In Defense of Government Waste – Reformed 10/15/12

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.

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About Jacques Delacroix

I write short stories, current events comments, and sociopolitical essays, mostly in English. When I write in French, I often use my middle initial “J” to avoid confusion with another blogger with views very different from mine. I live in the People’s Green Socialist Republic of Santa Cruz, California. In a previous life, I was a teacher and a scholar in Organizational Theory and in the Sociology of Economic Development. (Go ahead, Google me!)
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6 Responses to In Defense of Government Waste – Reformed 10/15/12

  1. Terry Amburgey says:

    If your city is like my city you’re prohibited from keeping chickens inside city limits. idiots.

    • Bruce says:

      I look at government spending this way. Politicians argue about whether low tax rates raise more revenue than high tax rates, or higher tax rates for high income individuals will raise more tax revenue. Fact is, I could care less. The bottom line is that any money taken from me reduces my liberty by an equivalent degree. I don’t want government to confiscate the fruits of my labor and re-distribute it as they wish. When did we stop letting things stand or fall on their merits, independent of what a group of bureaucrats thinks. Let individuals by themselves or through private enterprizes decide on what experiments to make. Once government bureaucracy takes over, we don’t have any power through our elected representatives. I have a recent personal experience with this. I am building a home on the water near the Atlantic Ocean. I bought the land three years ago. I went to pull building permits to begin construction and was informed that my plans were not going to be approved because FEMA had changed the zone designation of my property. This change required me to re-engineer the foundation with 32 14″X14″ rebar re-enforced concrete pilings sitting on 5′X5′ 18″ concrete slabs with blow out walls on the ground floor. I went through my local government building department, my US Congressman and State Senator to try and get grandfathered under the old property designation which already had me in a high wind impact zone. There was nothing they could do. We have government agencies that for all practical purposes have the last word. Next, I wanted to extend my dock and was told that I needed to go through three separate government agencies to get approval. Then I found out that the liklihood of getting final approval was zero. I just extended it without going through any channels. They work for us? Sure does not feel like it.
      I’ll bet if you walked down the hall of that municipal building in Santa Cruz you could empty every other office and there would be little noticable impact. I’ll bet they have a nice facility in a premier locationas well. I say sell it to the highest non-government bidder for a corporate headquarters and move the municipal drones into Katrina trailers on the outskirts of town where they belong. If the private enterprize decides to go with a solar roof you can bet they will have done their homework before they go ahead. Maybe it will be a waste, someone will lose their job if it is. There is no real accountability with government employees. We just completed a courthouse here in Jacksonville for $535M. It was totally unnecessary and no private company would have even entertained building it for themselves.
      As for education, all the teachers unions are interested in is more members. To get more members they advocate smaller classrooms so there’s less work for their members. More pay and benefits for less work? That’s how every union I have ever been in has worked it. I was just in Athens, things are not so good there. Imagine spending over $10,000 per kid for eight years and having that kid come out functionally illiterate. What a disgrace. As for your idea, it would not even be an experiment, I already know they would turn out better in your seaside school. Absolutely no doubt of that! Might even have a couple of those dangerous critical thinkers come out of there.

      • Bruce: I share your indignation and I am sure many others do, including the many who have suffered similar damage at the hands of government. What you describe is close to confiscation. Nevertheless, the subject is too complex for a simple “Comment” on this blog. It’s also important from a libertarian standpoint. You are an articulate man, I wish you would take yourself by the hand and write an essay on the following topic:

        If it came to that, I would sing an affidavit asking that no government agency come to my rescue under any circumstance rather than have to suffer the current regulations.

        Of course, I would post anything you wrote on the topic on this blog without intervening in any way. In addition, I am guessing that Notes On Liberty would be glad to republish the piece.

    • No, no, no! In Santa Cruz, you are required to keep chicken. They must be free running in an enclosure in front of your house where city inspectors can verify their existence easily.. The soil of the enclosure has to be seeded with worms to make sure they (the chicken) feed on renewable natural products. The chicken shit must by law be spread on one’s organic vegetable garden. Not keeping such a garden is punishable by a fine of $1,000 and one year in jail.

  2. Jm Kress says:

    Tolerance of a small amount of government waste is akin to this:

    One has a barrel of fine wine and a separate barrel of sewage. The fine wine is the principles of the taxpayer. The sewage is the government waste.

    Place a drop of fine wine into the sewage – and it’s still sewage.

    Place a drop of sewage into the fine wine – and now you have more sewage.

    Moral: Tolerance of government waste in ANY amount is ultimately destructive.

  3. Good imagery but it makes little sense here. (I will use it for some other purpose.) It does not answer my earlier objections about wanting everything now.

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