Fiscal Fitness

Right after my students' midterm exams, I like to avail myself to anyone who wants to discuss their final paper topic with me one-on-one.  So I sent around some time slots for this past week, and 13 of the students took me up on the offer.  It made for a crazy schedule, especially since it was a compressed week due to the Fourth being a holiday.  That was somewhat eased by the fact that many of my clients were clearly taking the bulk of the week off, if not literally then in their heads.  (One person wished me a happy holiday weekend...on late Monday morning.)

At any rate, it was fun to talk shop with the students.  None of them had picked the same topic, so I got to hear a little bit about transportation infrastructure, bike paths, hotels, county buildings, bridge tolls, and early education, among other things.  I can't wait to see these final papers!

One of my students wanted to evaluate Recovery Act spending in the area.  She wondered why there wasn't more after-the-fact scrutiny given to this, given how large the sums and how grand the intentions.  She figured it was because the stimulus discussion was so controversial at the time that many were fine if the topic didn't get much airtime after the fact.

I reasoned, cynically, that politicos want to be able to direct funds based on things that have very little to do with what will generate the most immediate impact or long-term gain, such as helping friends or appeasing some geography or interest group.  But as soon as I said it, I felt bad for coming off as so jaded, so I immediately equivocated, both in terms of telling her that I was probably being too harsh, and of telling myself that I really didn't think things were that bad.

And yet perhaps they are.  Not a few hours after this conversation, I was on the subway home and opened this month's Atlantic, in which Peter Orszag (who was Congressional Budget Office director under Obama) and John Bridgeland (who was Domestic Policy Council director under Bush) lament that very little of our government spending is scrutinized as far as whether it is actually achieving what it is intended to or whether there are better ways to do so: Can Government Play Moneyball?  Given that that money is our - the taxpayers' - money, and that the kinds of things the federal government spends money on are really, really important - health care, education, public safety - this is somewhat discouraging, and perhaps worthy of me being as cynical as I came off to my student.

You should read the article to get the full story, but I'll leave it at this: Orszag and Bridgeland ended on an optimistic note that particularly caught this Oakland A's fan's eye, when they said that just as baseball analytics caught on because A's general manager Billy Beane had to think of a way his team could complete with other teams spending three times more on salaries, today's more constrained fiscal context may produce a suitable climate to move us towards a more data-driven, results-driven approach to government spending.

I'm still cynical, but I agree with this being a possibility: when you have no room for waste, you tend to think hard about how to spend what little you have, which may make you newly open to learning from others what works and what doesn't.  Here's hoping our elected officials - and we the people who vote them in and out - do in fact move in that direction.

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