(Raising his hand) Pick me!

Posted by Marc Hodak on November 18, 2010 under Government service, Invisible trade-offs | Be the First to Comment

As the TSA begins offering U.S. citizens the choice between having their genitalia displayed on a screen or having them groped by an agent, a top TSA Administrator defends the intrusion with this question:

“If you have two planes, one where people are thoroughly and properly screened and the other where people could opt out of screening, which would you want to be on?” he asked.

Frankly, I think the choice above is a tough call because I put so little credence in the efficacy of our full-blown security theater, but I do appreciate at least some passenger screening.  But the question itself is simply a TSA administrator’s leading question, a form of intellectual coercion, designed to justify the physical abuse.  He could have asked his question a million different ways that would better reflect the sensibilities of the citizens whose intelligence he insults:

1)  “If you have two planes, one where people are thoroughly and properly screened*, and the other where they they are screened marginally better than they were in the 1990s, which would you want to go on?

2)  “If you have two planes, one where people are thoroughly and properly screened*, and the other where they just had random bag searches and well-trained agents ready to ask additional questions, which would you want to go on?

3) “If you have two planes, one where people are thoroughly and properly screened*, and the other where certain fliers were non-randomly selected for screening, which would you want to be on?” he asked.

I know the last alternative is an invitation to racial profiling, but as someone with somewhat Moroccan features, I might still choose an airport security system where I’m slightly delayed going through it, but I’m unlikely to be delayed behind Pa Kettle, Grandma Myrtle, and little Bobby and Susie, waiting their turn to be searched for shoe bombs and box cutters.

And if the government really had any conviction around that administrator’s question, it would allow the airlines to give their passengers a choice among screening regimes, including opting out, to test the regulators assumption that people would tolerate any intrusion in the name of safety.

* I.e., told to remove their shoes, separate their laptops from their other baggage, present their liquids in plastic bags of an approved size, and parade before a denuding apparatus…

The government tells an 80 year old woman to wait a year

Posted by Marc Hodak on September 21, 2010 under Government service, Unintended consequences | Read the First Comment

No, this isn’t a story about health care (yet):

Lillian Daniels had the walls of her home in Detroit insulated in July 2010, almost a year after she had applied. The 80-year-old retired nurse practitioner had forgotten she had requested the help by the time she received a call from the community group telling her that workers would be coming.

The whole article here is like one long joke about how the government tries to help us with our money.

The basic choice in the “stimulus” was offering tax breaks to the private sector, including targeted tax breaks to certain industries, or to funnel taxpayer dollars through various agencies and community organizations with all the constraints they must face to maintain a semblance of accountability.

The state Department of Human Services and the Detroit agency exchanged several versions of Detroit’s advertisement before its language was approved.  It was January 2010, more than a year after the first advertisement had gone out, before the Detroit agency had a new one to post…

Along with the money came new rules that tripped up even officials familiar with the old program.

States were required to draft new plans detailing how they would use the extra weatherization money, which were then reviewed by the Energy Department…

Weatherization isn’t the only stimulus infrastructure project slowed by bureaucracy. Awards worth $8 billion for high-speed rail connections were announced in January, but the Federal Railroad Administration has only distributed 7% of the funds to date… Few recipients of awards to expand the nation’s broadband network have actually started laying cables; the rest are performing work such as environmental assessments and getting local approvals to attach fiber to utility poles…

Much of the blame goes to new rules pushed by organized labor:

A major reason for delays in the program was a provision in the stimulus bill to apply the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires that workers be paid the local “prevailing wage,” as determined by the Department of Labor.

Democrats have routinely sought to apply the Davis-Bacon Act to federal spending, supported by labor unions, who say that contractors would otherwise be encouraged to lower their bid prices by cutting workers’ pay. Opponents say that the act is inefficient and inflates costs.

In this case, it was far more inefficient than inflating, but it certainly increased costs for everyone involved in terms of delayed employment.

The snags in launching the weatherization effort left construction companies in limbo.

“We didn’t think it was ever going to happen,” said Darnell Jackson, owner of Detroit’s Ampro Construction, who had to lay off three of his eight workers last year.  He has since hired them back, and added seven new workers.

Many other construction companies in Detroit are still expanding slowly.  Some have slowed down the rate at which they take on stimulus work, because they can’t afford to pay workers weekly, another new requirement in the stimulus bill’s labor provisions…

For newly trained workers, the delays have been hard.  Jennifer Wallisch, a 30-year-old former auto worker, hadn’t had a steady job since 2004. She enrolled in a course run by the non-profit WARM Training Center in January after hearing about the $30 million of stimulus dollars that Detroit was getting for weatherization.

