Tough Times for Political Satirists:

John Stossel, "Does government stupidity know any bounds?"

These are tough days for political satirists. Any satire about government boondoggles is soon upstaged by an actual government program that's more inane than anything comedians could invent. After the 9/11 attacks, Congress passed a compassionate piece of legislation called the Supplemental Terrorist Relief Act. It was to give low-interest loans to small businesses disrupted by the attacks, allowing them to rebuild. The loans were supposed to help hotels, retailers, and small service businesses in lower Manhattan.

But, as usual, the government passed your money out everywhere. Terrorist Relief Act loans went to Dunkin' Donuts shops in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Vermont, and Ohio. The manager of the Essex Junction, Vt., Dunkin' Donuts defended his loan, saying 9/11 affected his business. "Instead of getting probably a large coffee and a couple of doughnuts," Tony Silva said, his customers got "a small coffee and a doughnut."

The Patriot Act was supposed to provide federal funding to states to equip the fire, police, and EMS officers who serve at the front lines of a terrorist attack. But the congressmen who wrote the law apparently believed that patriotism starts at home. Money was allocated under a complicated formula where each state, regardless of its size or location, got an equal slice of the pie before risk was even considered.

One result is that the police and fire departments in Casper, Wyo., (population 49,644), can talk to one another, and to their hospitals and EMS units, on a brand-new communications system. New York City (population 8,000,000) is still waiting for a similar system. Colchester, Vt., got $58,000 for a rescue vehicle capable of boring through concrete to search for victims in collapsed buildings. Colchester has a population of 18,000 souls and a severe shortage of big buildings.

It gets worse. Government health programs require states to pay for men's erections. I'm all for men having good sex lives, but why would government subsidize that?

Because our bloated government just cannot stop vomiting out the money.

byomtov (mail):
Interesting how both you and Stossel attribute this to "government stupidity." Sorry to indelicate, but it's your guys who are running the government these days, and who set the formula for handing out the anti-terrorism funds. Do you think you might have mentioned that?
8.22.2006 1:03pm
When the Republicans are in charge, it's "big gov't" which is at fault. When Dem's are in the majority, it's Democrats who are at fault.

It's a win-win!
8.22.2006 1:10pm
I don't think i've seen too many politicians from either side of the aisle complain about the largesse involved in 'relief' efforts of all stripes.
8.22.2006 1:30pm
Houston Lawyer:
I'm sure that the only remedy for this is to raise taxes on the wealthy.
8.22.2006 1:30pm
Seamus (mail):
Why are we passing laws to give relief to terrorists anyway?
8.22.2006 1:35pm
eddie (mail):
Government should make decisions based on the common good of the country. Representatives swear an oath to uphold the principals of the constitution. Politics, however, is about money and power. Corruption can occur with big or small government. And let's not forget that this is "defense" money that is being squandered and not the hated "social welfare" money, which at least reaches people that need it.
8.22.2006 1:41pm
Isn't satire supposed to be, like, funny?
8.22.2006 1:41pm
Sigivald (mail):
Is the idea that Casper can't get a communications system unless New York City (which would require a much more complex and expensive system, given its size and that whole skyscraper problem) does?

And doesn't NYC have a much bigger tax base than Casper, which also can get by on a much, much cheaper system?

That particular example sounds a lot less like a real complaint than Stossel looking for something that sounds bad when you don't think about it too closely. (Yeah, there's an argument that NYC has more need of such a system, but I don't think one can seriously argue that buying one for Casper prevents funding one for NYC, since the ratio of cost would have to be less than 1:50, as a guess.)

Byom, etc: I'm not a Republican, and I think it's "big government stupidity", and likewise think it would have turned out the same way if Democrats had been in charge in 2001 (and remember that Republicans didn't have real control of Congress until the 2002 elections, eh?).

If you can point out a time when Congress was actually good about such things, when the party of your choice was in control, I'd love to see that such a time ever existed.

Eddie: Actually, don't they swear to uphold the Constitution itself, not its principles? Principles are awfully hard to define to everyone's satisfaction, I think you'll find. The words themselves are enough trouble, if the Courts are any guide. (And remember that the Constitution, in the formulation of the Senate, treats every state equally... just as this funding supposedly did! So arguably giving every state an equal cut is doing that very thing you suggest as a remedy!)
8.22.2006 1:49pm
poster child (mail):
All of this Patriot Act stuff is peanuts. I can tell you from a very inside source of mine that both a major news organization and a prominent U.S. Senator are currently investigating Medicaid fraud in Miami-Dade County that has been costing U.S. taxpayers around $1.5 billion per year for the past several years. This massive fraud is the result of poor legislative drafting, incompetence and fear of reporting the scale of the problem up the chain of command and perverse incentives that keep the gov't agencies from receiving the administrative funding necessary to combat the fraud (not to mention, of course, the con artists themselves).

