Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Through the Fox Looking Glass: Consolidation of Government Services and Government by Press Release

While I always feel that picking on a Fox News column is slightly unfair, this ties in with some other reading* I've been doing so I reacted to it rather strongly.

John Lott reacts somewhat hyperbolically to a new GAO report on the waste being caused by program duplication.  My readers probably know that this is an area of particular frustration for me and the major reason that I am often so pro-federal government.

John Lott of course isn't.  He points out that according to the GAO report up to $200 billion could be saved over the next decade (though I don't see that figure in the link presented and it seems like a high end estimate, but for arguments sake we'll assume it's correct).  So far, so good.

It's his explanation for the problem that I think can be best described as complete bullshit:

Call it "press release government." For politicians, the best way to be seen as being actively involved and to viewed as caring about a problem is to set up a new government program and then claim credit for it. It doesn't seem to matter if there are already 17 other programs that help people get nutritious food or 79 other programs to provide transportation for the disadvantaged, adding another program shows that the politician really cares... Creating new additional government programs spread across different government agencies also means that additional congressional committees can try claiming oversight...Thus, when there is a housing problem, congressmen and Senators from a range of different committees can claim legitimate reasons to run before the television cameras and hold committee hearings...Part of the problem is that once a program is adopted, it is there forever, and expenditures are assumed to continue along certain trends.
This is utter nonsense.  Does anyone really think that a Congresscritter cares if they are in front of the cameras for a new program to give young mothers money to buy their kids veggies or to claim they increased WIC funding by 20% so that mothers can buy their toddlers veggies?  It doesn't make any difference to them, they're still in front of the cameras and can make the same speeches and press releases, so this can't be a good explanation (there may be some truth to them liking being able to stand in front of real, physical stuff they built, but this isn't applicable to the stuff in the GAO report).  And since the poor don't vote in as large of numbers, according to Leighly and Nagler 2006 56.4% of the lowest quintile of eligible voters vs. 86.3% of the highest quintile it seems unlikely they are pursuing many of these anti-poverty programs for votes (while other programs have duplication these are the ones Lott mentions, and it is true they are rather more frequently duplicated) (also remember that many states deprive criminals of the right to vote, which make up a not insignificant portion of the lowest quintile and depending on survey method may be impacting these numbers since many people may mistakenly believe they are ineligible to vote due to the opacity of these laws which may impact 47 million Americans, as do immigrants who have not yet gained citizenship).

My experience from being in government is also that programs are hardly immortal, Departments pretty much are, but anything below that level has a potentially short shelf life.  This can be both positive and negative, in the disability field we've seen many institutions close, and thus the programs that supported them, but we also know that many programs that are helpful are under real threat of termination. 

So this is really just nonsense to feed the reaction he wants, it provides a plausible justification that falls apart if you really start to think about it.  Even if you think that government is evil as are the people in it, does it really justify an increasing number of programs rather than a simple increase in budgets?  Especially since many of these programs would be in the same committee?

So how about a more plausible model.  Let's consider that maybe politicians respond to a set of incentives based on the needs expressed by their constituents.  They seek to create programs that will meet these needs.

Now lets assume that the programs created by these politicians are often actually administered at another level of government, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much.  This is the case for an awful lot of benefit programs, especially smaller ones.  These programs get administered by the states, who often simply receive money from the feds and have a fair degree of discretion over how that program actually operates in their state (or if it operates, since the Feds often can do nothing but offer money, it is often up to state discretion whether any one of these individual programs exist in that state).  So we may get one state that administers a particular nutrition benefit program well, and another that makes a hash of it or decides that it doesn't want to put money up for the Federal match and leaves the money on the table.

But this second state still has constituencies clamoring for similar benefits, and if the first Department that offers the money, say Health and Human Services (HHS), is unpopular in the second state, but say a second Department, say United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is rather more popular there, what do you think the representatives of state #2 are going to clamor for?  Increased funding and better administration for an improved HHS program or a new program under USDA? 

Then multiply this across programs.  There's a lot of variance across the states in how influential various Federal Departments are and how the state bureaucracies handle their money.  This seriously impacts the effectiveness of various programs.  It also doesn't help that with the current complexity of government it's easy for a Congresscritter to hear about a problem from their constituent, go that's terrible, and have no idea that there's already an underfunded program out there that would address their problem.  Often, I can say having had some indirect experience with benefits, the bulk of these programs are severely underfunded and any given individual has to shop around to find one that actually currently has the funding to address an individual's need. 