She studied energy-saving principles, practiced drilling holes into walls and blowing in insulation, and learned how to install windows.  She graduated in March, at the top of her class.

For the next four months, she couldn’t find work.

“I was hanging on by a thread,” said Ms. Wallisch.  In July, she was hired for energy-conservation work funded not by the stimulus plan, but by Michigan’s utility companies.

One can go on, and the article does.

Lesson:  When a private company can’t get its act together, it eventually fails, succumbing to better managed competitors.  Competition raises everyone’s game.  There is no competition for the U.S. Department of Labor, or Health and Human Services, or Energy.  The government can’t go out of business.  If the providers of government capital (i.e., taxpayers) don’t like the return they are getting, the best they can do is choose another president in a few years, or pressure the current one to appoint a different department head, call their congressperson, etc.  That’s not exactly zero accountability for performance at the agency level, but it’s pretty close to it.

Your customer wants to see how much you make

Posted by Marc Hodak on August 10, 2010 under Government service, Stupid laws | Read the First Comment

Higher disclosure standards for executives

New, higher disclosure standards for executives

Imagine that one of your large customers, say you’re a supplier to Target or Whole Foods, wants you to disclose how much you and your senior officers make?  You’re a private company, you may not even tell your kids or siblings how much you make, but these strangers want to know, and they want to place that information on the Internet.  How would you feel about that?

Well, that is exactly what the Federal government is requiring of its contractors and sub-contractors via rules in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR).

Incentives for government managers?

Posted by Marc Hodak on June 7, 2010 under Government service, Politics | Be the First to Comment

Most people would agree that the federal budget is a cesspool of waste.  The few who disagree are those who directly benefit from the spending, i.e., our members of Congress.  The agencies that spend the money know how utterly wasteful some of it is.  Some of it is so useless that even the agencies don’t have the stomach to spend it all.  Unfortunately, few agencies have an incentive to not spend money. In my brief stint in government, I’ve experienced the last quarter rush to “use it or lose it.”  It is an ugly, cynical process.

Now, the White House is asking for an incentive to not spend it all:

The proposed change would let agencies that save money redirect half the savings to other initiatives, with the rest going toward deficit reduction, an administration official said on Sunday…

“The president’s goal has been to change Washington’s focus from figuring out how to spend money to how to save money, and we are going to incentivize savings instead of spending,” Mr. Emanuel said Sunday.

At least the administration understands economics and incentives as it applies to the decision-making right before their eyes.

Alas, the article suggests the source of opposition to this measure:

It is likely to be welcomed by deficit hawks but could attract opposition from members of Congress who appropriate money, as it would take away some of their control of the federal purse…

Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Rep. Eric Cantor (R., Va.), said the latest plan sounded “too complex” and “constitutionally questionable.”

“If this administration and Congress is serious about lowering the debt, they should start cutting spending immediately,” he said.

Which proves that economic ignorance/political cynicism is not monopolized by Democrats.

Government-run health care: A glimpse of the future

Posted by Marc Hodak on March 26, 2010 under Government service | 3 Comments to Read

Boston Scientific, maker of those ultra-cool, implantable defibrillators, made some minor changes to the way they manufactured them.  There was nothing wrong with the devices under the old manufacturing method–they just felt that they could do better.  Unfortunately, the company ran afoul of the bewilderingly complex FDA documentation rules that require any manufacturing changes to be reported to them.  As a result, Boston Scientific has been forced to recall a bunch of perfectly good, life-saving devices, and submit their manufacturing changes for FDA review before being allowed to resume manufacturing.  FDA review times run from 8 to 30 days.

Boston-Scientific tried to calm their medical customers (and investors) by hinting that the urgency of this matter should warrant a shorter review period.  During this period, doctors are doing without the device (“Hang in there Charlie!  We’ll get that thing implanted in the next few weeks.”), and Boston-Scientific is losing $5 million a day.  If ever we needed those high-priced government services, this would be it, right?

FDA officials said in an interview that they have given Boston Scientific’s applications a preliminary look and the submissions appear to be in order.  But the officials said the agency hasn’t begun an in-depth review of the material and the company will have to wait its turn.

Boston Scientific’s filings are “in the queue, and we’re going to take it when it comes up,” said Gladys Rodriguez, an enforcement director at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health who is involved in the review.  “At this point, we’re not expediting.”  The FDA has 30 days to do a review, Ms. Rodriguez said.

Translation from bureaucrat lingo: “We can’t be bothered.”  I mean, c’mon, it’s not like its their lives or money on the line.