Recently, a small part of the Trump administration’s budget proposal generated a series of high-pitched squeals across the United States. Said squeals which could mostly be found in such squeal-oriented places like Facebook, Twitter, and college campuses, where squeals propagate like hippies at a free lunch buffet, and where economic reality enjoys a permanent holiday.
And the root cause for the squealing? A complete misunderstanding of the federal budget and how some non-profits are funded . But the squeals of anguish were not rallies to the cause of federalism. No. Instead, they were cries of outrage that Trump was cutting the Meals on Wheels program. A program that relies, so heavily, on government grants.
Oh, wait. It doesn’t. It’s 3% of their budget (page 18).
As Reason has noted, the issue is much less about the individual programs that receive grants. What Meals on Wheels does is a fantastic example of what local effort, and local control, can do to positively impact lives, and help people who need just a little bit of help, a meal, and even a wellness check, when no one is doing that for them. It’s the vehicle that spends billions per year on administering and doling out dollars that is the source of the issue, and ultimately some level of corruption – the Community Development Block Grant Program.
What’s the result of lading a trough filled with pork in front of politicians eager to buy votes? The quick appearance of dollar-guzzling politicians, seeing an opportunity to buy something (votes) with someone else’s money (yours and generations of unborn saddled with federal debt):
You don’t need to look far in the past to see this sort of corruption taking place. In June, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sent a scathing letter to the Mayor of Honolulu Hawaii, calling on the city to return nearly $8 million in CDBG funds that it gave to Opportunities and Resources Inc. (ORI), a nonprofit redevelopment organization in central Oahu. The Aloha Gardens Wellness Center and Camp Pineapple 808 both were projects developed by ORI with federally issued CDBG money meant to serve elderly and disabled persons, but since completion, the projects haven’t exactly been used for their advertised purpose.
The HUD report claims ORI had been marketing the centers to the public as venues for weddings, parties, banquets, fundraisers, corporate retreats, conferences and family reunions. The city also lent ORI nearly $1.2 million in CDBG funds between 1989 and 1995, which it decided to forgive back in 2010. HUD found that this decision was made by city employees who were running for elected office while receiving campaign donations from ORI representatives. The report states:
“ORI has maintained significant support over many years by the direct involvement of high ranking City and State officials…The direct involvement of the officials’ appears to have placed pressure on staff resulting in the City ignoring regulatory violations in favor of completing the project and satisfying ORI’s requests.”
In other words, the funding becomes the driving policy directive, not the service that the funding might itself provide. The funding model subverts the local control because the dollars are critical to a political outcome, less so in addressing a local need.
Local control, and local accountability for dollars spent, should be the watchwords. But because the federal government throws billions around, annually, in thousands of programs, it would be extremely difficult to say no to those funds if you’re sitting in a small municipal office, wondering how you’re going to affect some local change. Which then creates the puppet strings that federal agencies, and ultimately politicians, use to buy votes, and influence voters. Once the city or state becomes hooked on the federal dollars, they can no longer say no to them – and are adversely affected when funding for those programs becomes a political football.
The accretion of these programs, in the federal budget, is what has given rise to the outsized spending and record deficits seen during the last 8 years. This growth isn’t directly attributable to one administration, but the Obama administration stomped down hard on entitlement spending, then tried to laughably claim that it reduced deficits – record deficits the administration itself had set in the years preceding its final year.
The result was a doubling of national debt in 8 years, a doubling of the debt that took over 200 years to first accumulate. We have had 4 years of trillion-dollar deficits. The first year the government started spending over a trillion dollars per year was 1987. 30 years later, we have deficits bigger than the total annual spend in 1987. Today we’re borrowing more to fund an annual deficit than our total spend was 30 years ago.
The historical record doesn’t show any sign of slowing down in spending, which means a further erosion of local control, leave alone any kind of spending efficacy metric that would allow for decision-making regarding the growth or reduction of spending on a program. Once a program is established, whether or not it’s doing something good or bad (if you can even quantify those outcomes), it will never, ever go away. It’s too late now.
And any call to reduce spending is met with the squeals. The self-agonized cries of those who believe, fervently, that it’s up to the federal government to fix local problems, address local needs, through taxation. Which is, in a way, a tithe of the conscience – that one is off the hook to get off the couch on a Sunday to help someone else, because the government is doing it for them, through their income taxes.
Or, more to the point, through the taxes of those filthy, evil rich people. The same people who pay 97% of all income taxes collected. Which will never, ever be enough to pay for the programs that help politicians get elected, to grow the spending of government again next year. When politicians have a credit card with a $1.5 trillion dollar limit on it, what’s their incentive to not spend more than we have? For them, the downside to spending less is not getting re-elected.
Until those political incentives change, you’ll continue to see the growth in federal outlays, and a continuing reduction in incomes relative to that spending growth, as the weight of spending and borrowing drags the economy into a perpetually smaller cycle of growth. It’s already happening.
Trump’s budget, while flawed (like every budget before his), is actually looking to address an issue around federalism, which is: Why do you need a federal government to sink its controlling claws into a local effort to help those in need? Why not just cut the check to your local charity of choice and avoid the federal middleman?
Why give more control to someone else over your own choices? Hopefully the answer to that isn’t “Because then I don’t have to think about it”.