to his surprise, that two of the candidates for the post of FDA commissioner in the Trump administration are following his blog or social media profile. To mark that, he offers five easy-to-implement policy fixes that would make a difference:
1. Medical reciprocity with Europe and other First World countries […] Right now, Europe has a licensing agency about as strict as the FDA approving medications invented in Europe. Any pharma company that wants their medication approved in both the US and Europe has to spend a billion or so dollars getting it approved by the FDA, and then another billion or so dollars getting it approved by the Europeans. A lot of pharma companies don’t want to bother, with the end result that Europe has many good medications that America doesn’t, and vice versa. Just in my own field, amisulpride, one of the antipsychotics with the best safety/efficacy balance, has been used successfully in Europe for twenty years and is totally unavailable here despite a real need for better antipsychotic drugs. If the FDA agreed to approve any medication already approved by Europe (or to give it a very expedited review process), we could get an immediate windfall of dozens of drugs with unimpeachable records for almost no cost. Instead, in the real world, we’re cracking down on imported Canadian pharmaceuticals because the Canadians don’t have exactly our same FDA which means that for all we know they might be adding thalidomide to every pill or something. This is exactly the sort of silly anti-competitive cronyist practice that a principled intelligent libertarian could do away with.
2. Burdensome approval process for generic medications […] How come Martin Shkreli can hike the dose of an off-patent toxoplasma drug 5000%, and everyone just has to take it lying down even though the drug itself is so easy to produce that high school chemistry classes make it just to show they can? The reason is that every new company that makes a drug, even a widely-used generic drug that’s already been proven safe, has to go through a separate approval process that costs millions of dollars and takes two to three years – and which other companies in the market constantly try to sabotage through legal action. Shkreli can get away with his price hike because he knows that by the time the FDA gives anyone permission to compete with him, he’ll have made his fortune and moved on to his next nefarious scheme. If the FDA allowed reputable pharmaceutical companies in good standing to produce whatever generic drugs they wanted, the same as every other company is allowed to make whatever products they want, scandals like Daraprim and EpiPens would be a thing of the past, and the price of many medications could decrease by an order of magnitude. […]
3. Stop having that thing allowing companies to “steal” popular and effective drugs that have been in the public domain for years, claim them as their private property, shut down all competitors, and jack up the price 10x just by bringing them up to date with modern FDA bureaucracy.
4. Stop having that thing where drug companies can legally bribe other companies not to compete with them. I like this one because it sounds anti-libertarian (we’re imposing a new regulation on what companies can do!) but I think it’s exactly the sort of thing that the crony capitalists would never touch but which principled intelligent libertarians like O’Neill and Srinivasan might be open to, in order to bring more actors into the marketplace.
5. Stop thwarting consumer diagnostic products and genetic tests […] Srinivasan comes from the genetic testing world himself, so he’s likely to be extra sympathetic to this.
January 22, 2017
I am not sure that this is a suitable subject for a blog post, probably more a project for an aspiring PhD student, but with all the discussion of conflicts of interest in the Trump cabinet, it strikes me that the most glaring conflict in the public sector is ignored: The CoI between state and local politicians elected with the support of public sector unions who then participate in compensation negotiations for the members of those unions. Here the temptation of the politicians to buy the support of the unions with public money is overwhelming. The impact of this is potentially trillions when public pension liabilities are included.
This is such an obvious conflict that I have looked to see if there are laws preventing this, but my initial research shows nothing.
It would be interesting to see if there is a statistical relationship between union support and subsequent pay rises. I would expect this relationship to be especially strong with deferred compensation (such as pensions) since this is very difficult for voters to monitor and can be easily gamed with unrealistic assumptions about, for example, investment returns.
Roger Barris, quoted by Tyler Cowen, “Understudied conflicts of interest in American government”, Marginal Revolution, 2017-01-11.
