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In my mind, there is a difference between boondoggles/earmarks/pork and government waste. The former are deliberate acts, the latter is more like money falling through the cracks. You might disagree with me on the line between the two, but I think you’ll agree there’s a big difference between an unneeded Navy ship and a requisition for carbon paper.

Here’s where I’m going with this: I often hear people complain about goverment waste, usually when they are talking about taxes, downsizing government, or not getting the service they feel they are entitled to. Here’s a perfect example:

A few months ago I went to renew my drivers license. The office I went to had always had excellent service, but it had been eight years since my last visit. At that time

  • You would walk in;
  • Be greeted at the door by a “traffic cop” who would ask why you were there and direct you to where the proper forms were racked;
  • Fill out your paperwork at a worktable;
  • Take a number, like in a deli; and
  • Be directed by both signs and an automated announcement to the station where you would be served.

The system worked well. Yes, you had to wait; but there were about a dozen stations and things moved right along.

This last time, however, the greeter had been replaced by a guard. You had to go to the guard station and justify your presence before being allowed into the office proper. There was a line out the door.

You still took a number; but most of the stations were unattended. There was exactly one poor guy handling all of the licenses, and he was juggling as fast as he could. He had to

  • Check your paperwork and enter the information into a computer;
  • Take your payment;
  • Take your picture;
  • Refill the machine when it ran out of film (which, for security reasons, required a trip to a back room somewhere);
  • Call out the names of the people whose licenses had been printed; and
  • Put up with the crap from people who wanted to know what was taking so long.

I gave up and went to the local AAA office, which I should have done in the first place. As I was leaving I heard another man, who had also given up, ranting about government waste. I should have known better, but I asked him to explain how a shortage of personnel constituted government waste. He acknowledged that there weren’t enough people on duty, but he stuck to his guns and repeated that the problem was government waste. At that point we got to our respective cars and the conversation, if such it was, ended.

This got me to wondering where, exactly, is all of this government waste? I certainly know, first or second hand, of some examples:

  • Why, for example, is it necessary for a department to print up notepads with the name and office address (of each of 12 offices) when they are simultaneously so short on supplies that the employees are buying their own pens?
  • With microwave ovens running under $200, why would the government pay to have one repaired?†
  • Why would the top management of a department deserve a private exercise room and adjoining showers?

Those are examples of government waste; but how much is there, really? The first two must amount to peanuts compared to the size of a government’s budget; they might be stupid, but they certainly don’t come close to the cost of adding an additional clerk at the DMV.

My third example does merit a thorough spanking. I wonder, though, how much of that big stuff really exists? I think most of it has to do with structural problems within the government itself: overlapping jurisdictions, redundant functions, and things like that.

This is why I’m asking for your contributions. I don’t believe that the average person has any deep knowledge of the administrative structure of even a small city. If I’m right, that’s probably not what they’re thinking about when they complain about “government waste.” They might have seen a police car idling so the officer isn’t subjected to conditions that would be actionable if he were somebody’s pet. They’ve probably seen workmen standing idle at a construction site (without any idea why that might happen).

In general, though, I think some people believe in government waste the way some people believe in angels. They’ve never seen one, they can’t name one (all right, I’ll give you Gabriel), but they somehow know they’re there.

What do you think? Have you seen examples of government waste? I don’t mean disappearing paper clips, I mean something that has some budgetary impact.

Please let me know.

† This particular type of insanity isn’t restricted to government. Here’s a war story for you:

In a previous life I worked for a major financial institution. In those days before PCs, desk calculators were a staple. I tried to requisition one for myself, but I was told it was not in my department’s budget. Now at that time the bottom had fallen out of market, and you could get a printing calculator for $25 at just about any store, so I decided to make inquiries (i.e., trouble). I went down to the purchasing department and located the appropriate purchasing agent. He told me that the “approved” calculators cost $120. These dinosaurs used an obsolete type of display that was quite hard to read, and didn’t have printers. I asked why we bought those beasts, and he informed me that those were the only ones we could get service contracts for (at $15/year).

I pointed out that for $120 plus $15/year you could buy a case of better ones at K-Mart and just throw them away when they broke. The poor purchasing agent looked like a beaten puppy as he mumbled something about “policy.”