When you give governments lots of money to spend, they usually find ways to spend it. This week we learned that the Department of Homeland Security is funding “microphone-enabled surveillance systems on public buses that would give them the ability to record and store private conversations.”
This sounds like a new trick for a surveillance state that is already watching the airlines and experimenting with highways and subways. Actually it may just be an expansion of an old trick. Either way, it’s funny how with each expansion of the surveillance state, the surveillance apologists continue to trot out the old arguments of “You have no privacy in a public place” and “You have nothing to fear if you have nothing to hide,” as if there’s no possibility of the Oops Cost of such surveillance accidentally being used against you or the Political Warfare Cost of such surveillance deliberately being used against you. When the state decides to start tapping public restrooms to catch bad guys, I guarantee it will still have its defenders.
But the DHS isn’t just handing out money for recording systems on public buses. Gene Healy discusses a new report by Senator Coburn that looks into where the department’s dollars have gone, from the suspicious to the silly. According to the “Safety At Any Price” report, DHS grants have funded everything from sno-cone machines and “zombie apocalypse parties” to armored war vehicles for tiny towns.
As with Coburn’s earlier “non-defense defense spending” report, the frivolous projects are both amusing and infuriating. At the same time, the increasing militarization of local police forces is somewhat concerning. I think both are the natural consequences of giving government lots of money to spend on “security”; even if you added more layers of accountability, in a budget this big for a country this big, money finds a way to be spent.
That’s why I think it’s a little idealistic to just talk about “trimming waste” from various budgets, as I think waste is always going to be there. Budgets that have grown wholesale are going to have to be trimmed wholesale, and while this will help reduce the “waste” costs, the question is how much of the actual valuable “benefits” are likely to be lost along with it. And as we continue to learn more and more about the wastes, I find such an outcome less and less worrying.