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Borde-nough: What an opportunity to save money!

Published: February 27, 2009
Section: Opinions


What an opportunity! In the near future, the United States government may find itself needing to print some of the money that it’s committing itself to spending but doesn’t have. At the same time, print newspapers– or, at least, print newspapers supported by subscribers and advertisers– are reducing the physical size of their product, laying off staff members, and ceasing operations across the country. Think about it: a need for printers, and a bunch of idle presses. Can you smell the synergy?

When President Barack Obama “pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of [his] first term in office” and told a joint session of Congress on February 24 that he had “identified two trillion dollars in savings over the next decade,” he probably didn’t have in mind the notion of taking printers’ bids to do the work of the US Mint. That’s ok; there are plenty of other ways of saving money that the government should look into.

And it need not look far. The administration of Obama’s predecessor in office was known for its emphasis on secrecy, not its internal auditing. Lack of internal controls in the government as a whole was compounded in some departments by a reflexive invocation of “national security” whenever legal or political challenges to spending arose. Any serious search for waste should therefore give special scrutiny to (at least) the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security. (While they’re taking a look at these departments, Obama’s team should consider proposing a change in the name of Homeland Security, which has always sounded like it was chosen by a team of propaganda commissars from the former Warsaw Pact countries).

Probably the easiest way to cut spending is to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Obama was honest enough to acknowledge in his speech that the habit formed during the administration of his predecessor in office of budgeting separately for these wars as though the money for them was coming from a source other than the Treasury– perhaps a charitable trust dedicated to enriching the well-connected and slaughtering dark skinned people?– effectively “hid” the cost of the wars from public scrutiny.

But those who have come to enjoy a carefree bath in Obama’s seemingly boundless seas of rhetoric should remember that past opacity in budgeting was agreed to by Congress, where Obama’s party retained strong influence and often had control. For all his own talk of openness, Obama’s much-publicized plan to close Guantanamo Bay’s prison and his overblown claims that “without exception or equivocation that the United States of America does not torture” have served to mask his administration’s February 20 announcement that it would continue to make the previous administration’s legal argument that overseas prisoners should not enjoy access to courts, and Obama’s earlier decision not to exclude the possibility that American contractors or allies might now do the torturing that American GIs will not. And although he has pledged to take a more transparent approach, Obama appears committed to spending the money to continue the wars, and has budgeted for an increase in the size of the military. Moving beyond a state of denial about the cost of the cancerous wars that eat at American values and wealth is a step toward ending this national affliction, but it will accomplish little for the patient if the best treatment is stubbornly refused.

Fortunately, there’s plenty of money to be saved closer to home. If there were a big suggestion box somewhere in Washington, and if we all had a weekend to head down there, and if we could all find parking, I’m sure that practically everyone could write down an idea or two to stuff in the box about how the government might best avoid waste. I think parking would be hard, though, so I’ll write my suggestion here.

The federal government should condition its grants of highway funds to the states on the states’ willingness to maintain open highway weigh stations on federally supported highways. At present, the federal government acts as the states’ patron, giving away money for the maintenance of roads. If states take the money, they take it subject to a wide range of conditions that may be imposed on it by Congress. One possible condition– although not one currently imposed– would be that the money made available to a state would be made to depend on how many days per year the state kept its weigh stations for large trucks open.

As a child, I never saw a sign on a weigh station stating that it was open. When I finally did see one, I remember thinking that something was wrong, and wondering if something special or disastrous had happened. An open weigh station is an exceptional thing in most parts of the country.

It shouldn’t be. If overloaded or loaded improperly, a tractor-trailer might as well be a rolling jackhammer, pulverizing highways that cost billions of dollars annually to maintain. The loads carried by trucks are a near-perfect subject for regulation. Only a few people are likely to derive the bulk of the benefit from the abusive loading practices: the trucker or trucking company and the owner of the goods being shipped. Meanwhile, the entire cost of the abuse is borne by the public in the form of higher taxes. Lack of regulation– or, in this case, lack of regulatory enforcement– means that scarce public dollars must be spent fixing the same roads too frequently.

Weigh stations are the form that regulation of truck loading takes. States don’t keep them open because even the incentive of collecting fines for violations is not enough to outweigh the desire to please trucking companies and shippers of goods, which form a powerful lobby for lax enforcement, and truckers who spend money in states they pass through. If an individual state got too zealous in enforcing the rules, highway shipping routes might be adjusted as if to avoid what truckers, trucking companies, and shippers would view as mere tolls. And state governments know that within a few months, the federal government will hand over more money to be spent repairing the ruined roads that the trucks left behind.

To change this situation, the federal government should throw the weight of its money behind enforcement by conditioning its grants of funds on keeping weigh stations open. State governments will immediately gain revenue and reduce repair expenses: enforcement will generate more fines and reduce damage to roads. The trucking lobby’s influence at the state level will be overwhelmed by the federal government’s, because it is unlikely that any state would be foolish enough to give up federal money to satisfy truckers and shippers. And as for the federal government, it can plan on reducing highway appropriations over time as the amount of repair work needed is reduced.

As fun as it would be to say so, I can’t tell you that attaching a weigh station condition to highway funds represents a “road to recovery” from deficit spending. But I’m sure that it would do away with some of the waste that the president and many in Congress have identified as a problem.