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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Budgets, Badges, and Badgers - I

I don't talk about politics much on this blog, but there are some interesting things going on right now with the USA Federal budget that seem relevant.

Consider, for example, our massive annual debt. Every politician seems to agree this is a problem -- but have you noticed that few of them have any detailed ideas on how to cut it? If you push hard they'll come up with a statement such as "going over the budget "line by line", but nobody wants to get specific.

Here's why: Every line item on the federal budget has a special interest group supporting it; that is why the line item exists. If you threaten to cut that item, you've just made an enemy of that special interest group.

Threaten to cut medicare or social security, and the baby boomers and senior citizens won't vote for you. Cut medicaid and you'll lose the disabled and lower-incomes -- same with Head Start or Welfare. U.S. unemployment is hovering around ten percent; add family members supported by unemployment, and you've just ticked off a large group of people.

In other words, if you want to cut anything, you can't get elected. So we come up with silly ideas like a federal pay freeze that will save a billion or two, but combine in with stimulus spending that adds up to hundreds of billions a year. (To help visualization, here's short video explainng the last spending "cut".)

Philosopher's call this "the tragedy of the commons." By each group lobbying for it's own individual best interest, we slowly destroy the system as a whole.

And by every special interest, I mean it. Did you know the 'quality' special interest has our own line-item?

It's called the Malcolm Baldridge Award, a federally-chartered award to recognize performance excellence in the categories of public, private, and non-profit organizations.

A little googling shows me that the Baldridge award program costs out Federal Government about twelve million dollars annually. As a taxpayer aware of the tragedy of the commons, I'd be inclined to sacrifice the award off the bat.

Then I read this blog post by the executive directory of the American Society for Quality, taking the opposite position. It made me pause and reflect.

What criteria should we use to judge the Baldridge award?

A few things occur to me. First of all, we know the cost, but what is the value? In order to make an informed decision, we would want to subtract the cost from the value -- to find out of the award is a good investment for the American people. We would want to find out if the award is good for society. If that comes out positive, I'd want to ask if the award is within the role of government -- is it the kind of thing the government should do, and, if yes, if it is the kind of thing allowed by the Federal Republic defined in our constitution.

All that said: Let's take a look.

More to come.

2 comments:

ivan assenov said...

Do not take it too seriously. Probably somebody's wife is ruining the board or this is a way of paying favor for a service that cannot be published officially. The politicians are not required by law to cut the budget. They can do that only if the law is changed and forced them to go into balance session. I give 0% possibility of this happening.

Veretax said...

This is partly why some advocate freezing spending levels, calling that a cut, rather than cutting it hardcore. Problem is we are going to have to make tough choices to get out of the spending we've found ourselves in. It will not be an easy task. Unfortunately, I'm not sure it can get done in the next 2 years, not with split control of the Senate, House, and White House.