January 8, 2017
James Miller is more than a bit skeptical of those who unabashedly sing the praises of NASA and more generally the “I love science sexually” crowd:
I’ve never understood the slobbering love affair many have with outer space and, more specifically, NASA. Sure, the moon landing was an incredible feat demonstrating American strength at time of conflict with a competing superpower. But I’m in agreement with Gary North: It was the “most expensive PR stunt in American history,” with little other benefit. We have yet to put a man on another moon, let alone another planet. It’s been a half century since Neil Armstrong made history, and the federal government still fails at running a simple website.
The saccharine lengths some go to to express their admiration for NASA has always made me queasy. Like all government bureaucracies, it wastes an incredible amount of money. Yet conservative lawmakers like Ted Cruz never miss an opportunity to remind us that conquering new galaxies is paramount to our national survival.
If the windbags in Washington can’t put a stop to the caliphate of killers in the Middle East, what hope is there for putting a colony on Kepler-186f?
My antipathy for space travel goes hand in hand with my overall distaste for science worshipping. The celebrification of the study of the natural world has been as infantilizing and degrading as Richard Nixon’s clownish appearance on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. “I fucking love science”? I’d much rather string celebrity science guy Neil deGrasse Tyson up by his thumbs.
H/T to Kathy Shaidle for the link. Kathy also throws shade at Star Wars and praises the heck out of Star Trek:
If Star Trek was actually set on Antarctica (and here, it is) I would watch the hell out of that (and have.)
But I also love how this fictional universe (which I would HATE to live in because they’ve abolished money, wear ugly clothes, and pretend to believe in peace and love and shit) has inspired real world, well, enterprises.
Yes, space travel is stupid. But it’s amazing that a black woman decided she could and would become an astronaut because she saw an actress do it on her TV when she was a kid.
I totally get that, and just get off on the phenomenon of people taking a sliver of fiction, and having seen this fake, plastic, non-functional prop, worked to create a functional version (and a multi-billion dollar industry.)
It’s like cargo culting, except by, well, smart people with way more resources who actually want shit to work.
Star WARS on the other hand is just life-wasting masturbatory etc EXCLUSIVELY.
Star Wars is nothing but escapism.
It has had no real world impact except that negative one. Star Wars has been a net negative on society while Star Trek has been a net positive:
December 30, 2016
Jeffrey Tucker on why it’s not just your imagination — showers really were better in the old days:
Even I, who have been writing about terrible American showers for 10 years, was shocked with delight at the shower in Brazil. Now, here we have a socialist country and an entire population that grouses about how hard it is to get ahead. And yet, step into the shower and you have a glorious capitalist experience. Hot water, really hot, pours down on you like a mighty and unending waterfall, sort of like it used to sea to shining sea.
At least the socialists in Brazil knew better than to destroy such an essential of civilized life.
But here we’ve forgotten. We have long lived with regulated showers, plugged up with a stopper imposed by government controls imposed in 1992. There was no public announcement. It just happened gradually. After a few years, you couldn’t buy a decent shower head. They called it a flow restrictor and said it would increase efficiency. By efficiency, the government means “doesn’t work as well as it used to.”
We’ve been acculturated to lame showers, but that’s just the start of it. Anything in your home that involves water has been made pathetic, thanks to government controls.
You can see the evidence of the bureaucrat in your shower if you pull off the showerhead and look inside. It has all this complicated stuff inside, whereas it should just be an open hole, you know, so the water could get through. The flow stopper is mandated by the federal government.
To be sure, the regulations apply only on a per-showerhead basis, so if you are rich, you can install a super fancy stall with spray coming at you from all directions. Yes, the market invented this brilliant but expensive workaround. As for the rest of the population, we have to live with a pathetic trickle.
It’s a pretty astonishing fact, if you think about it. The government ruined our showers by truncating our personal rights to have a great shower even when we are willing to pay for one. Sure, you can hack your showerhead but each year this gets more difficult to do. Today it requires drills and hammers, whereas it used to just require a screwdriver.
