Homeland Security Spending Sprees

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.

One thought on “Homeland Security Spending Sprees”

  1. We’ve seen this movie before. It was a very popular one during the cold war. If you didn’t support the latest military boondoggle, then you were “soft on communism”. It didn’t matter that a popular, conservative, former general (who helped win WWII for heaven’s sake) talked about the problem, there was bipartisan support for the continuation of the latest military fiasco.

    In states and cities around the country we’ve had folks accused of being “soft on crime”. State taxes have gone up while state funding of education has gone down. We lead the world in incarceration, but not in education (coincidence?).

    Now we have the so called “war on terrorism”. When presidential candidate John Kerry suggested that we try and reduce terrorism to nuisance levels, he was roundly beaten up by the press. Never mind the fact that Kerry had actually fought a similar war. Not in Vietnam, but in Massachusettes, as a prosecutor. He took on organized crime and threw a few mobsters in jail. He didn’t eliminate organized crime, nor did he try to. But he helped get it down to a low level (without bankrupting the state in the process). A similar approach against terrorism makes sense, but wasn’t even proposed, because he wouldn’t look “tough” (standing next to the pilot who avoided Vietnam by securing the skies of Texas from a Soviet attack).

    I have a bit of a problem with your last paragraph, however. I think there are a few ways in which we should cut spending, and they mimic the ways that companies (especially big ones) often cut spending:

    1) Cut poor workers from the workforce. The first round of layoffs often do this. Sometimes they fire good people, but usually the cuts are weighted towards the underachievers or trouble makers (often it is people the bosses wanted to fire, but didn’t have the guts to do so). Of course, if you make the layoff too big, then you are guaranteed to lose good people. That is why asking management to come up with lists of underachievers makes more sense than simply cutting 10% across the board. If asked to make a list of around 10%, some managers will come with 12%, while others will list 8%. My guess is that this is often what people mean when it comes to “trimming waste”.

    2) Prioritize and reduce programs. Homeland security and the military have a huge number of bloated and unnecessary programs. They are just not worth it. Even from a security standpoint we are better off having a strong economy rather than an even larger and more powerful military. Wars in the future will probably resemble Libya, not Iraq. Our weaponry is so much more advanced than any potential foe (or even our allies) that spending money making them better just weakens our overall security. A “Marshall Plan” for the fledgeling Middle East democracies makes a lot more sense than another air craft carrier (assuming the countries would spend the money responsibly).

    3) Make the government more efficient. States do this all the time. Ever been to a DMV lately? Me neither. I renew my license online. This saves me and the government lots of money. This really is what we should be doing right now (and should have been doing the last four years). Spend a bunch of money now on projects that will enable the government to run more efficiently in the future. This will boost employment in the small run and get us out of the recession. Then cut government (since it is more efficient) once the economy has recovered.

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