On Waste at the Justice Department

September 23, 2011

An audit released this week by the Department of Justice’s inspector general details wasteful and extravagant spending at DOJ conferences under both the Bush and Obama administrations. Stories about waste in government programs are as common as ants, but this one appears to have struck a nerve across the country—perhaps because the president is trying to convince us that Washington needs more money.

Yesterday I discussed the issue of $16 muffins at DOJ conferences on radio stations from California to New York, with points in between. The most common question I received was, “How can wasteful spending be stopped?” As I told listeners, the only way to stop it is to not give the offending agency or program any more money. Otherwise, government employees will continue wasting money for the simple reason that it isn’t their money. And because the government isn’t a business, politicians and government employees don’t have to be concerned with improving the bottom line. In short, there’s little incentive for the government not to waste money.

Politicians typically respond to stories about government waste by condemning the situation and promising to fix it. Government waste actually creates a good opportunity for politicians to feign concern for taxpayers. Reason’s Matt Welch explains:

The nation’s current and future deficit is driven overwhelmingly by health care, military and retirement spending, each of which involve ever-increasing promises that have proved politically career-threatening to scale back.

That’s why politicians prefer instead to talk about $16 muffins and $600 toilet seats—it’s the least expensive way to simulate fiscal responsibility. The boy who cries muffin while signing onto every new major entitlement and military adventure is not in any position to deliver lectures about tax-dollar stewardship. And never forget that the spending frenzy is distinctly bipartisan: Even alleged fiscal radical Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, voted for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, the Iraq War and Medicare Part D.

Sadly, a lot of Americans buy it, which is why politicians keep selling it. As I’ve previously discussed, a majority of Americans erroneously believe that the federal budget’s imbalances can be fixed by just eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse. That’s why I made it a point to remind listeners that there’s no point getting worked up about government waste if they’re also getting checks from the U.S. Treasury or demanding that the government solve society’s problems. As Welch puts it, “As long as we believe that government is good at creating jobs and stimulating the economy, we’re going to be stuffed by much more than just $16 muffins.”

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