While the details are American, the Canadian market generally operates in lockstep with theirs, so when Tucker talks about the regulated reduction in both water heater maximum temperature and available water pressure, it’s probably the same here in Canada (and possibly worse, given our longer history of regulatory interference).
December 24, 2016
If you hurry, you can just get your Santa’s Visit Application in before the deadline tonight!
December 14, 2016
When writing about the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international bureaucracy based in Paris, my life would be simpler if I created some sort of automatic fill-in-the-blanks system.
Something like this.
The OECD, subsidized by $____ million from American taxpayers, has just produced a new _________ that advocates more power for governments over the _________ sector of the economy.
But this may not be sufficiently descriptive.
So maybe I should create a multiple choice exercise. Sort of like when students take tests and get asked to circle the most appropriate answer.
The bureaucrats at the Paris-based OECD, working in cooperation with union bosses/class-warfare advocates/other tax-free international bureaucrats/politicians, have released a new report/study/paper urging more power/control/authority for governments in order to increase regulation/taxes/spending/redistribution/intervention.
You may think I’m trying to be funny, but this is totally serious.
How else would you describe a bureaucracy that consorts and cooperates with leftist groups like Occupy Wall Street and the AFL-CIO and routinely published propaganda in favor of Obama’s agenda on issues such as global warming, government-run healthcare, so-called stimulus, and class-warfare taxation.
And never forget that American taxpayers finance the biggest chunk of this bureaucracy’s budget.
Adding insult to injury, the bureaucrats at the OECD get tax-free salaries, which makes their relentless support for higher taxes on the rest of us even more obnoxious.
Dan Mitchell, “More Statist Propaganda from the Taxpayer-Funded OECD”, International Liberty, 2015-04-12.
December 13, 2016
Even though Kratman is retired Army, he seems positive about the Mattis appointment … under certain circumstances:
I don’t have really strong personal feelings against the idea of retired Marine General James Mattis becoming Secretary of Defense. He’s got to be a step up from the now normal western approach to defense, which is to put a broad-smiling woman or metrosexual in charge, keep the name, but make the office’s mission to be the secretary of political correctness, inclusivity, social justice, gender neutrality, gender integration, straight male moral castration, Muslim terrorist infiltration assistance, and pretty much anything but defense. Moreover, assuming Mattis takes the job, he’s a better man than I am; I wouldn’t take it without a fistful of signed but undated pardons and a liberal supply of ammunition. I think he – or anyone – purporting to fix Defense needs to shoot some people. No, not fire, not counsel, not yell at; shoot. Otherwise, the bureaucracy in the five-sided puzzle palace, the Navy Annex, and the various high rises in the area leased by the various services, will obfuscate, delay, deny, lie…whatever it takes to keep nothing from changing, especially their own power. Hmmm…did I say “some people”? Let me rephrases; he’s going to need to shoot a lot of people and probably will need a large rucksack full of signed but undated pardons, plus a graves registration unit, not too well trained, to truck the bodies to the Potomac and dump them.
Excuse me a moment, but the idea of a very large number of bureaucrats, in and out of uniform, being summarily shot and then having their bodies unceremoniously dumped in the Potomac to float out to sea has given me the schadenboner of all schadenboners…I need a bit to let it subside.
Ah, all better…well mostly better…now. At least I can continue with the column.
December 3, 2016
David Warren notes an odd similarity:
The last generation of Communists in power, in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, suffered from a debilitating foible. They did not themselves believe in the ideology they were preaching. Their efforts were thus directed to getting around the realities their forebears had not anticipated. They thus became their own enemies, working against their own unworkable socialist principles, and in the course of their tireless if frazzled ministrations, the Berlin Wall came down.
Capitalism suffers from the same problem today. The principles of Adam Smith are not seriously believed by any of its nominal advocates. They are not even known. Nor could they be, for like Marx, Smith is not even read. I have derived pleasure, on many occasions, from pointing out to some ideological enthusiast for Capitalism, that its supposed author was refulgently opposed to joint-stock companies. Which is to say, to the form of business ownership that controls — oh, I don’t know — ninety-five percent of the so-called “private sector” economy today?
