April 15 is the day our federal government has decided that you must pay the taxes owed for the previous year. For many of us, we pay these incrementally in our paychecks or through quarterly estimated payments. For some of us, we write a check or click a button on our computer and pay our taxes all at once. When all has been said and done, we will have collectively paid the federal government around $3.65 trillion over the last tax year. To what use has the government put our money?
About $1.2 billion was transferred directly to sugar growers and processors through the U.S. Sugar Program. This program is a Soviet-style sugar subsidy which maintains a minimum price of sugar in the United States. This minimum price is approximately double the average world price for sugar, and it is set by a bureaucracy in Washington literally controlled by a small cartel of sugar producers. It is estimated that consumers in the United States spend approximately $2.4 billion additional on food and beverages each year as a result of this price hike. This is in addition to the $1.2 billion in tax dollars spent on the program. Making food and beverages more expensive hurts everyone, but it hurts the poor most of all.
About 52 million was spent on the ENERGY STAR program last year. This is a federal program jointly operated by the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency. This program ostensibly encourages our citizenry to purchase energy-efficient products. This might be a noble goal. This might also be another way for the government to tell you how to spend your money. However, that isn’t the biggest problem with the program.
The real problem is that the program is rife with fraud, and it has no certification controls. The certification program for ENERGY STAR products is laughable. Recently, a government watchdog group obtained ENERGY STAR certification for 15 fake products including a gasoline-powered alarm clock and an “air purifier,” which was nothing more than a space heater with a feather duster taped to it. What about the energy savings printed on ENERGY STAR labels? That’s just the government reprinting data handed to it by manufacturers without verifying that it is accurate.
About 2 billion dollars was spent on Amtrack last year. I get it, trains are fun. They are also often more environmentally friendly than other forms of transportation. Unfortunately, the government is just bad at operating a business and responding to consumer demand. Former Amtrak spokesman and rail expert Joseph Vranich has asserted that one of the main reasons Amtrack loses money is because it runs trains that serve political purposes as opposed to being responsive to the marketplace. The government mandates that Amtrack operate many long distance lesser used routes which are terrifically expensive and seldom used. It is actually cheaper to buy a round-trip plane ticket from New Orleans to Los Angeles and back for less than the $437.82 that Amtrak loses per passenger on a one-way trip between those same locations.
Amtrack is also suspect to considerable fraud and waste, much like many other governmental entities. The New York Times has estimated that Amtrack has lost a little less than a billion dollars over a 10-year period on food service alone, largely due to employee theft. The Amtrak Office of Inspector General has issued several reports detailing inadequate supervision and noting millions of dollars lost due to fraudulent actions by employees who claimed overtime or regular pay for the time they weren’t even on the job. This includes recently paying a man $234,928 for time spent officiating high school basketball games.
These programs are not the only wasteful actions of our government, and reducing government waste is not easy. Each of the above programs has powerful lobbyists whose sole job is to convince our elected officials that these programs are vital to the success of our nation. I do not have all of the answers, but when I pay a bill, I do like to know where my money is going.
John Judkins is a Greenfield attorney.