Sex, lies and videotaped government scandals
What do you get when you cross George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” with John Belushi’s “Animal House”? “Government Gone Wild”!
No, that’s not the title of a porn movie about U.S. Secret Service agents cavorting with prostitutes in foreign countries or employees of the U.S. General Services Administration whooping it up in Las Vegas at taxpayers’ expense.
The hard truth is that the larger government grows, the more Orwellian and “Animal House” its conduct becomes. Belushi’s character, Bluto, exercised no greater restraint around free beer than did GSA Regional Director Jeff Neely and his employees, whose exploits at their $823,000 Las Vegas “team-building” soirée were videotaped, only to dominate newscasts this month. Bluto couldn’t have carpe diem-ed on his parents’ allowance better than Neely, who wrote in an invitation to friends, “We’ll pick up the room tab. … I know I’m bad, but … why not enjoy it while we have it? … Ain’t gonna last forever.”
Since government depends on resources drawn from the real economy, consider these facts: After the GSA’s inspector general reported Neely’s misconduct, Neely still received a 2011 bonus; the average GSA salary is nearly $92,000, about $40,000 more than the median household income; and the GSA’s budget rose 119 percent in 2011. Furthermore, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reported in January that federal employees enjoy greater job security and earn significantly higher compensation than comparable private-sector workers.
Having worked in a large bureaucracy (the World Bank), I believe most public servants are decent, skilled and dedicated, though rarely are “per-diem” allowances unspent or self-justifications un-uttered. It’s a truism that people won’t spend other people’s money as carefully as they spend their own. Unlike households, which strive to boost savings by minimizing expenses, government bureaucracies spend what they’re given while justifying more for next year. They also lack the expertise and market discipline to invest wisely, as evidenced by the “green investments” in now-bankrupt companies such as Solyndra.
Here’s the ultimate question: Why transfer more money from the real economy to those who are intrinsically more wasteful, negligent and indifferent to its ultimate good? To curb Bluto-like behavior, voters mustn’t allow irresponsible conduct they wouldn’t otherwise tolerate. If your child spent irresponsibly while racking up credit-card debts, wouldn’t you confiscate his card? Good governance, like good parenting, involves establishing and enforcing reasonable limits.
Yet politicians charged with stewarding America’s finances have acted like the pigs in “Animal Farm” who pronounced “all animals are equal, except some are more equal than others.” Exempt from the self-discipline and frugality associated with American exceptionalism and prosperity, they’ve presided over the greatest scandal — an explosion of government, an avalanche of debt and the mugging of our children’s futures.
April 29 marks the third consecutive year in which the Senate hasn’t passed a budget. Vested with the authority to confront and steer America through fiscal problems, the senators’ inaction reflects the ultimate “piggish” dereliction of duty. It’s also illegal, though conveniently, there’s no penalty for breaking the 1974 Budget Act.
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad said last year, “History is going to judge whether we have the courage, character and the vision to stand up for America’s future. Those who take a walk, those who turn away, those who don’t have the gumption to stand up, are going to be judged very, very harshly.” Conrad intended to pass a budget resolution this month, but was overruled by Senate leadership. Believing they can evade electoral consequences by not voting on difficult budget matters, senators mirror the corrupt, greedy and myopic leadership of the pigs in “Animal Farm.”
Economist Milton Friedman, one of America’s greatest apostles for freedom and free markets, believed politicians are finger-in-the-wind types who can be trained: “The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion, which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it’s politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing, either.”
In other words, the onus is on us. Politicians will concern themselves with our interests only if they think we care. If we don’t care that they’ve violated the law by refusing to adopt a budget, and that they’ve spent us $16 trillion into debt, what do we care about?
Demand accountability and restraint, and don’t allow the word “trillion” to be normalized; after all, a trillion hours ago, dinosaurs roamed the earth! Don’t wait for the right people to get elected; remember, Belushi’s “Bluto” became a U.S. senator despite his 0.0 GPA. It’s a basic rule of life — If we tolerate out-of-control “Animal House” behavior and indifferent “Animal Farm” attitudes, we’ll just get more of it.
It’s not only a fiscal imperative — it’s a moral one.
Melanie Sturm has 15 years of private equity investment experience, previous to which she specialized in project finance at International Finance Corporation and mergers & acquisitions at Morgan Stanley and Drexel Burnham Lambert. She has an MBA from INSEAD and undergraduate degrees in international relations and economics from Tufts University.