I observed that, apart from any consideration of morality (and he was, after all, only an amateur economist, but a professional Perfesser of Moral Philosophy), Smith believed that joint-stock companies were inefficient, because essentially bureaucratic. This is inevitable when ownership is separated from management. “Growth,” or Bigness, subtly replaces profit (both mercenary and non-mercenary) as the principal aspiration.
As a general rule of thumb, when you want to get something done, use the smallest possible organization to achieve your desired goal. I always found it a warning sign of future decline when small companies I worked for started to take on the trappings of bigger companies … when the bureaucratic rot began to set in. In some cases, just the transition to having an “HR Department” (rather than managers hiring directly) was enough to trigger bureaucracy growth and efficiency losses.
December 2, 2016
Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk has a few mild criticisms of how Kathleen Wynn’s government spends public money on infrastructure:
Over the next decade, the Ontario government plans to spend $17 billion rehabilitating existing infrastructure, mostly on roads and bridges, and $31 billion on new infrastructure, mostly on public transit — much of the latter in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. For some weary commuters, the promise of relief might be one of the few remaining attractions Premier Kathleen Wynne’s phenomenally unpopular administration has to offer — assuming, of course, they have some degree of confidence their money will be spent properly.
Page 496 of Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s latest report, released Wednesday, has something to say about that.
The scene: the Pickering GO station. Metrolinx was to build a pedestrian bridge across Highway 401. Not a herculean feat, one might have thought. Alas the winning bidder “had no experience in installing bridge trusses” — which is “something that a contractor constructing a bridge would be expected to know how to do,” Lysyk’s report dryly notes.
After the contractor “installed one truss upside down” — no, seriously — Metrolinx essentially took over the project. But it paid the contractor the full $19-million for the first phase of the project anyway. Then it gave the same contractors the contract for phase two — hey, it had the low bid! — and lo and behold they pooped the bed again, damaging glass to the tune of $1 million and building a stairway too wide to accommodate the planned cladding.
At this point, according to the Auditor-General, Metrolinx terminated the contract. It paid 99 per cent of the bill anyway. And later — no, seriously! — it gave the company another $39 million contract. “Metrolinx lacks a process to prevent poorly performing contractors from bidding on future contracts,” the report observes. Transport Minister Steven Del Duca said a new “vendor performance management system” would do just that, but one wonders why something so fancy-sounding was necessary to perform such a basic function. (Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins disputes the decision-making timeline in the report; according to hers, the contractor’s ineptitude was unknown when further work was awarded.)
November 23, 2016
Answer: when federal bureaucratic rules interact unhappily with state-level bureaucratic rules. Eric Boehm explains why an artist is not legally allowed to market her beadwork as “American Indian-made”:
Peggy Fontenot is an American Indian artist, of that there can be no doubt.
She’s a member of the Patawomeck tribe. She’s taught traditional American Indian beading classes in Native American schools and cultural centers in several states. Her work has been featured in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the Native American.
In Oklahoma, though, she’s forbidden from calling her art what it plainly is: American Indian-made.
A state law, passed earlier this year, forbids artists from marketing their products in Oklahoma as being “American Indian-made” unless the artist is a member of a tribe recognized by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The Patawomeck tribe is recognized by the state of Virginia, but not by the federal government. Fontenot says she can trace her Native American heritage back to the 16th Century, when the tribe was one of the first to welcome settlers from Europe who landed on the east coast of Virginia. She’s been working as an artist since 1983, doing photography, beading, and making jewelry.
According to PLF [Pacific Legal Foundation], Oklahoma’s law could affect as many as two-thirds of all artists who are defined American Indians under federal law. The state law also violates the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause by restricting the interstate American Indian art market, the lawsuit contends.