Government Failure: An Example

John Goodman’s post about “Government Failure” is chock-full of wisdom. Among other things, Goodman nails the model of “market failure” used by some economists and many politicians:

When economists talk about “market failure” they begin with a model in which consumer welfare is maximized. “Market failure” arises when imperfections cause outcomes that fall short of the ideal.  If we were to do the same thing in politics, we would begin with a model in which the political system produced ideal outcomes and then consider factors that take us away from the ideal.

The model “in which consumer welfare is maximized” — perfect competition — is unattainable in most of the real world, given constant shifts in tastes, preferences, technologies, the availability of factors of production. “Market failure” is nothing more than a label that a left-wing economist or politician pins out market a outcome of which he or his constituents (e.g., labor unions) happen to disapprove. (The long version of my case against “market failure” is here.)

Goodman continues:

[W]hereas in economics, “market failure” is considered an exception to the norm, in politics, “government failure” is the norm.  In general, there is no model of political decision making that can reliably produce ideal outcomes.

I offer an example of a not-unusual kind of government failure: the scam perpetrated by Dennis Montgomery on intelligence officials, and the subsequent effort to cover up the gullibility of those officials. This is from “Hiding Details of Dubious Deal, U.S. Invokes National Security” (The New York Times, February 19, 2011):

For eight years, government officials turned to Dennis Montgomery, a California computer programmer, for eye-popping technology that he said could catch terrorists. Now, federal officials want nothing to do with him and are going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that his dealings with Washington stay secret.

The Justice Department, which in the last few months has gotten protective orders from two federal judges keeping details of the technology out of court, says it is guarding state secrets that would threaten national security if disclosed. But others involved in the case say that what the government is trying to avoid is public embarrassment over evidence that Mr. Montgomery bamboozled federal officials….

Interviews with more than two dozen current and former officials and business associates and a review of documents show that Mr. Montgomery and his associates received more than $20 million in government contracts by claiming that software he had developed could help stop Al Qaeda’s next attack on the United States. But the technology appears to have been a hoax, and a series of government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Air Force, repeatedly missed the warning signs, the records and interviews show.

Mr. Montgomery’s former lawyer, Michael Flynn — who now describes Mr. Montgomery as a “con man” — says he believes that the administration has been shutting off scrutiny of Mr. Montgomery’s business for fear of revealing that the government has been duped.

“The Justice Department is trying to cover this up,” Mr. Flynn said. “If this unravels, all of the evidence, all of the phony terror alerts and all the embarrassment comes up publicly, too. The government knew this technology was bogus, but these guys got paid millions for it.”

Similar cases abound in the unrecorded history of government contracting. Most of them don’t involve outright scams, but they do involve vain, gullible, and pressured government officials who tolerate — and even encourage — shoddy work on the part of contractors. Why? Because (a) they have money to spend, (b) they’re expected to spend it, and (c) there’s no bottom-line accountability.

If the flaws in government programs and systems are detected, it’s usually years or decades after their inception, by which time the responsible individuals have gone on (usually) to better jobs or cushy pensions. And when the flaws are detected, the usual response of the politicians, officials, and bureaucrats with a stake in a program is to throw more money at it. It’s not their money, so what do they care?

I offer an illustrative example from my long-ago days as a defense analyst. There was an ambitious rear admiral (as they all are) whose “shop” in the Pentagon was responsible for preparing the Navy’s long-range plan for the development and acquisition of new ships, aircraft, long-range detections systems, missiles, and so on.

The admiral — like many of his contemporaries in the officer corps of the armed forces — had been indoctrinated in the RAND-McNamara tradition of quantitative analysis. Which is to say that most of them were either naïve or opportunistic believers in the reductionism of cost-effectiveness analysis.

By that time (this was in the early 1980s) I had long outgrown my own naïveté about the power of quantification. (An account of my conversion is here.) But I was still naïve about admirals and their motivations. Having been asked by the admiral for a simple, quantitative model with which he could compare the effectiveness of alternative future weapon systems, I marched into his office with a presentation that was meant to convince him of his folly. (This post contains the essence of my presentation.)

For my pains, I was banished forever from the admiral’s presence and given a new assignment. (I was working for a non-profit advisory organization with fixed funding, so my employment wasn’t at stake.) The admiral wanted to know how to do what he had made up his mind to do, not why he had chosen to do something that couldn’t be done except by committing intellectual fraud.

Multiply this kind of government-contractor relationship by a million, throw in the usual kind of contractor who is willing to sell the client what the client wants — feasible or not — and you have a general picture of the kind of failure that pervades government contracting. Adapt that picture to inter-governmental relationships, where the primary job of each bureaucracy (and its political patrons) is to preserve its funding, without regard for the (questionable) value of its services to taxpayers, and you have a general picture of what drives government spending.

In sum, what drives government spending is not the welfare of the American public. It is cupidity, ego, power-lust, ignorance, stupidity, and — above all — lack of real accountability. Private enterprises pay for their mistakes because, in the end, they are held accountable by consumers. Governments, by contrast, hold consumers accountable (as taxpayers).

Perhaps — just perhaps — the era of governmental non-accountability is coming to an end. We shall see.