As my source puts it, "If you're going to go into crime, Medicaid fraud is easily the best way to go--no-one gets shot, you can make millions of dollars in a matter of weeks, hardly anyone gets caught, and the people who do get caught almost always settle with the government and never see a minute of prison time."

FWIW, my understanding is that party politics has very little to do with this boondoggle. The problem really stems from a careerist civil service where people are afraid to make waves and don't want to be the bearer of bad news lest they be seen as having contributed to the problem. In a nutshell, it's a "big government" problem when billions of taxpayer dollars can be shoveled into the pockets of criminals and it goes unnoticed for years on end.
8.22.2006 2:05pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"Government health programs require states to pay for men's erections."

Now there's a program you can get your hands around. How much do I get per erection?
Where do I go to apply for benefits?

Who said big government sucks?
8.22.2006 2:09pm
Jimmy (mail):
It would be interesting to have Congressional budgets approved before a randomly selected jury. I would love to see how it all panned out. Put the reps/sens under oath and have a review period a year later where the spending is revisited. And if they cannot prove the money allocated was paid out that way, then toss 'em in for contempt of court.

If I monkey with my company's money, they hold me responsible as a fiduciary and all sorts of liability. When "they" monkey with it, it's barely a news story, let alone a crime.

People whine about judges making laws, but at least they are held to a modicum of precedent and prior rulings. When was the last time you heard of that for the other two branches who get to spend money and start wars?
8.22.2006 2:11pm
M (mail):
In a way this cheers me up. I remember Randy Barnett's post some time ago talking about (among other things) people hadn't really gotten behind the government or made sacrifices in a way that could make us all come together after Sept. 11th. Now I know that wasn't true- many people were willing to give up 4 or more ounces of coffee, it seems. And, I'm proud to say, we didn't make donut stand proprietors bear the weight of our collective coffee sacrifice. What a country!
8.22.2006 2:34pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
Here's more:

From bsalert:

"The DHS Office of Inspector General found the National Asset Database, being compiled to support a variety of infrastructure protection projects, full to overflowing with "poor quality" data, such as 4,055 malls, shopping centers, and retail outlets, 224 racetracks, 539 theme or amusement parks and 163 water parks, 514 religious meeting places and 1,305 casinos."

Or go here for the detailed IG report.
8.22.2006 2:45pm

Isn't satire supposed to be, like, funny?

Satire is often humorous but does not have to be. Think of Swift's "A Modest Proposal". The key component of satire is ridicule. The point here is that you couldn't invent something more ridiculous than what the government is actually doing.
8.22.2006 2:46pm
I don't know, I thought Swift was hysterically funny. Maybe my sense of humor is warped.
8.22.2006 2:59pm
Ming the Merciless Siamese Cat (mail):

Yes, the idea is indeed that Casper Wyoming (which faces no realistic terrorist threat) cannot get a fancy new communications system, paid for by federal Patriot Act terrorism defense funds, until New York City (which is the country's top terror target) gets one.

Any anti-terror money that goes to Casper Wyoming is, by definition, a boondoggle, and any such money that is diverted to Casper from New York, is a misallocation of resources.
8.22.2006 3:00pm
Alaska Jack (mail):
For those of you who don't know, Stossel is actually kind of an interesting guy. (I know this because I read the first part of his autobiography while waiting for my wife at Costco.) As a young consumer reporter he says he was your prototypical liberal journalist -- certain that big business was the bad guy, the good guys were the government and the array of interest groups opposed to business, and that for every problem the answer was a government program. The book provided an interesting account of his growth as he gained experience and perspective. He says he came to realize that the government employees, interest groups, "neutral" scientists and so on were not impartial experts, but rather they had just as many biases, conflicts of interest and axes to grind as their opponents (scientists and grant money, for example).

Don't take any of the above as an endorsement of any particular view of Stossel's. I'm just saying that it was an interesting read.

- Alaska Jack
8.22.2006 3:17pm
Houston Lawyer:
Surely New York has wasted enough terrorism defense funds to pave Casper Wyoming in gold by now.

