The municipal government of my city, Santa Cruz, California, is currently adding a roof to its main parking lot. The roof will support a battery of solar panels. The idea is to increase the municipal government’s reliance on solar energy. Generally, I wouldn’t be against this endeavor. Here is my reasoning: I cannot currently prevent governments from taking money from me by force. Given this fact, I might just as well favor small-scale experiments that might just have useful outcomes. The word “experiment ” implies, of course, the possibility of failure, that the money will turn out to have been wasted, or largely wasted. This last qualification is needed because, of course, finding out what does not work has some value.
In general, I have more tolerance for waste of public funds than most conservatives. I mean small-scale waste only, perhaps less than one cent on the dollar. My tolerance comes from personal experience with government funding of scholarly activity which inspired in me skepticism toward narrow views of efficiency. It worked like this: Some federal agency gives ten thousand dollars each to ten researchers. Five of them produce nothing tangible or even nothing at all. (One professor in my area was caught several years ago re-doing his kitchen with grand money. Would I make this up?) Three produce solidly bad, useless, or incomprehensible stuff. One turns out something promising, something that might morph into an important discovery within a reasonable amount of time. The last of the ten comes up with something important, with something that changes the way we make things or, simply something that transforms our thinking.
The question in my story is not whether each of the ten thousand packets was well spent. The answer is a resounding, obvious “No.” I believe that the realistic question is: Were the hundred thousand dollars well spent? In my necessarily limited experience the answers to the separate questions are “no” and “yes.” Others with different experiences might want to contribute to this.
Remember that I am referring here only to very small amounts of public money. I also think of such expenditures as a kind of intermittent luxury. A society should experiment but it does not need to experiment 24:7:12.
When an area is going through hard times, its government should simply let go of experimenting until better times come around. Some waste is good but waste that increases debt probably is not, most of the time.
Which brings me back to Santa Cruz and the solar roofs. I have to ask: Where does the money come from? If I did ask the powers that be, I am pretty sure I would be told that it’s a mixture of federal grands and old state money that was committed a long time ago, before the current crisis, plus a tiny little bit of city money and a little bit of county money. Nothing to worry about, right?
Excuse me, it’s all my money. Indirectness makes little difference. My money that traveled through the federal government just suffered more wastage, probably than money taken from my by the city to be spent within the city. Some of he solar roof money was also taken by force from young people who are stuck at $9 /hour, kind of the normal wage in Santa Cruz, except, of course, for government workers. They all earn much, much more, somehow.
The liberals and leftists who run this town don’t seem to grasp these simple truths: It’s all my money and the money extracted from the 9$/hour salesgirl. When I am hurting economically, when she has to move back with Mom because she does not get enough work hours to pay rent, when, when, is a very bad time to experiment with solar panels. That’s true even if you love sun-generated energy. They simply don’t get it!
I have begun to study my voter’s pamphlet. Voting on state propositions and on local initiatives is going to be easier than usual this year: I will vote against anything that raises taxes on anybody for whatever purpose. I will vote against anything recommended by any labor union and by any grouping of public employees operating under any name whatsoever. I am especially willing to ignore any appeal from anyone connected with any teachers’ organization. I am a retired teacher; I know the score. Teachers’ organizations are constantly, cynically lying to us. Fact is that the more we spend on education the worse the kids’ performance however you measure it.
By the way, the last observation is not as absurd as it sounds. Increases in educational money are spent largely on reducing class size. This means recruiting more teachers. This means getting closer and close to the bottom of the barrel of potential teachers. (I am paraphrasing a good oped in today’s WSJ.)
Give me fifty kids of any age, $1,000 a year for each kid plus two chicken and a dozen eggs each week. I guarantee they will read, write, and count at a level at least equal to the current mean level of California students. I will teach on the beach. There will be no class when it rains. That will be the parents’ problem. Let’s not confuse education and custody. The kids will be happier plus many will know how to surf. All with swim competently, I guarantee it. I will be richer than I am now. It’s a win/ win experiment I am proposing.
OK, it’s experimental. But I don’t see that it’s more risky than any dozen of experiments local government engage in without thought. At worst, the financial waste will involve $50,000 plus the cost of chickens and eggs. I would guess that the total is about enough to pay for ten small solar panels
on the city’s parking lot. How about it?
Update and reform 10/15/12: Negative comments from Jim Kress, a good Facebook commentator mostly in the same camp as I induces me to make my thinking a tad more precise.
Why tolerate any government waste, asks Jim?
The underlying thinking is that there will always be collective expenditures that look like waste. The emphasis here is on “collective.” Nevertheless, let me repeat that many expenditures, including those decided by other than individuals, involve risk. Some must fail to produce good results. The only way to avoid negative outcomes is to take no risks at all. That seems to me clearly an absurd position to adopt.
Right now, for better or for worse, “collective” often means government-determined, led, enforced, or imposed. Jim and I both think that it’s for worse. This does not mean to me that we can or should forgo all the possible advantages of collective action, including collective expenditures. I don’t want to wait until we have nearly eliminated government.
Jim and others might say that we simply don’t need any collective action except that which is induced and supported by market-driven ventures. They might be right; I don’t know. I think they don’t know either, whatever they believe.