So while consolidating programs would save a lot of money, it won't likely lead to actual savings because if they are not funded properly causing these problems to persist and eventually reach the ears of our Congresscritters we'll just get a new round of duplicative programs.  It would help if there was a major push to centralize government services so that it was easily apparent how these programs fit together, say with unified record keeping, standardized benefit qualifications, and online access to all this information, but this would require the states to sacrifice a great deal of discretion to the Feds to standardize this information into a single format and keep it in one place.  Without this, there will always be a push for more programs because of the unavailability of a program in one state because it chooses not to pay for it (something I see a lot of in my field), but would be willing to pay for it if it were in a different Department, or because a program is badly underfunded it loses credibility and legislators don't even know what it's supposed to do, so they create a new, overlapping program to fulfill a need that an existing program could, if it was funded to the extent of the need for it.

The problem with Lott's framing is that there is no real evidence that is why these programs are multiplying, it doesn't even make much sense to anyone that doesn't think our representatives are out to increase their power at all costs.  His idea, which seems to be to just cut the programs, will do nothing but make the situation worse.  Since there is no real diagnosis of why programs multiply the underlying causes go unaddressed, which will lead to the same outcome.  It will likely also make government spending worse, many of the programs that suffer cuts are diversionary programs designed to keep people out of more expensive programs (or at least this is what I see where I work).  What I see is that very expensive programs, such as those that will pay for someone to be institutionalized in a nursing home, are inviolable because these involve people that really need it.  And that's true.  But many of the programs that get cut are ones that serve people who don't really need it yet.  And if they don't get the service, they will need it eventually, when it's far more expensive to provide. 

So we get the frustrating downward spiral we've been observing for the last 30 years.  The more we try to cut wasteful and unnecessary programs, the more wasteful spending we have.  The more we try to return power to the states rather than the feds, the more dependent we become on Federal spending and the more Federal bureaucracies multiply.  Following Lott's advice and just cutting it will just lead to another cycle of this down the road.  If we try to keep the simple, individual level explanation of why our government is not functioning, that is because of the people in it, we can never address the systemic issues that are actually causing our problems.  Of course, solving our systemic issues involves policies that seem anathema to the Fox News crowd.  This does, incidentally, provide them with a situation where their constituents get ever more angry as their policies fail, which makes them ever more devoted to pushing their solutions, which will just make the problems they're angry about worse.  Now I don't think this is intentional.  Fox is pushing an ideology that really does embrace a certain notion of the individual and that rejects the kind of systemic thinking I keep pushing.  But, as someone that focuses on the systemic level of analysis rather than the individual, I can say that I believe their ideology creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that can only be broken by abandoning that ideology.

* Here in New York, the Governor announced his redesigning New York's Medicaid Program agenda.  I've been reading through it and already have a couple of topics to blog about but am refraining from this till I've finished the whole report (it's about 200 some pages, dry, and I have other projects I'm working on so it will be a few days).  It brings up some similar issues to what I wrote above, which is what made this issue so topical to me.


  1. Sorry, for some reason my internet had a brain fart earlier.

    I have a few comments about this issue:
    1. There ARE a lot of supplemental nutrition programs. Some of the programs, like WIC for instance do more than just program food stamps for its recipients. (WIC also is a nutrition education program that concentrates on pregnancy and breastfeeding nutrition education, tips on successful breastfeeding and provides breastfeeding pumps in areas where it is fully funded of course) They are kept separate because they are very large, different and, unlike the Fox article claims, extensively evaluated.
    2. You could combine them, but then you would have a lot of fraud and inefficiency. One in ten Americans uses a supplemental nutrition program, so there is a lot hunger is the US. These programs already were subject to welfare reform and recipients are largely children and elderly, so I don't think you can kick many people off. Are there no poor houses?
    3. The fact that so many Americans are so impoverished they can't afford food for themselves or their family members is shameful. We like to hide it. No politician becomes popular by offering people more food stamps. They want good jobs. But like you said, picking on Fox News is too easy.