The three suburban counties surrounding the nation’s capital are not by accident ranked
one two and three in U.S. per capita income. The reason why is ample proof of what I’d like to
see chiseled into statute as Snyder’s Law. Hint: it has to do with the spending of other people’s money, and why government agencies become overweight and immortal.
Snyder’s Law expounds a cataclysmic truth just like Einstein’s EMC+. Namely, If Congress
determines that a wrongdoing requires federal regulation, the cost of administering said
regulation will exceed the financial damage wrought by the wrongdoing in the first place. Or, CR<CW (cost of regulation exceeds the cost of wrongdoing).
To illustrate, let’s look at a tidy little agency that ought to be running efficiently (hoary
behemoths like the Pentagon or USDA are far too globby to measure in this short space).
Behold: the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Congress created the CPSC in 1972 to police laws aimed at specific products deemed too unsafe for manufacturers to make and
retailers to sell. Over the years they’ve come to include hazardous substances, flammable
fabrics, bikes, lawn mowers and pretty much every product that’s not a food or drug.
Yes, I’m oversimplifying, but let’s assume that the agency oversees ten product
categories. Each involves four functions: reviewing consumer complaints, making field
investigations, requiring reports from manufacturers, and proposing new regulations. Let’s also assume that we create ten staff positions for each category and pay them an average of $100,000 a year. That’s 100 x $100,000, or $10 million a year.
The CPSC also has five commissioners, who review and rule on the various findings
reported by our hardworking staff of 100. Let’s pay the bosses $200,000 a year each and give
them each two assistants (at $100,000 each) to bring their coffee and keep their schedules. All this adds another $2 million to the taxpayer tab, bringing total so far to $12 million a year.
There you have the guts of the operation. But since all these folks need “overhead,”
we’ll toss in another $12 million for office space, electricity, the annual Christmas party, and so forth.
Now we’re up to $24 million, which conceivably is more than the cost of unsafe
products to consumers and their lawyers in a given year. But would you like to know what the
CPSC actually costs taxpayers? A gob smacking $135 million in the most recent fiscal year. The latest budget request calls for $196 million to support 672 employees.
Yikes! Why? Because every time you create a new federal agency, it’s accompanied by
heavy baggage – kind of like the dowager who boards a cruise ship with a dozen trunks. Literally. Like every other federal agency, the CPSC can’t function without a sprawl of “Offices” that have little to do with the main task of regulating product safety. I ask you to
trudge along with me as we trip through the CPSC organizational chart. Each of the following
are preceded by “Office of.” Ready? Communications, Legislative Affairs, Inspector General,
General Counsel, Import Surveillance and Equal Employment Opportunity-Diversity Inclusion.
Hang in there, we have more to go: Financial Management-Planning, Facilities Services,
Information and Technology Services, Human Resources, International Programs, Small
Business Ombudsman, and Consumer Ombudsman.
Yes, I know you’re weary, so I’ll stop here even though there ar more Offices Of. Be
assured that their occupants stay busy – typically by “liaising” with each other and filling out
reports required by other acts of Congress. Like what? The Federal Managers Financial Integrity Act, the Accountability of Tax Dollars Act of 2002, the Government Management Reform Act of 1994, the Federal Financial Management Impoundment Act of 1996, the Reports Consolidation Act and the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act of 2010, to name a few. Oops, almost forgot the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act, which requires a blizzard of paperwork each year to document one’s compliance.
The above assessment may seem cruel to the bureaucrats who are so breathlessly busy doing what they do. And there’s another irony. The folks at CPSC were highly educated to become well-paid lawyers, statisticians, economists, and lab technicians. And so, they keep the three surrounding Washington counties stocked with expensive housing and good schools. Multiply the relatively humble CPSC a millionfold (Pentagon, USDA, etc.) and you have the essence of why Arlington, Fairfax and Montgomery counties are the nation’s three wealthiest. Other people’s money. It makes the Beltway go ‘round!
Kill the blob? Impossible. Should the CPSC suddenly disappear, the former staffers, now
plucked by nonprofit think tanks and consumer advocacy groups, would soon be cranking out studies claiming that without a federal watchdog, the number of crib deaths, flammable diaper burns and other hazards would have increased by some scary percentage. And what lawmaker would want an election opponent calling him/her a “baby killer”? So, we have another immortal agency – this one with the product safety shield of Teflon.
And Snyder’s Law lives on: CR<CW.