Have we gone insane?
By Michael M. Bates
A recent poll sponsored by Time magazine and the Rockefeller Foundation found 85 percent of the respondents believe the country is on the wrong track. Time's Web site carried a story on the study that noted:
"Most intriguing, a majority of those surveyed believe in the power of Big Government to solve the biggest problems of our time. They support major government investments that create jobs - 82% favor public works projects - and they remain sympathetic to the economy's victims: 70% say more government programs should help those now struggling."
All of which leads to this obvious question: Where in the world have these people been all their lives?
Certainly not paying much attention to what's going on. That's evident by their confidence in Washington.
You'd think that most of them may have, just possibly, heard something about the government's role after Hurricane Katrina savaged the Gulf Coast. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), which has its own methods for evaluating the "wrong track," last year estimated that between $600 million and $1.4 billion of aid was improperly disbursed.
Not that it was all spent frivolously; some of the funds went for essential human services like tattoos, strippers and guns. According to the New York Times, about 1,100 prison inmates figured out how to collect more than $10 million in assistance. Moreover, GAO found that nearly $17 million in improper or fraudulent rental payments went to evacuees already living for free in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Fathoming huge figures such as that is difficult. To put it in perspective, it may be helpful to know that the amount ripped off after Katrina is very likely more than the entire government spent in 1908, the last time the Cubs won a World Series.
It might be tempting to blame FEMA's incompetence on the Bush administration. "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job" doesn't rank up there with "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," but it's another line made to order for late night comics. The truth is that FEMA has a long and undistinguished history of ineptitude beginning well before 2001.
In 1996, Clinton bestowed cabinet rank on his FEMA director. The agency, said Clinton at the time, is "in some corners thought to be by far the most successful part of the federal government today." That means a lot coming from a guy who knows a good deal about corners, especially the ones in the Oval Office.
That same year, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported on how after the 1994 Northridge, California earthquake, thousands of homeowners who didn't even apply for help were issued FEMA checks of up to $3,450. Some of the checks were returned by people who clearly didn't qualify for assistance. Still, a FEMA spokesman defended his agency's shotgun approach, stating: "Anyone who says an error was made doesn't know what they are talking about. We receive very, very few calls from people who felt they didn't need the aid." Imagine that.
And so it goes throughout government programs. Waste and fraud and mismanagement are pervasive. A few examples:
In 2005, the food stamp program made payment errors totaling about $1.7 billion, according to GAO.
The Department of Labor estimates that about $3.4 billion in unemployment insurance benefits was overpaid nationwide in 2004
In 2003, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) shelled out about $28 billion to help roughly 5 million people pay their rent. GAO estimates that, for the year, HUD paid an estimated $1.4 billion in gross improper subsidies as a result of program administrator errors. By the way, this represented a significant improvement over past performances. That's comforting.
GAO also found the Department of Agriculture, from 1999 through 2005, issued $1.1 billion in farm payments in the names of 172,801 deceased individuals. Forty percent of that money went to individuals who had been dead for at least three years.
The Supplemental Security Income program is administered by Social Security. One little problem with it is that some recipients don't live in the United States as required by law. Bureaucrats euphemistically call these "residency violations." GAO calculates overpayments resulting from residency violations totaled about $118 million between 1997 and 2001.
What we need to keep in mind is that all these wasted tax dollars aren't an aberration. They're typical. And they're just the ones that have been uncovered. Yet supposedly 70 percent of Americans want even more government programs.
A shopworn characterization of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Can it truly be that we, as a nation, have gone around the bend?
This Mike Bates column appeared in the July 24, 2008 Reporter Newspapers.