"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Stimulus - Reductio ad absurdum

We've seen how the federal government could waste $535 million on a failed green energy company, Solyndra.   But the real problem with the federal government and the Obama administration's stimulus plan is that it wastes money thousands of dollars at a time too, and although those wasted dollars add up, they are often too small for anyone too notice or care about.   Here's a story from today's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that captures the absurdity of a government with too much of our money (or China's money for that matter), needing to spend it on anything, no matter how ill-conceived:

Eight new Dodge Grand Caravans, purchased 10 months ago with $186,192 in federal stimulus funds, are sitting unused in storage at a county park because Waukesha County has found no takers for its proposed workers' van pool program.

Public Works Director Allison Bussler said transit officials have been pitching the program to employers, whose workers could drive and ride the county vans to and from work for a fee.

So far, not a single minivan has been put into service.

Any reasonably intelligent adult could tell you what's wrong with this project.   First, people don't want to drive to work with their co-workers.   They want their private life to be separate from their work life, and the drive in to work is part of their private life -- they listen to the music they want, or the talk radio they want, or the sports talk radio they want; they stop when they want to get a doughnut or coffee; they drop off their kids at school; they run a quick errand; they get up early some days to get in a quick workout at the gym, etc.   

Second, picking up a number of people adds time to the process.   Most people already don't have enough time in the morning and are rushing to work.   They don't want to have to wait by the curb while Sue from Accounting pulls her stuff together or while Phil from Marketing goes back in to get his cell phone that he forgot.

Third, buying in to this kind of program requires a company to administer the program, to organize its workers into car pools.   Government doesn't understand the cost of administering things because it's paid for by taxpayers.   Companies do understand it.   (The article notes that: "The driver or van pool coordinator must keep daily and monthly reports and logs of use, passengers, mileage and maintenance."   Who wants to do that?)

Fourth, and most obviously, the cost of getting to work right now is paid for by the workers themselves; to the company it's free.   Why would a company now want to pay a fee for the privilege of having their employees drive in a crappy state-owned mini-van, and likely be later to work than they were before?    (The fee, incidentally, is $575 per month, or around $7,000 per year, not an insignificant sum for a business.   Why would they take on this extra cost?)

I've thought about this for five minutes and poked some significant holes in the concept.   Did anyone at the federal government handing out stimulus checks spend any time at all thinking about whether this was a good use of our money?

Finally, here's the part of the article that really drove me insane:

Even though the new vans are idle, County Executive Dan Vrakas praised the idea as an innovative way to provide mass transit.

"I want that program to be successful," he said. "I think it's an innovative way to run transit. We have too many empty buses running around and this is a way to have a small bus, a van, full of people, that pays for itself - except for the initial capital costs."

Vrakas acknowledged that county officials are frustrated the vans are not even on the road, much less full or paying for themselves. "We thought there would be more of a demand," he said.

If they already have empty buses around, why on earth would they think that their would be demand for more mass transit in Waukesha County, one of the most car-happy suburbs I've ever seen?   And, in terms of "paying for itself," something that is a capital purchase like a car that "pays for itself - except for the initial capital costs," really doesn't pay for itself at all, does it? 


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