Belmont Club

Robin in Deadwood Forest

Chris Edwards at the Cato Institute believes there should be a National Museum of Government Failure.  He argues that the displays at the Smithsonian would pale into insignificance if set beside the awe-inspiring sight of such things as the “$349 million on a rocket test facility that is completely unused“, the Superconducting Collider whose ruins include  nearly 15 miles of tunnel and the ex-future Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site.  Yet these artifacts, whose scale would surpass many a Lost City, are far from the worst failures.  The biggest fiascos by dollar value are the various government programs designed to win the war on drugs or poverty which after having spent trillions of dollars fruitlessly, lie somewhere in an unmarked bureaucratic grave.

Were Chris Edwards a distinguished economist he would realize at once that pointless activity is the best sort of government activity there is.  John Maynard Keynes couldn’t recommend it highly enough.  The great economist said that the best use of government effort was to bury money in a deep hole and employ the idled to dig them up again.

“If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coalmines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.”

Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman was not far behind Keynes in sagacity when he suggested a similar scheme.  He seriously proposed to end unemployment by hoaxing an alien invasion in order to spend money repelling it. “If we discovered that space aliens were planning to attack, and we needed a massive build-up to counter the space alien threat, and inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months.”

It is commonly believed that the principal benefit of such-make work schemes is the expansionary impact of printed money flowing into the economy. But the cleverness of Keynes’ scheme goes deeper than that.  He understood that the real advantage to burying money in the ground only to dig it up again was not simply to spend money, but to expend it with as little impact and relevance to daily life as possible.

It is the sheer pointlessness that makes it beneficial.

Ask yourself why Krugman did not recommend hoaxing an al-Qaeda invasion instead of an alien one. Governments would still expend the same untold trillions to smash the threat.  But if the money were used where it had half a chance of entering the real world it would be turned into an enterprise which might actually kill everyone on the planet.  It was far better to fight imaginary aliens  and in that way avoid the slightest danger of accidental harm.

The ideal government reform program would consist of establishing a Federal Department of Deadwood (right next to the Museum of Failure) to which surplus bureaucrats from other agencies could be transferred.  Want to cut EPA in half? Move them to Deadwood.  Having trouble with certain educators at Atlanta Public School system?  Promote them to Deadwood and their pupils might actually learn.

The Department of Deadwood should in principle consist of two building complexes. In one building people will be employed filling doctor’s appointment forms for people who will never see a doctor. In the other complex employ an equal number of numberless workers to delete them.  Just like the VA.

Whatever salaries they are paid will be well worth the benefit of keeping them out of social circulation.  Think of the industries that would flourish, the innovations, the racial harmony that would ensue in the absence of all those budding regulators and activists who are occupied full-time with filling in and shredding forms.

The value of getting dangerous busybodies to dig ditches and fill them in again has been known to astute people through history.  General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, a member of the German General Staff and a determined opponent of Hitler, well knew the value of getting aspiring messiahs out of the way. He famously wrote:

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.

In this crazy world sometimes success is keeping leaders out of mischief.   Apart from Hammerstein-Equord the Founders knew this. These are thoughts to bear in mind when listening to president Obama’s plan to become Robin Hood for the rest of his term. The Hill reports on his plan to take from the rich to give to the poor.

The White House wants President Obama to play the part of Robin Hood at Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

Obama hopes to use the big speech to remove a blemish of his presidency: an economic recovery that has left wage growth behind.

Free community college. A $175 billion tax cut for the middle class. Faster, cheaper broadband internet. A week of paid sick leave. Discounted mortgages.

Obama wants to move forward with all of these populist proposals for the poor and middle class, and he wants to do so by taking from the rich in the form of higher taxes on the wealthy and Wall Street.

It would be a great comfort to hope that the president really doesn’t mean it, and having announced his scheme repairs straight to the golf course. Otherwise it might finish up like president Obama’s other great success: his victory in the War on Terror, that great achievement from which the world is still recovering. Michael Gerson in the Washington Post writes:

President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address is remembered today mainly for this bit of rhetorical irony: “America must move off a permanent war footing.”

It was the triumph of speechwriting over experience. Obama’s pledge came about three weeks after the fall of Fallujah to the Islamic State. By June, Mosul would be overrun. Global jihadism now has a cause — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s sham caliphate — around which to rally. It controls unprecedented territory and resources. It has a stream of thousands of Western recruits cycling in and out of the Middle East. And it encompasses a dangerous competition between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, in which acts of terrorism are a source of street credibility.

When the Five Year Plan’s goals have been exceeded, you know you’re in trouble. Ordinary people can live with government failure. It’s their triumphs that are hard to survive.  Robin Hood: of all the characters to be. Couldn’t the president try to be like Popeye instead?

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