You should see the new Federal Reserve Bank building here in Houston. They have certainly protected it from anyone with a truck bomb. More federal dollars well spent.
8.22.2006 3:42pm
How do you know Casper does not face a realistic terrorist threat?
8.22.2006 4:15pm
John Stossel is Richard Nixon to my Arnold Schwartzenegger. His book was highly influential to my understanding of government, for better or worse. I think Stossel's activism in this arena is not part of the partisan one-upmanship the above comments seem to point to. His motives are more pure than power-grabbing.
8.22.2006 4:16pm
Bama Lawyer (mail) (www):
I have to wonder if posters at the top of the comment list actually think that problems of government waste are Republican problems. Is there really anything unique about Stossel's commentary? When was pork not found in every bill? Some halcyon time when Thomas Jefferson ruled an agrarian kingdom with his Latin Primer and a dumb waiter?? I doubt Jefferson and Al Gore would agree on much of anything. I think Goldwater Republicans are right to criticize Democrats (FDR) and Bush Republicans for creating and furthering this problem-- the entire bloated system is rotten. I liked Stossel's choice of word: we're vomiting money. (I might have gone with hemorrhaging.)
8.22.2006 4:36pm
I don't think an all-Democrat-controlled government would be any better (although an all-Democrat-controlled government might stop being an all-Democrat-controlled government a bit faster). But hopefully people now realize that having one party in control of the entire government is just a bad idea.
8.22.2006 4:51pm
Dick King:

It gets worse. Government health programs require states to pay for men's erections. I'm all for men having good sex lives, but why would government subsidize that?

Well, I'm not a big fan of taxpayer-paid health care, but if they're going to be in the business of paying to fix bodies that don't do what they're supposed to do, do you really think the bluenoses should be able to say "we'll pay to fix your malfunctions provided those malfunctions have nothing to do with sex" in a federally funded program? Why should they fix joint problems but not erectile disfunction problems?

8.22.2006 5:18pm
byomtov (mail):
I have to wonder if posters at the top of the comment list actually think that problems of government waste are Republican problems.

Of course problems of waste are not simply Republican problems. But these particular wasteful acts are specifically Republican, and that is worth mentioning, for a couple of reasons. Republicans love to talk about "accountability." Well, let's have some. If you want to criticize waste identify the wastrels, regardless of party.

If this stuff happened under a Democratic Administration you can bet that Stossel and Zywicki would be all over whoever was in charge, not talking about "government" as though it were some abstract force.

This is, as gab says, a standard conservative maneuver. When Democrats waste money it's their fault. When Republicans waste it it's "government stupidity."
8.22.2006 5:30pm
the idea is indeed that Casper Wyoming (which faces no realistic terrorist threat)
Hmmm... Wyoming? The same Wyoming which is home to 592 nuclear warheads? Home to one of 3 Minuteman bases, and the only MX base?

Nope, no reason for terrorists to be interested in Wyoming. None at all. Nothing to see. Move along...

(So how many warheads does NYC have?)

cathy :-)
8.22.2006 5:36pm
Jeff Davidson (mail):
Hi -

sorry - not sure how to use the quote thing...

Ming wrote: "Any anti-terror money that goes to Casper Wyoming is, by definition, a boondoggle, and any such money that is diverted to Casper from New York, is a misallocation of resources."

Would you have said the same aabout Oklahoma City at one time?
8.22.2006 6:03pm
Bruce Lagasse (mail):
"Government health programs require states to pay for men's erections."

I seem to recall that there was once a government requirement (don't remember whether federal, state or local) that medical insurance sold to nunneries had to include provisions for pregnancy.
8.22.2006 9:33pm
srp (mail):
I'm thrilled that people are taking on the Republicans about excessive spending, at least a little bit. I don't see the Dems deciding anytime soon on a ju-jitsu strategy of going back to Grover Cleveland and Andrew Jackson and opposing the growth of the national government. Hence, shaming the Republicans with their own hypocrisy is the only practical polemical approach to the problem.
8.22.2006 9:34pm
I'm surprised no one's beat me to this, but:

8.22.2006 10:44pm

Unfortunately, it appears to be quite difficult to shame a professional politician.

So, once again, I suggest that single-party government is just a bad idea.
8.23.2006 1:53pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

So, once again, I suggest that single-party government is just a bad idea.
There's no ideological split on a matter like this; only a struggle over the spoils. There should be an ideological split on this, but realistically, Republicans need to get re-elected just as much as Democrats need to, so I wouldn't hold out much hope for this type of irrational allocation of resources to be solved by having each house controlled by a different party.
8.23.2006 5:46pm