Government’s Costly Mistakes

When I was a young man in law school and preparing to serve an internship with a law firm in Tacoma, my father explained to me that now that I was entering the “big boy” world there was one thing I should be aware of – the three martini lunch. He insisted that if I was to start participating in such a tradition that I drink whiskey and not vodka. His explanation was simple, “Son, I want people to know you are drunk and not just stupid.”

I wish there were similar advice for big government.

Under twenty plus years of Democrat leadership, big government is getting bigger and more expensive. That would be acceptable if we could establish that it was getting better while it got bigger. But we can’t because it isn’t. There are a whole series of small decisions that big government routinely gets wrong and that carry over into some huge, expensive and wrong-headed ones too.
I spent twenty years in the telecommunications business and so that is one of the places that I was able to observe government’s propensity to make really stupid and really expensive decisions. Let me give you an example before we move on to the really big ones that Oregon state government seems to insist on making time after time after time.

When the telecommunications telephone numbering system began to fill up, new area codes were required in order to add banks of new telephones. Rather than cooperate in the orderly implementation of the new area codes, state government insisted that the introduction of new area codes be delayed because people simply could not accommodate dialing ten numbers rather than just seven. What that means is the government determined that you were either not smart enough or energetic enough to dial an extra three digits in order to reach a called party. Did they have any empirical data that supported such a conclusion? No, there was simply the opinion of the government regulators and, more importantly, their opinion could not be challenged. In other words they did it simply because they could. In the meantime, the telecommunications world watched the unprecedented growth of wireless (cellular) communications that relies solely on ten digit dialing. The net result was delay in implementing a common sense decision to expand the number system, a significant cost to the wireline telecommunications company and a “convenience” that people neither wanted nor needed.

Yes, that example may seem petit, but I didn’t have a column in which to vent back then. But more importantly, it is simply illustrative of the arrogance of a government that thinks it knows what is best for its citizens without any evidence that it is.

So let’s look at some bigger examples. There is Oregon’s CIM/CAM fiasco. Like most such boondoggles, it began without knowing where it was going, without any direction on how to get there, and with no clue as to the costs that would be incurred along the way. Never mind that it consumed about ten percent of the planning, administrative and classroom teachers’ time. Never mind that after a staggering delay in implementation, it was so out of touch with school curriculum that less than one third of the students taking the exam could pass it. Never mind that it was so pointless that neither universities nor employers gave it any credence.

Never mind that it was so bad that not one other state has adopted it or a similar program. It existed because government could impose it. It lasted because government hates to admit a mistake. It has cost taxpayers approximately half a billion dollars per biennium and is still pointless, worthless, and out of touch with educational needs.

Oregon introduced its vaunted centralized land use planning system in the seventies. It was hailed as the model for planning and its acolytes promised Oregonians that they would lead the way for the rest of the United States. Over thirty years later not one other state has adopted similar centralized land use planning. The people in Oregon have twice voted to eliminate the most abusive provisions of the system that allowed government to take the use of people’s property without compensating them a dime. And yet government persists in ignoring its citizens, ignoring reality and ignoring the economic displacement caused by its centralized planning system. In fact, the legislature has decided to gut the people’s initiative (Measure 37) and return Oregon to a system that even it recognizes as having cost its citizen over $32 billion in lost property rights.

Not because they are right, but because government can do it.